New, old foodscaping ideas for any garden

Edible plants are used instead of ornamentals in a flower bed.

A garden border can look just as beautiful using edible plants as exotic ornamentals, as seen at Reford Gardens, Quebec. Shot in August, 2014.

In hip urban neighbourhoods all over North America, the hottest new garden design trend is foodscaping–landscaping that melds modern garden aesthetics with agriculture. You can pin this trend on an urge to save on grocery bills, a newfound fascination for growing-your-own or the thrill of creating something beautiful out of what’s considered utilitarian. But motives aside, transforming your front yard into a bountiful and gorgeous farm is all the rage and it’s producing exciting garden design ideas, some radically new, others surprisingly old. The best part is that any gardener can use some of these foodscaping ideas even if they don’t want a farm in their front yard.

But is this trend new? Not really. As early as the 1400’s, the English cottage garden (so often portrayed today in a purple haze of roses and foxgloves), wasn’t grown for beauty at all. The garden was a crucial source of food and medicine. But even though prettiness was beside the point and every flower, herb, vegetable and fruit bearing tree or shrub was intended to be as useful as possible, beauty would have been a natural, if unintentional, by-product. Use this link: The Early Cottage Garden for a good backgrounder and planting tips for recreating that quintessential English Cottage Garden look from the horticultural cooperative extension of Colorado State University.

So why would you hop onto this modern-but-really-old trend?

Kale and cabbage used in a bed illustrating foodscaping.

Another view of the gorgeous vegetable border at Reford Gardens. I found different types of kale used decoratively throughout the gardens, including far more formal, ornamental areas than this. Shot in August, 2014.

If the aforementioned aren’t calling to you, there are other reasons why you might consider devoting at least some of your garden to food crops.

  1. Edible plants can be just as beautiful and easy to grow as any flowering ornamental and can add creative sparks to a lacklustre flower bed.
  2. Some edible plants are natural fertilizers. Legumes such as beans are nitrogen fixers, meaning they work in partnership with bacteria, the end result releasing accessible nitrogen into the soil.
  3. Flowering ornamentals aren’t the only plants helping the birds, bees and butterflies. Edible plants from squash to apple trees are important sources of nutrition for flying critters including many, many beneficial insects.

Where do you start?

You could rip up your entire front lawn and replace it with buckwheat. But let’s assume you want your neighbours to still like you at the end of it all. Here are some ideas you can apply to any garden, be it a fully foodscaped front yard or a small flower bed you’d like to freshen up.

CREATIVE FOODSCAPING IDEAS THAT ARE REALLY VERY OLD

Abandon the old notion that edibles need to be planted in rows. Treat edible plants like you would ornamentals. Take a cue from the old English cottage gardens. They got their reputation for voluptuousness because vegetables, herbs, trees and shrubs (all producing edibles) were planted randomly with no particular design in mind except to maximize a very limited amount of space. Another problem is that garden centres hadn’t been invented yet. Acquiring plants was haphazard, acheived by purchase, trade or stealth leading to more randomness in what got planted but resulting in a garden seething with colour, scent, and texture.

Cardoons used in a foodscaped garden bed.

This elegant raised bed bordering a sidewalk along a busy residential street is filled with what look like exotic hosta hybrids but they’re actually cardoons, a member of the sunflower family. They’re stems are used in various dishes in regional cuisines of France, Italy and Spain.

Add native plants to make your foodscaped garden a beneficial insect magnet. This is another idea taken from the old cottage garden. With that pesky problem of not having a garden centre, your only source of many herbs, fruit-bearing plants and, yes, flowers was likely the nearby woods. The result of adding native species, then and now, is in attracting even more pollinators.

Leave no ground uncovered. Way back when, since a cottage gardener had no garden centre, she also had no way of buying prepackaged bark mulch. This was a good thing. Covering the ground with live plants–tall, short and in between–makes for better moisture retention, better biodiversity and, subsequently, improved soil health. If you have some bare spots, fill them in with scrumptious ground covers such as rambling strawberries (see below) or short herbs like thyme.

NEW FOODSCAPING IDEAS CREATED BY THE MODERN GARDEN

Have a plan. Yes, you can go totally Old English and plant randomly but don’t blame me if you forget where you put the zucchini. Besides, having at least a record of where you planted what will help you keep track of what did well and what didn’t for the next year.

Don’t forget the perennials. There are plenty of food-producing plants that can stay put in your foodscaped garden and produce edibles year after year. Fruit trees and berry-producing shrubs provide height and structure to your garden as well. Lavender and oregano can fill in a bed while adding lovely fragrances. Use rhubarb as much for its dramatic leaves as for its delicious stems.

You don’t have to abandon your lawn. Just like in that other big garden trend, designing ornamental plant communities, lawns can be very useful in adding visual interest, order and access to various parts of the garden. And the proportion of lawn to foodscaped beds is up to you, too.

You don’t have to go full-on food, either. Try tucking in a few edibles next to ornamentals simply because they look amazing together. Think bright yellow flowering dill tucked in amongst the usual purple ornamental alliums, for instance.

PLANTS THAT ADD PUNCH TO A FOOD-INFUSED GARDEN

I asked seed expert Renee Shepherd of Renee’s Garden in Felton, California, for suggestions on edibles perfect for foodscaping. Renee hunts down seeds from around the world, tests them herself in her own garden, uses their produce to develop recipes and shares all that amazing knowledge in her books and on her website. And you can buy her seeds online, too. Yes, she ships to Canada. Here are four of her top choices:

Nasturtiums: Besides the fact that the blossoms look amazing in salads (and add a fresh, peppery note), nasturtiums are just plain gorgeous as a flowering annual in the garden. Phoenix Climbing Nasturtium (Tropaeolum magus), left, flowers non-stop with a fiery display of fringed petals while climbing up to 6 feet in height. If you want something smaller or plan on filling a hanging basket, Renee suggests Little Firebirds Container Nasturtiums. These plants, right, are prolific bloomers but stay well behaved, growing only to about 10 inches. Both photos courtesy of Renee’s Garden.

Mignonette Alpine Strawberries (Fragaria vesca): These lovely little perennial plants don’t throw runners, said Renee, so they won’t take over your garden. Try them as an edging plant in a foodscaped garden, or plant in window boxes or hanging baskets. Both photos courtesy of Renee’s Garden.

Neon Chard: What a way to add some “Wow!” to your foodscaped garden. Renee’s Garden offers a Neon Glow chard mix, equal parts ‘Golden Sunrise’ and ‘Magenta Sunset’, Chard for eye-popping results. Both leaves and stems are edible.

Brightly coloured stems of Neon Chard.

‘Magenta Sunrise’ and ‘Golden Sunrise’ chard. Photo courtesy of Renee’s Garden.

Mini pumpkins: These ‘Mini Jack’ pumpkins (Cucurbita pepo) are cute and edible. If you want to save space in your garden, you can train Mini Jack vines to climb a fence, trellis or other garden ornamental support.

A basket of mini pumpkins.

‘Mini Jack’ pumpkins add pure charm to a garden, whether in a bed or climbing a trellis. Photo courtesy of Renee’s Garden.

Are you ready to add edibles to your garden? Let me know your foodscaping ideas.

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