Guest Blog Post By Nan K. Chase
Some of the more expensive gourmet produce items turn out to be surprisingly easy to grow in a variety of climates around the country, and for just a fraction of the cost of grocery store prices. As a bonus…they look great in the garden and can provide year-round visual interest, even in snow.
These dream crops include juicy organic apples and pears, delicious and nutritious specialty fruits like crabapple and kiwi, long-lived grapes and pomegranates and citrus, many aromatic herbs, and vegetables like leeks, fennel, globe artichokes, giant red mustard, and popcorn (it tastes much better than store bought).
Over the last few decades I have been living the “edible landscaping” lifestyle. That is, I plant trees, shrubs, vines, herbs and wildflowers that offer visual appeal in several seasons, and have something to harvest most of the year. Recently I have been mixing vegetable crops in my ornamental flower beds with good results. Even such simple fare as cabbage can look gorgeous when grown as specimen plants in a flower bed; try Savoy or purple cultivars.
How Gardening Pros Do It
- Never garden in shorts. Ever. Avoid painful and expensive garden injuries by wearing long pants, long-sleeved shirts, thick-soled boots, and work gloves.
- Plant all year, harvest all year. Take advantage of the spring and autumn “shoulder” seasons to clear away garden debris and prune lightly, and to plant edible trees and shrubs and some vegetable seeds. Plan in winter.
- Get rid of the birdfeeder, and get a birdbath. Birds will flock to your well-tended birdbath for water, and stay to help weed and eat insect pests. Stop feeding squirrels and raccoons with birdseed.
- Green is beautiful. Create some peaceful spaces in the garden with well-maintained greenery instead of wild colors. Concentrate on distinct textures, sizes, and shapes.
The idea is to have fresh produce to eat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day — and then have more left over to preserve by canning, freezing, dehydrating, even fermenting. Hello, flavor and nutrition! Good-bye, high grocery bills.
Imagine greeting your guests with an afternoon glass of homemade mint wine or berry cordial, or a selection of fruit ripe from the tree. Breakfast the next morning can incorporate fragrant fresh herbs various ways: in egg dishes, popovers, breads, preserves, sausages, mustards and light vinegars, and much more. And there should be plenty more herbs for your own lunch and dinner or for your guests’ box lunches; this summer I have enjoyed poaching chicken breasts in an herb-rich broth, then using the chilled meat for especially good chicken salad or for topping a big Caesar salad.
You don’t need lots of room to start turning your flower garden into a super food-producing garden that’s attractive and satisfying to look at — that’s not the same as just tearing up the front lawn to sow zucchinis and tomatoes, by the way. I am talking about true landscape beauty.
My own property measures less than a tenth of an acre and yet, in addition to a two-story house, contains half a dozen small fruit trees, along with berry bushes, grape vines, annual and perennial herb plants, and all those vegetables — including those ordinarily expensive leeks, artichokes, and pretty lettuces — and dozens of herbs. This concentrated approach to food and flowers means I plant things closer together than is usual and also inspect the garden daily so I know when it’s time to tear out spent vegetables and plant something new.
It’s important not to imagine this edible landscape garden happening at once, but to approach the project as the work of several years. Here’s why:
- Fruit trees, even dwarf varieties, can take three to five years to become established and begin producing fruit. Specialty plants like the lovely and delicious pawpaw and the vigorous kiwi vine can take seven years to fruit. Plant these now with an eye toward the future. Berry bushes and grape vines may take two or three years to produce much fruit.
- Meanwhile, “perennial” vegetables like asparagus (great in the flower border), rhubarb, and artichokes can take a full year to get established. Plant these now for next year and the years beyond.
- Right now and through the fall, plant as many vegetable plants as you can, taking into account the soil temperatures (and season) they prefer to be started. Onion family members, spinach, lettuce, and all sorts of other greens can be sown in fall for winter and spring harvest. Leeks too.
- Plant herbs whenever you can, and harvest right away. Plant dwarf citruses in large pots and take them indoors during freezing weather.
- Next winter get hold of some seed catalogues and order a selection of seeds conveniently delivered to the inn, for useful ornamental crops, including popcorn, chard, fennel, and dinosaur kale.
The rewards are masses of pastel blooms in spring, bright colors and shade in summer, subtle tones in fall, and a place for snow to rest in winter.
Easy To Grow Vegetables With Pizzazz
- Popcorn, compact and provides vertical lift in large planter arrangements
- Asparagus, lacy and green in midsummer, golden in fall
- Red leaf lettuce, a great low-growing filler in flower beds, cold hardy
- Okra, creamy, swirling flowers and attractive pods, try red okra
- Hot peppers, make and bottle your own hot sauces
Nan K. Chase is the author of Eat Your Yard! Edible trees, shrubs, vines, herbs and flowers for your landscape and co-author, with Chris McCurry, of Bark House Style: Sustainable Designs from Nature. She lives near downtown Asheville, N.C., and writes about travel, architecture, and gardening.