Edible landscaping is an easy way to grow food while keeping a front yard beautiful and tidy. Based on lessons I learned from keeping an edible front yard for five years, this article will help you create a bountiful edible landscape.
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Why Landscape with Edibles?
Simply put: We can’t eat lawn. When I found out that lawn is the largest crop in the United States—and realized how abundant it is in the suburbs—I decided to give my yard a makeover! With less than 2% of the American population farming (some sources say less than 1%), the suburbs are primed to lead the up-and-coming small “farm” movement.
Suburbanites typically spend their weekends maintaining an ornamental lawn and pointless landscape plants, while edibles could be more beautiful, produce an edible yield, and require not much more maintenance.
I have a particular fondness for a productive landscape, but I also enjoy a beautiful one that attracts beneficial insects and is friendly to wildlife. Edible landscaping is a softer, gentler approach that combines traditional landscaping with row cropping techniques, and is both aesthetically pleasing and ecologically friendly.
Landscaping with Intention
My edible front yard is an intentional landscape. While the development and maintenance of a lawn is relatively mind-numbing (not to mention potentially polluting), what I have found after five years of “farming” my front yard is that I’m more alive and engaged with the edible landscape. For example, when the strawberries, cherries, or black raspberries ripen, it is an exciting moment! Nothing in a traditional landscape is that exciting.
An edible landscape gave me a reason to interact with my neighbors. While the usual dog walker or passerby will exchange niceties about the weather, the edible landscape gave us something interesting to talk about. The book Edible Estates is a fantastic picture book of lawns across the U.S. that were replaced with a productive landscape. The book also explores the social aspects of having a productive front yard and the subsequent interactions with neighbors.
Rosalind Creasy, author of Edible Landscaping, is the modern pioneer of the movement, yet landscaped gardens containing edibles have been the norm throughout history from English cottage gardens all the way back to ancient Persia. Edibles truly make supremely beautiful landscapes.
My Edible Front Yard
After much trial and error in the aesthetic department, my edible front yard now contains currant bushes, black raspberries, strawberries, cherry trees, and a variety of edible herbs and flowers.
Below is a picture of our house before we purchased it in 2005, and after we turned it into an edible landscape.
Take a (virtual) tour of my yard.
Below I’ll describe my experience growing vegetables in the front yard: which ones I would grow again and which ones bombed.
3 Things to Consider before Breaking Ground
1. Deer, Kids, and Dogs: What do they have in common? They all take the most direct path from point A to point B. If garden beds are easy to step in or walk through, then they probably will be by this bunch! Create diversions and obstacles that direct traffic away from your prized plants.
When we planted edibles in the parking strip (between the sidewalk and street), we planned accordingly for the constant stream of traffic by dog walkers, kids on bikes, and parked-car passengers.
2. Time: How much time do you have to commit to maintenance? Ripping out lawn and replacing it with anything else will require more maintenance to keep tidy. If time is not on your side, then consider replacing the existing landscaping plants with edibles, while leaving the lawn intact.
Take it from me: Annual plants will need more attention than perennials to retain an aesthetic appeal. As we began our edible landscape journey five years ago, I had no idea how much time it would take to keep the annual vegetables looking tidy and weed free! You’ll need a plan to fill the space after you harvest them, or risk having empty spots.
This is why we have transitioned our edible front yard to contain mostly perennials.
3. Money: A long-term landscape will be made up of mostly perennials, but plants are expensive. If you don’t mind bare ground for a while, buying seeds will be much cheaper.
We built our landscape over several years to spread out the cost of buying plants. We also used fast-growing annuals to fill in the spaces until perennial plants reached their mature size.
4 Design Principles for Visual Appeal
1. Simplicity: A simple foundation planting creates balance. Simply replace a traditional hedge with an edible one.
For example, we replaced the traditional foundation hedge lining our front porch with a hedge of currant bushes. Balance remained in the landscape even though the plant species changed. (While the currant bushes were young, we grew a “hedge” of broccoli to fill the space)!
2. Line: A line defines a space and connects people to the landscape. The line could be a curved walkway or an edge of the garden, anywhere our eyes are drawn to follow a line or edge.
In our garden we used a rock border to define the raised bed “berm” from the remaining lawn, and it was a focal point that received a lot of compliments.
3. Unity: A unified grouping of plants creates order and attracts attention from both humans and beneficial insects. Group plants of the same type together rather than alternating them with other colors or textures.
We planted the flower garden with groups of bold colors as a backdrop to the edibles.
Read more about unity in the landscape.
4. Emphasis: A specimen tree creates a focal point. Instead of a Japanese maple, dogwood, or other common specimen tree, try a fruit tree instead. Lee Reich has some great ideas in his book Landscaping with Fruit.
Don’t worry, I didn’t know any of these principles when I got started. I learned them over time after many trowels and errors.
