At long last, the sun is out. Time to dig that garden.
One of my first garden memories is of planting tomatoes in a flower bed next to marigolds. The red fruit, I mused, would complement the yellow flowers. My father, disapproving, said tomatoes belong in the vegetable bed.
Now that I'm grown and do as I like, my garden combines edibles with ornamentals.
I plant tomatoes against trellises or in tomato cages spray-painted in vivid colors - cobalt blue, yellow, or purple. The supports are visible long before the fruits, so they need to make their own colorful statements. (Hint: It's hard to get red cages and red tomatoes to match.)
Years later, I learned I'd been creating an edible landscape, which the ancient Egyptians had started centuries before me. Egyptian pleasure gardens, sometimes enclosed, with fish ponds, beautiful flowers, grape arbors, and fruiting trees provided a place to sit and enjoy the serenity.
By the Renaissance, vegetables and herbs were often put into stylized gardens of their own. Fruit and nut trees were a prized part of the garden until the early part of the 20th century.
Since then, more formal landscaping has thrived, with a focus on ornamental plants. But with the heightened ecological awareness in the 1980s, edibles began to be recognized for their dual purposes - beauty and edibility, and they have been reintroduced into the general landscape.
Another reason I combine edibles with ornamentals is laziness. Why cultivate two separate areas - and have to weed and water them all season - when plants can be combined in one beautiful garden? Today, with drought and water restrictions in many parts of the country, it makes more sense than ever.
I am also a visual person - out of sight, out of mind. So if the edibles are in the "back 40," I am likely to forget about them, letting weeds proliferate and fruit rot on the vine. When they're right up by the house, I see the plants all the time, so I use them daily in my cooking.
Edibles encompass the entire range of plants: trees (nuts and fruit), shrubs (berries), annuals (most vegetables, herbs, and edible flowers), perennials (some vegetables, herbs, and edible flowers), and even vines (fruits and vegetables).
Most are attractive for their flowers, foliage, fruit, form, or texture, in addition to having one or more edible parts.
Many homeowners commonly use non-fruiting hybrids of spring-flowering trees such as pears, cherries, and crab apples. But their fruiting cousins are equally attractive when they bloom in spring, with the bonus of free, handsome, and delicious fruit in summer or fall.
It is unlikely you will redo your entire garden with edibles; that is not necessary. Instead, simply consider using an edible whenever you are adding to or rearranging the garden. For instance, if a large tree dies or is damaged, think about replacing it with a nut tree suitable for your climate.
A full-size fruit tree might be a good replacement for a medium-sized deciduous ornamental tree. Many fruit trees (from citrus to apricots, apples to nectarines) are now available as dwarfs, making them suitable for foundation planting or even as containerized plants. 'Colonnade' apples grow only up to 8 to 10 feet tall and 3 feet wide, making them perfect as a border plant.
Be certain the chosen site is suitable for the plant. Blueberries are attractive as foundation plants, but they need acidic soil. A fig tree also makes a good foundation plant in hardy climates.
Fences provide good support for training fruit trees in decorative patterns (called espalier). It's easier than you might think. Also, some nurseries specialize in trees already trained in such a pattern.
You can plant brambles, such as raspberries, blackberries, or gooseberries, very close together to create a living fence. Some of the shrub roses, such as Rosa rugosa, produce large, bright orange or red rose hips in late summer or fall. The edible hips can be used to make tea or, more commonly, jam and jelly.
Peas are lovely trained on a fence and, after they've been harvested, can be followed by cucumbers or squash as the season progresses.
Hyacinth beans make a bold statement with their pale purple flowers and shiny, deep-purple pods, wherever you allow them to climb. They add color in late summer and fall, when the garden often needs a strong pick-me-up.
An arbor or trellis is a decorative addition to any garden. Grapes are commonly trained on arbors; hardy kiwi, which can grow to 10 feet high, is also perfect for a large arbor. Scarlet runner beans - with their delicious beans and bright orange-red flowers - are handsome on an arbor or trellis. Train tomato vines on a trellis or arbor.
Perennial herbs can be the backbone of an edible border. Lavender and rosemary have upright forms with thin leaves, providing interest even in winter. Thyme and oregano are low-growing and prostrate, best suited for the edge of the garden. Plant them between stepping-stones, where they may be lightly stepped on, releasing their fragrance, or stick them in crevices and nooks in rock or brick walls.
Rhubarb and asparagus are beautiful - even after their harvest season. Rhubarb sends up a sensational flower stalk, while asparagus is transformed into what looks like a big handsome fern.
Use large, bold plants, such as cardoon and artichokes, to make a statement. Their silvery foliage is a good transition color and can "cool down" a hot-colored flower bed. Hollyhocks and rose-of-Sharon add height and color to the garden. If you don't spray the plants, the flowers are edible - delightful additions to salads and to decorate a luncheon plate.
Think edibles when it comes to edging the garden. Lettuce, strawberries, parsley, ornamental kale, thyme, and other low-growing herbs are all well-suited.
Some plants, especially edible flowers, may already be in your garden, even though you're not using them in the kitchen. Some favorite edible flowers include violets, Johnny-jump-ups, bee balm, pansies, tulips, calendula, roses, yucca, dandelion, lilac, ocotillo, pineapple guava, pineapple sage, apple, and hibiscus.
The most versatile is the daylily. In spring, when the green leaves are less than eight inches tall, cut them back (you can only do this once each season) and toss them in a salad or stir-fry.
Daylily flower buds (dried) are a standard in Chinese cuisine, especially for hot and sour soup. The flowers can be eaten raw or cooked. Put a flower (remove pistils and stamens) in a crystal glass and add a scoop of vanilla ice cream or orange sherbert - an elegant dessert, even though guests may be reluctant to eat the flowers.
Chards are among my all-time favorites - 'Ruby' and 'Rainbow' in particular. Plant them where the sun can shine through their leaves and stems (if you are an early-morning person, plant them so the rising sun sets them aglow).
I'm not an early riser, so my chard grows where the late-afternoon light hits the stems and leaves, giving the impression of stained glass in the garden. It is truly a sight to behold. By harvesting only the outer leaves as I need them, the plants maintain their beauty all season long.
Whatever you do to make your garden a more edible landscape, you are guaranteed to reap the rewards of your labor.
EDIBLES WITH COLORFUL FLOWERS
Amaranth: Green, red, purple
Beans: White, red, purple, spotted
Chives: Lavender Day-lily: Pink, red, orange, yellow, multicolored
Jerusalem artichoke: Yellow
Nasturtium: Orange, yellow, red, salmon, pink
Okra: White, yellow
Peas: White, purple
Rosemary: Blue, white
Thyme: Pink, white, lilac
Beans: Yellow, green, purple
Cucumber: Yellow, green
Eggplant: Purple, white, orange, red, pale purple and white
Peppers: Green, brown, violet, purple, red, yellow, orange
Squash: Yellow, green, orange, green and white, pale blue
Tomatoes: Red, orange, yellow, white, green, pink, striped