Edible Landscaping

— Written By

vegetable and flower bed

With COVID-19 still very much an ever-present aspect of our daily lives, we may find ourselves focused on what we eat, and where that food comes from, more than ever before. Anxiety over empty grocery store shelves and news about food supply chain issues are spurring many people to start gardens for the first time. The good news is, Spring is here, and that means it’s time to plant!

Gardening, even on a small scale, provides a feeling of security during these unpredictable and ever-changing times, gradually decreases reliance on external food sources, and sharpens food resiliency skills through trial and error.

As the days warm, working outside in the yard offers a brief mental respite from the current state of the world. I find weeding and spring cleanup therapeutic and purposeful. Seed-starting and planting provide hope and renew a sense of awe and wonder as these days tend to fade into one another. Digging in the dirt to plan for the future brings peace and comfort.

Why not take more of your food supply into your own hands? If not now, when?

Maybe you’ve never grown a single vegetable in your life. Maybe you have a tiny yard or live in an apartment. Maybe you have an expansive, beautifully manicured lawn and little else. With all of these situations, you can and should grow something both beautiful and delicious!

vegetables in containers

Here are some tips on how to turn your yard, porch, back deck, or patio into a productive, edible landscape:

Give “edible landscaping” a broader definition.  We often carefully “landscape” our decks in the summer months with big blooms from tropical plants, reliable annuals in wide-ranging colors, and ferns. In some of those pots, consider including culinary herbs or edible flowers, such as nasturtium. Additionally, there are plenty of vegetables and fruits that are just the right size and habit to grow well in pots, such as cherry and patio tomatoes, chard, peppers, and lettuce. 

Start small.  Intersperse a couple of 4-packs of vegetables in a perennial bed. Add a few culinary herbs to a deck planter. Use untreated lumber, rock, or locust slabs to build a small raised bed for a few summer vegetables.

Focus on beauty AND function. Edible plants can be just as attractive as ornamentals. Mix in Bright Lights swiss chard with cosmos. Tuck in some rhubarb alongside colorful perennials. Plant semi-dwarf or dwarf varieties of apples, plum, and peach instead of another Bradford pear. Cover a tall trellis with scarlet runner beans. Planting bronze (perennial) and green (annual) fennel add height and textural interest to flower beds and attract swallowtail butterfly caterpillars. Blueberry shrubs not only offer delicious fruit, but also have spectacular fall foliage. 

Start a kitchen garden.  Parsley, chives, rosemary, and basil planted near a kitchen or outside door make it easy to quickly snip herbs while you’re cooking dinner. If you love hot tea or infusing water with flavor, try growing some lemon balm, mint, or chamomile. Include edible ground cover, such as nasturtium and strawberries, for pops of seasonal color.

Think outside the box. Try growing edible tropical plants on your porch, like ginger, turmeric, and lemongrass. Plant some sunchokes (aka Jerusalem artichokes) in a sunny corner of your backyard. See if you can grow a lemon tree from seed. Plant Rugosa rose (for the vitamin C-rich hips) instead of a fancy cultivar. 

Go native.  Use elderberry as a tall, deciduous screening hedge. Pawpaw and persimmon are highly prized additions to any edible landscape, and serviceberry trees are perfect for planting along the edge of a forest.

Try some unusual perennials. Try growing malabar spinach on a trellis or plant Egyptian walking onions amongst zinnias. 

Raised bed gardening

When choosing plants, it’s always important to consider the following:  Sun/shade requirements, spacing requirements and size (as fully grown), soil quality of planting area, moisture/water needs, and habit/form of plant.

Before you start planting, visualize how the color and textural differences will work together. Try interplanting shorter with taller plants for shading and interdependency. Most of all, feel free to experiment and play with different plant combinations. Edible landscaping has no rules. Grow what you like to eat or want to try. Plants can be moved. 

Adversity begets creativity. Take a look at your existing landscape, yard, or deck through a new and creative lens. Instead of choosing landscape additions simply for color and beauty, evaluate their function and purpose. It’s a great time to incorporate plants and trees that provide food, increase biodiversity in your landscape, and create pollinator habitats for the good of all. If not now, when…right?

N.C. Cooperative Extension has a wealth of information to help get you going on all things edible! Even if you’ve never grown a vegetable in your life, edible landscaping is the perfect place to start and N.C. Cooperative Extension will be right there by your side to help you learn along the way!

Local Food factsheets and growing guides

Homegrown – NC State Extension

Homegrown YouTube videos

Have questions about edible landscaping? Email Jill Cockerham at jccocker@ncsu.edu.