Would you like to learn more about planting an edible landscape that gives you an edible yield while improving the biodiversity of your yard?
You’ll find loads of information just like this in my book, The Suburban Micro-Farm.
Plant An Edible Foundation
A foundation planting simply hugs the foundation of the house. We planted red and black currants in front of our front porch because currants are shade tolerant, easy to grow, have beautiful fruits (red currants), and are fragrant when brushed against (black currants).
We also planted black raspberries underneath the front windows because they are shade tolerant, have a clumping habit (they won’t “walk” around the yard), have beautiful red canes in winter, beautiful fruit, and are relatively easy to prune.
Other edible foundation plants: bush cherry, gooseberry, and rugosa rose. (They each make a nice hedge and can be pruned for tidiness.)
Did you know that rugosa rosehips have 50% more vitamin C than an orange?
Here’s what I’ve learned about strawberries: pretty much everyone loves them. They are shareable and bring a smile to kids and neighbors alike. We grow strawberries in our front yard because they are extremely productive, they don’t take up a lot of space, their deep roots can stabilize a slope and slow drainage, and they make a nice ground cover.
In the edible landscape though, be wary: Regular, June-bearing strawberries create runners that will “jump” out of the bed and “walk” away to plant themselves in pathways and other areas where you don’t want them. Suddenly, the beautiful strawberry bed looks sparse. After a few years the bed will look empty. In addition, June-bearing plants usually need replaced every 3 years.
Instead, I prefer to plant ‘Seascape’ everbearing strawberries. They don’t produce runners and therefore “stay put” in the landscape. I’ve found them to be much better for the edible landscape where I want plants to stay in their place permanently. ‘Seascape’ berries are almost as large–and just as delicious–as June-bearing strawberries. We get about 15 pounds of strawberries each year from our front yard strawberry berm.
Living in suburban or urban environments, sometimes we need to create a little buffer for privacy. Edible plants can help create a living screen that will last much longer than a fence and create more biodiversity.
We used dwarf cherry trees in our parking strip because their dense foliage created a soft buffer between our front yard and the street. They also have beautiful white flowers in the spring, gorgeous fruit that looks like Christmas tree ornaments, and interesting bark.
Other plants for privacy screening:
Asparagus, elderberry, nanking cherry, and serviceberry are a few shrub and herbaceous choices.
Chestnut, hickory, pawpaw and persimmon are tall trees with dense foliage, if you have the space for them.
Read more about creating a privacy hedgerow.
Vegetables in the Edible Landscape
I’ve learned that vegetables are tricky in the edible landscape. One year I planted garlic in the front yard rain garden, and it was beautiful.
I harvested it halfway through June and immediately seeded the area with winter squash (which I thought would make a beautiful ground cover), but multiple seedings never took. The bed–which was center of the front yard–remained empty all season.
Sometimes root vegetables have trouble germinating. Suddenly it’s not only a question of whether I’ll get a harvest, but also what will I need to do to fill the bare spot in the landscape.
Because of this, I avoid single-harvest crops such as root vegetables altogether in the edible landscape.
Rather, I only plant vegetables in which the fruit or leaf is harvested, since the plant will remain intact and continue to produce throughout the season. Examples are cherry tomatoes and peppers–both reliable in the edible landscape–as are cut-and-come-again leafy greens like swiss chard, kale, and collard greens.
In fact, two of my favorite vegetable combinations are swiss chard with sweet alyssum and kale with Johnny jump-ups.
Vegetable Color Schemes in the Edible Landscape
I’ve enjoyed giving my edible front yard a theme by choosing an annual color scheme. Here are some of the themes I’ve used. Mix and match, too!
White: garlic chives, oregano, sweet alyssum (whites mix well with other colors)
Red: cherry tomatoes, cayenne peppers, red chard, red California poppies, nasturtium
Herbs and Flowers in the Edible Landscape
Herbs and flowers are among the easiest additions to the edible landscape. By simply replacing an ornamental flower garden with edible herbs and flowers, you can have beauty and function, too!
Herbs for fragrance: chamomile, lavender, sage, lemon balm, rose (plant these along a walkway)
Deer Resistant Edibles
Sadly, there aren’t many options for the edible landscaper in deer country. Tall deer fencing around the landscape sort of negates the aesthetic appeal. However, the following are a few plants to try.
With deer I prefer to landscape using perennials because sometimes annual vegetables that are considered deer resistant will suddenly become attractive to them for no apparent reason!
Take note that none of these are deer proof and should be protected, especially when young.
Deer resistant perennials: asparagus, fig, goumi, rhubarb, pawpaw
Deer resistant vegetables: cucumbers, eggplant, peppers, tomatoes (Plant these at your own risk!)
To learn about creating a deer-deflecting hedge, check out Gaia’s Garden.
An edible landscape is a fulfilling project that will increase your yard’s productivity, biodiversity, and aesthetic appeal.
What edible landscape combinations are your favorites?