Landscaping and Gardening with Edible Plants and Fruits
Turn your backyard garden into a virtual farm market: Use plants that produce edible fruit
“There’s nothing like walking out to your car in the morning and picking some berries along the way,” says Dyami Nason-Regan, who co-owns AppleSeed Permaculture, a design firm based in Stone Ridge. Although the thought of growing edible plants might intimidate some newbie gardeners — usually due to lack of time or horticultural knowledge — these simple pleasures are propelling the popularity of edible landscaping. But it’s not all about taste: Many edible plants actually provide beautiful scenery longer than your typical flowering bush or annual.
“Most people want a landscape that’s beautiful and not too high-maintenance,” Nason-Regan says. “When we design edible landscapes, we replace traditional flowering plants or shrubs with fruits, vegetables, and herbs. Fruit plants need to flower first in spring, then they give fruit through summer; their leaves often turn golden colors in the fall, while others produce little orange and red berries through the later months. So you really get to enjoy three seasons of beauty.”
Nason-Regan also suggests raspberries; perennial herbs such as anise hyssop; chives; and perhaps a vining plant — such as grapes or hardy kiwi — for trellises. “Not the typical big fuzzy kiwi,” she says, “this one’s the size of a grape, but packed with the flavor of a kiwi. Some produce beautiful leaves, too.”
Above, the delicate blossoms of a Nanking cherry; a midsummer favorite, raspberries (below) are rich in antioxidants
When it comes to planning, don’t be afraid to try a diverse range of plants. An increasingly popular choice is the pawpaw tree, and for good reason: It’s easy to grow, resistant to most pests and diseases, and produces beautiful maroon flowers in the spring and orange leaves in the fall. And then there is the fruit. Relatively unknown — mainly because you won’t find it in grocery stores since it doesn’t transport well — the pawpaw is actually the largest fruit grown in this country. Sometimes nicknamed “the poor man’s banana,” the pawpaw is packed with nutrients; it has all the essential amino acids; contains lots of antioxidants; and is very high in iron, magnesium, and calcium. And the taste? Fans offer differing descriptions, but the creamy, custard-like fruit is often said to be a cross between a banana and a mango. Not sold yet? If you like butterflies flitting about the backyard (and who doesn’t), take note that the Zebra swallowtail butterfly lays its eggs exclusively in the pawpaw tree.
“It is one of the top edible landscaping trees; it’s native to the lower Hudson Valley,” says Lee Reich, Ph.D., a well-known gardening guru from New Paltz (who bills himself as a “farmdener” — his property is “more than a garden, less than a farm”). “Pawpaw is very low-care — just plant, water, weed, and after the first couple of years it’ll fruit for many years. They do best in full sun. If you start from a grafted tree, which I recommend, it will fruit within three years; from a seedling it could take eight or more. But it will bear fruit every late summer and fall. I’ve been growing them for 30 years.”
Reich’s award-wining garden overflows with edible delights, including his famous collection of gooseberries; at one point, he reportedly grew more than 50 varieties. “But my all-time, number one, favorite luscious landscape plant is blueberry,” he says. “They’re pretty all year long, taste good, and aren’t high maintenance.”
The small berries of the persimmon tree (above) are highly flavored; lingonberry (below) is recommended for use as an attractive ground cover
Reich suggests using various types of ground cover for smaller yards, and explore using large nut trees in bigger plots. “Berry plants are some of my favorites for smaller landscapes,” Reich says. “A very nice edible ground cover is lingonberry — which has glossy evergreen leaves like holly, but they’re the size of mouse ears — and lowbush blueberry. Most are only about 18 inches high and turn crimson in the fall. Both plants flower in the spring.” If you have a terrace, Reich recommends planting a fragrant currant bush (such as clove currant) around it.
For those with a bigger plot of land, Reich says, “You can still plant smaller ground covers, or go bigger with American persimmon — the fruits are smaller than what you find in the supermarket, but are richer in flavor — or nut trees. Chestnut trees are really beautiful all summer long, and filberts are quite ornamental.” The Nanking cherry tree gives delicate, aromatic white blossoms in the spring and tasty fruit thereafter.
Having access to hard-to-find foods that you can’t often purchase at the market is another benefit to an edible landscape. “Ideal commercial foods have to look good, ship well, and be long-lasting,” Reich says. “When you grow your own, you can just focus on taste if you want to. Some pears don’t last very long off the tree, but taste better than what you’ll find at the store. Plus, for those who are interested in locally grown, backyard fruit is the way to go. My fruit travels an arm’s length — can’t get much more local than that.”
A firm like AppleSeed Permaculture can help with designing a layout, but do-it-yourselfers can get started by following Reich’s suggested steps:
- “Don’t think you have to go all-or-nothing. Many edible varieties look lovely paired with ornamentals. You don’t have to transform the whole yard at once. I prefer to plant in spring or early fall, but nurseries sell plants in containers that can be planted any time the ground’s not frozen.”
- “Carefully choose the variety of plant; I recommend making decisions based on beauty, what you like to eat, and making sure that the care required is in sync with what you are prepared to give.”
- “Consider the site. You don’t want to plant where the soil is under water most of the year. And most plants need full sun in summer — six hours or more.”
- “Consider the upkeep. How much time can you give to pruning, watering, and other care?” This will determine which plants are most suitable for both your environment and your lifestyle.