Five Tips for Creating an Edible Landscape

A snapshot of my garden and part of my back yard

A snapshot of my garden and part of my back yard

When my husband and I bought our first home in Portland eight years ago, we inherited all the plants that came with it. That included a sour cherry tree, a bay leaf tree, two apple trees, a European plum tree, two rosemary bushes and three fully planted garden beds.  

At first, I felt overwhelmed with the responsibility to care for each plant but quickly learned how rewarding growing your own food can be. It amplifies home cooked meals, leads to healthier eating habits and lessens the impact on the environment.

Today, we have more than 20 edible perennial plants in our yard, not counting the vegetables grown in our four raised garden beds, which change annually. In addition to those mentioned above, here’s what’s growing in our yard. The asterisks(*) denote those growing in containers.

  • A black Spanish fig tree*
  • Goji berries
  • Jerusalem artichokes*
  • Asparagus
  • Herbs: Thyme, sage, French tarragon, German chamomile*, oregano (two varieties), fennel, parsley (biennial), mint*
  • Dwarf thornless raspberry bushes*
  • Blueberries
  • Rhubarb
  • Makrut lime tree*
  • Kumquat tree*
  • Echinacea

When I began adding edible plants to our landscape, I dove in head first, but over the years have used a few guidelines to evaluate each addition. Here are some tips to help you get started or to expand your edible landscape.

1.      Create a list of up to 10 plants you enjoy.

This may seem obvious. However, if you are like me generating a list of only 10 plants can be difficult. What you enjoy growing, preserving, cooking or eating raw is a great place to start. My inspiration comes from plants in food that I discover while traveling and also my interest in cooking, especially my desire to use fresh herbs. I also grow plants that I know taste better fresh or exceed the flavor or reduce the cost of grocery store purchased fruits and vegetables. For example, nothing beats a homegrown tomato. Nothing.

Start with 10 plants, and depending on what you learn in tips 2 to 4 below or how much space you can plant, add or subtract from this list. Remember, you don't have to plant everything in one year. I have an ongoing list that I'm constantly evaluating. Stagger planting over time and take note in your growth plan (as noted in tip no. 4).

Extra Tip: Think about a typical week and what vegetables are always at the top of your grocery list. Start there by making a list and then spend some time learning about those plants.

2.      Research, read and explore.

Learn about each plant on your list. When I hear about a new plant the first thing I do is research it. This includes gathering information through a simple Google search about growing conditions, full growth size, planting to harvest time, growing season and care. Some plants, especially fruit trees require a lot of care and maintenance. So, understanding the care requirements can help determine if it is worthwhile to grow.

My local plant nursery on a rainy day

My local plant nursery on a rainy day

In the United States, the Farmer’s Almanac is a great resource. Also, check out your local plant nursery, and borrow books from your local library. Purchase reference books that you’ll need every season. I personally recommend the book Square Foot Gardening for vegetable gardening. It has everything from planning to growing plants in small spaces with an index about harvesting.

Walk through your local nursery to understand what grows best in your hardiness zone. Local nurseries carry plant varieties for your area. Staff are knowledgeable and can help with your questions too.

Extra Tip: Understand which plants you can propagate from a healthy established plant, and get a cutting from your neighbor or friend. This will save you money. A sampling of those I’ve successfully started from a plant cutting are lavender, rosemary, thyme, oregano, mint, basil and sage. Fig trees and a variety of other plants can be grown this way. Know what you want to plant and then understand the best way to grow it by researching it.

3.      Assess where to grow your plants.

Sometimes where you want to grow plants and where they will best grow don’t align. Thankfully, many plants grow well in containers (pots, hanging baskets, raised beds, etc.) and in small spaces, or even grow vertically (along fence rows). What is important here is to understand how much space you have, how much space the plant needs, and then (as noted in the next tip) create a plan that fits that space using the information you have about each.

Also, consider the average sunlight in the area and the height and width of full-grown plants. I put plants that spread or are invasive in containers (like mint and Jerusalem artichokes), and annuals in my raised garden beds. My four garden beds are reserved for my summer vegetable garden. 

Extra Tip: I recommend that if you are a new home owner or recently moved into a new home, wait one full year to plant anything in your yard. Perennial plants pop up seasonally. This gives you time to properly research and plan. Try to avoid planting in areas directly against your home. Edibles are attractive to all types of pests, and these can become an entrance point into your home (for ants, etc.). Further, the abrasiveness of the leaves and branches add to wear and tear of your home’s siding. You can plant near your home, but make sure to cut the plants back seasonally as to not touch your home.

4.      Create a growth plan and budget.

Pull together information from points two and three into a plan. Summarize and finalize your plan with a budget. Starting from seed or plant cutting will be most cost effective. The Farmer’s Almanac planning resources might be helpful for you, or you can use the raised bed templates in the recommended Square Foot Gardening book to get started. Raised vegetable gardens are a popular and space friendly way to grow plants. Your local nursery may also offer planning services for free in exchange for purchasing your plants there.

Extra Tip: Make sure you budget everything from the cost of planting to the cost of fertilizer, maintenance and care. Organic gardening costs a bit more, but if you can avoid using chemicals it is better for the environment, safer and healthier. Know that organic doesn’t mean you must spend a lot of money on pest control. Sometimes your best defense is a good hose nozzle to spray off the pests with water.

5.      Plant, grow, care and maintain.

The most rewarding thing about having an edible landscape is eating the produce that you grow. I love walking outside and bringing back fistfuls of herbs and vegetables to make dinner. Be patient. Most of your plants will take a full season or up to a year to get established (summer vegetable gardens are shorter) and fruit trees take a little longer. Remember you must prune, water, fertilize (I like E.B. Stone Organics), weed and care for each plant as it grows. Use your growth plan to understand what to do seasonally. Eventually, it will become routine and you’ll know when it’s time to add fertilizer or to prune your plants and can forego a plan. And sometimes, you just start over and plant something new, and that’s okay too.

Extra Tip: Start by spending 15 minutes a day to care for your plants. Simplify by finding plants that complement your comfort and tolerance for care. Make sure you understand the care schedule before purchasing and planting.

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