EDIBLES INCOGNITO Landscaping featuring vegetables, herbs can be attractive and practical Christina A. Stavale THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH Print Run Date: Sunday, Aug. 1, 2010 // Home and Garden section centerpiece The casual observer probably wouldn't notice that the green, purple and yellow leaves belong to vegetables. That's what Ken Brown and Gail Gross-Brown of Westerville were hoping for. The two have embarked on a trend called edible landscaping, in which gardeners incorporate food plants into the display gardens around their homes. The greens are lettuce, the purples are cabbage, and the yellows are butternut squash, but they complement the couple's home and landscape, rather than sit banished in a rectangular patch in the backyard. "It brings different colors and textures into the garden that you wouldn't necessarily see" otherwise, Brown said. "But people wouldn't necessarily know that they're not (traditional) landscaping plants. It looks pretty, but it also yields food." Susan Littlefield, horticulture editor at the National Gardening Association, said interest in growing vegetables and fruit at home has spiked in the past year, and edible landscaping is part of that. "There's an overall interest in trying to grow your own food," she said. "Some of it is economics, but some of it's a desire to have control over your food supply. A lot of people are concerned about contamination of spinach and salad greens." Gross-Brown said her house always had some kind of garden, but since she retired from teaching, she and her husband upped the scale. She drew her inspiration from Munich, Germany, her former residence, which she called a "garden haven." Germans make full use of their resources, she said, and edible landscaping is the norm. They aren't bound to the traditional rectangular plots that define most U.S. home vegetable gardens. Getting past that mindset is an important first step of starting this type of gardening, Littlefield said. "You don't have to think about digging up the yard and putting in a big rectangle," she said. "You can mix in the vegetable plantings with more ornamental plantings. In many ways, that works well because, if you're mixing in with flowers, it attracts pollinators. "Vegetables don't have to be planted in rows to grow well." Dave Jacke, primary author of the book series "Edible Forest Gardening," said gardeners need to keep in mind how much food they want their garden to yield and how much of their yard they want to dedicate.
"You can make quite a beautiful garden that's all edible or only partially edible," he said. "It's about having fun and exploring new kinds of food." Gross-Brown said her top priority was growing food she and her husband would eat. Then, she thought about appearance. Their garden is about 40 percent edibles and 60 percent nonedibles. It yields about 200 pounds of food a year, from tomatoes to squashes and cabbages. She also wanted her garden to fit the mold of a typical suburban garden -- at least in appearance -- so she selected plants that would produce vibrant flowers in addition to yielding food. Although Littlefield said each gardener must take into account the landscape and climate of his or her own yard, a few things can be universal. For example, herbs make nice garden borders, and peppers are good container plants. She said it's also important to keep in mind that some plants, such as cabbage, will be pulled out entirely when harvested. "So it might be that . . . if you have cabbage plants or carrots or beans, where you're going to pull the whole plant out, put it in a less conspicuous spot . . . so you won't notice that your crop is gone," Littlefield said. "If you're planting in your front yard, along the walkway, stick with plants where it will always be there." As plants go in and out of season, the way they look changes. This is why, she said, it's a good idea to mix traditional flowers in with the vegetables. "Even if the vegetable plants aren't at their peak of aesthetic value, you might have other flowers growing nearby, " she said. After four years, the Westerville couple seems to have developed an effective system, complete with a compost pile and a rain barrel. But they got to this point gradually -- and that's how Littlefield recommends getting started. "Start with the things that you like or that are hard to find in the market," she said. "If you wanted to grow eggplant, you might want to grow some of the more unusual (varieties). Or fresh herbs -- it's pretty hard to get good, fresh basil (in stores). It's a good approach to start that way." Before they got to this point, Gross-Brown said, she had a goal for her garden to be economical, communal and social. She thinks she has achieved all three: They save money by growing food in their yard; they trade crops with their neighbors; and they have created a conversation-starter for passers-by. And Brown insists that it doesn't take an overwhelming amount of work. "We can't handle tons and tons of stuff," he said. "But even people like us have done a nice job. We get the neighbors involved, have it look nice, get a crop yield -- and it's been fun. Anybody can do this." firstname.lastname@example.org Sidebar: Plants to consider Almost any type of plant can work in edible landscaping, but here are some plants recommended for their colorful flowers, attractive foliage and other aesthetic qualities.
* Butternut squash: The vines produce vibrant yellow flowers. * Purple cabbage: Its colorful leaves make it attractive. * Strawberries: In the spring, white flowers and red berries add to the leafy greens. When summer comes, the plant serves as an effective ground cover. Curly parsley or asparagus can complement it well. * Chives: This type of onion produces lavender flowers. Most herbs, including oregano, sage and thyme, make good border plants. * Red chard: This leafy green vegetable with red stems works well next to spinach. * Gooseberries: They can function as a border or foundation planting. * Globe artichokes: Their showy tops can add unusual shapes to a garden. * Cherry tomatoes: The small fruit can accent a fence or container. * Red leaf lettuce: The purple-and-green leaves pair well with yellow or orange calendulas. * Kale: This cabbage variety can work well with the fernlike, silvery-white dusty miller, pink nemesia flowers or any dianthus flowers. * Peppers (any variety): The vegetable's bright yellows, oranges and reds pop when the plant is grown in containers. Sources: Dave Jacke, primary author of the book series "Edible Forest Gardening"; Susan Littlefield, horticulture editor at the National Gardening Association; Ken Brown and Gail Gross-Brown; www.plantea.com/edibleland.htm