Food plants have jumped the fence from the kitchen garden.
They’re making their way into the landscape, doing double duty as both food sources and things of beauty.
It’s a movement called edible landscaping, and there’s good reason for it, advocates say. Edible landscaping encourages and simplifies local food production, with all its health and environmental benefits.
In fact, it’s the focus of today’s Sustainability Symposium at Cleveland Botanical Garden, an annual event that teaches people how to garden in ways that are easier on the Earth. Reservations were required to attend.
The idea behind edible landscaping is that fruits, vegetables and other edible plants can be intermingled with ornamental plants such as shrubs and flowers. Often edibles can be used in place of more common landscape plants — rhubarb instead of hostas, perhaps, or a fruit tree instead of a maple.
“I think it opens up a whole new territory for people who don’t consider themselves gardeners” or don’t like the look of a traditional vegetable garden, said Jonathan Hull, co-founder of the not-for-profit organization Green Triangle and one of the speakers at the symposium. The Cleveland-area organization promotes permaculture, an ecological system that stresses living in harmony with nature.
Edible landscaping is considered a part of permaculture because food plays a central role in sustainability, Hull explained. Home-grown food is more nutritious than much commercially produced food, and growing food locally saves the energy needed to ship it long distances.
What’s more, reducing a lawn to make room for food plants means less maintenance, less need for chemicals and less use of noisy, polluting equipment, he said.
Edible landscaping also benefits pollinators and other wildlife that are seeing many of their habitats and food sources destroyed. And it’s an economical approach to landscaping in tough times, noted Renata Brown, the botanical garden’s associate director of education.
But Tim Malinich’s motivation is more personal. “The best benefit, in my opinion, … is the taste is phenomenal,” said Malinich, a horticulture educator with the Ohio State University Extension in Lorain County and another speaker at the symposium.
Landscape designer Sabrena Schweyer said she regularly incorporates edible plants into the landscapes she and husband Samuel Salsbury create through their Akron firm, Salsbury-Schweyer. Sometimes those plants might be clustered in an attractive area set aside for food growing, such as a traditional French garden called a potager, or contained in pots in an area close to the kitchen. Sometimes they’re incorporated into a food forest, a growing method that mimics the layers and plant diversity of a natural forest, where plants naturally get the water and food they need to thrive.
She and Salsbury created what she calls an edible border on an 8-foot-wide strip of land that edges the driveway on the south side of their Highland Square house. There they mixed edible plants such as nasturtiums, cardoons, strawberries, potatoes and tomatoes — some of them in pots — among small trees, shrubs and perennial flowers.
Schweyer said she took care to choose food plants they would use and looked for disease-resistant types, which often are heirloom or native plants. Because her yard is small, she often uses dwarf plants or climbers, such as the purple Italian beans that clambered up a bamboo arbor and fed the couple for a good part of last summer.
She chose those beans because their color matched the trim on their house, she said. Beauty, after all, is a foremost consideration for her .
Still, edible landscaping has some benefits that are purely practical, Hull said.
For one thing, mixing a variety of plants can do a better job of reducing pest problems than traditional food gardening methods. Destructive bugs have a harder time finding individual food plants than they do a whole row, which is “like a big neon sign for any munching insect,” he said. And with a mix of plants, it’s easier to incorporate flowers that attract predator insects or confuse undesirable bugs.
Interplanting can also enhance soil fertility, Hull said. He often incorporates plants grown specifically to be cut down and returned to the soil as fertilizer, or plants that take nitrogen from the air and convert it to a usable form.
And because edible landscaping involves beds that aren’t completely replanted each year, they’re not tilled annually, he said. Repeated tilling breaks down the soil structure, a detriment to soil health.
Despite the benefits, promoting the concept of edible landscaping means changing some firmly held mindsets.
“I think a lot of people think flowers have to be here, herbs have to be here, vegetables have to be here,” Hull said.
He’s hoping to break down those boundaries.
Mary Beth Breckenridge can be reached at 330-996-3756 or firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also become a fan on Facebook, follow her on Twitter @MBBreckenridge and read her blog at marybeth.ohio.com.