Edible landscaping or foodscaping is the practice of interspersing ornamental plant displays with edible crops, often in a way that creates a lush and colourful variety of foliage. There’s a tendency for growers to separate their ‘practical’ vegetable beds from their more aesthetic plant displays. In some areas, this can be influenced by housing or homeowner regulations that discourage ‘utilitarian’ front-facing gardens (which causes people to keep their food crops out of sight behind their house). Edible landscaping is all about breaking down this distinction, and emphasising the idea that crops can be bothpractical and attractive.
Foodscaping has a lot of potential and value, whether it’s:
- Maximising food output from small spaces
- A creative response to strict garden regulations
- Encouraging food self-sufficiency
- Reframing the way we think about food and how we adapt the natural landscape
- Enhancing biodiversity
- Encouraging some outside-the-box choices and options in the kitchen
- Edible landscaping can actually sequester atmospheric carbon, which is good for the environment
- The approach naturally encourages organic methods and discourages the use of pesticides (after all, you don’t want to be using chemicals anywhere near your edible crops)
A neat example of this kind of idea is the English ‘cottage garden’. You may be familiar with the image of a small cottage surrounded by flourishing foliage, without realising just how much of the foliage is perfectly edible. The charming, haphazard sprawl of these gardens grew in popularity as a reaction against overly formal estate gardens. However necessity played its part too, with rural dwellers aiming to maximise the edible crops they could grow in their modest space.
Cottage (and similar-type) gardens are great for pollinators and provide plenty of habitat for wildlife and beneficial insects. A typical cottage garden might be characterised by densely packed flowers such as delphiniums, lupines and foxgloves; climbing plants scaling walls; shrubs acting as borders, edging or visual focal points; and lower-lying edible crops - as well as small wildlife-friendly unkempt areas.
In recent times there has been something of a resurgence of foodscaping styles, which has been linked to issues such as food security and self-sufficiency. Edible landscaping in public spaces is seen as a way of encouraging or fostering biodiversity and sustainability.
One such example is the Edible Landscaping Project which was set up in Co. Mayo. This initiative involved youth groups, community groups and volunteers. Apple trees were planted in Castlebar Town Park and an edible ‘forest garden’ developed on the grounds of the National Museum of Country Life in Turlough, while workshops were held relating to climate change as well as offering practical food-growing tips.
Is edible landscaping a viable option for the individual or household growers? Very much so. Embarking on a foodscaping journey is something of a long game - it takes a lot of time, patience and maintenance to build up the kind of blossoming ‘foodscape’ that you might see in ‘inspiration’ photos. Perennial flowering plants are commonly a feature of edible landscaping, and these take their time growing - often not fully blooming until the second or third year.
When planning an edible garden, you should take into account the space logistics, such as pathways, outdoor structures, natural obstructions and boundaries. Observe your outdoor areas and get a keen sense of how much sunlight different areas get, while taking into account your local climate and the amount of rainfall you tend to get in an average year.
When considering what plants you want to grow as part of an edible landscape, research growing requirements and details such as the flowering period and the size of the plant when mature. It can be a good idea to start with a small area at first. Alternatively if you have bigger plans, you can interplant faster-growing plant varieties while waiting for perennial-style crops to reach their full bloom.
Some Pointers and Ideas
- Kale and chard are great choices as they have a long flowering period and the leaves and foliage lend attractive textures to the garden (or ‘foodscape’ in this case). Even more so if you go with unique varieties like rainbow chard, or the ornamental ‘Redbor’ kale with its curled reddish-purple leaves.
- Herbs are low maintenance plants that offer attractive, aromatic qualities. They also lend themselves well to compact growing spaces such as housefronts or balconies. Pollinator-friendly varieties include rosemary, basil, thyme and sage.
- A herb bed or herb border is a great way of neatly arranging and containing foliage, while providing a rich variety of culinary options into the bargain.
- Fruit trees (such as apple, pear or citrus) not only yield tasty homegrown produce, they also provide haven and shelter for wildlife. Dwarf or semi-dwarf varieties are a good option for smaller gardens. Dwarf fruit trees grow to a height of about 8 to 10 feet, yet despite their compact size they can provide you with a healthy supply of fruit. They will also reach maturity faster. Columnar varieties have a high number of fruiting branches relative to their size. This type of fruit tree will usually have a width of no more than 2 feet or so, meaning that you don’t need to worry about sprawl. They’re also very low-maintenance!
- Getting into edible flowers provides you with some fresh and alternative culinary options for the kitchen. Flowers such as nasturtiums, pansies and calendulas can be used in desserts, salads or soups.
- Native flowers will add splashes of colour as well as benefiting pollinators.
- Ornamental plants can be used to ‘camouflage’ edible ones. (You need not worry as much about this unless you’re trying to get around garden or housing association restrictions).
- How about a hazelnut tree, or the closely related cobnut? They do very well in temperate climates like ours, yet it’s a relative niche that not many consider. Hazel trees have a visual appeal with their distinctive ‘catkins’. They can start producing nuts 2-3 years after planting. Just watch out for the neighbourhood squirrels.
- Including a diverse variety of plants will ensure that some variety or another will be flowering at different times of the year. In turn, pollinators and foragers will have a continuous source of pollen or food.
- Perennial vegetables will come back year after year once planted, reducing the need for replanting or ‘redesigning’ your landscape. Some good example crops include asparagus (the plants can last up to 20 years), rhubarb and jerusalem artichokes. The latter are a relatively expensive option in shops, so a very alluring option for the home-grower.
- Roses are of course well-renowned for their aesthetic qualities and attractive scent, but did you know that certain rose varieties have edible petals that can be used to flavour desserts and jams or to add as an infusion to essential oils?
- Shrubs such as ‘Euonymus’ and hydrangea can provide some striking and vibrant autumnal colours.