Food & DrinkThe Locavore

Incredible Edible Landscapes

When horticulturalist Gareth Crosby looks at red leaf lettuce, she sees more than food. She sees the perfect ornamental accent to a bed of tulips. “Landscaping with food plants is both useful and can be beautiful,” she says.

In a time when people are looking for new ways to reconnect with food, some Athens horticulturalists and landscapers, like Crosby, are hoping to bring freshly grown foods one step closer to your table through edible landscapes.

An edible landscape, says Crosby, is a step up from a vegetable garden. While both provide homegrown food, edible landscapes take on the extra challenge of appeal. “It needs to look good and also be edible,” she says.

That requires the same design concepts—balancing the texture, height, color and size of plants—as a traditional ornamental landscape does, only with plants you can eat. “When someone would have an azalea,” says Crosby, “we’d plant a blueberry.”

Kevin Clyde Yates designs and installs edible gardens for Athens residents with his company, Hungry Gnome Gardenscapes. “We try to blur the line,” he says. “I hope for not a clear distinction between edible versus aesthetic.”  

He often encourages planting perennials—plants that will continue to flower or fruit year after year. Most of what we consume in the U.S. are annual plants, says Yates: “We seed the plants, we harvest them, they die.” Edible landscapes instead offer a more sustainable approach to gardening and eating.  

“There are lot of different perennial foods out there, perennial vegetables included,” Yates says. Asparagus is one. So are native plants Solomon’s seal and sochan, which Yates admits aren’t as popular because his clients aren’t used to eating them. More often, he starts with fruit. Nanking cherry trees are popular for both their summer berries and the dainty white flowers that adorn the tree in spring.

Sometimes, says Crosby, introducing edible plants to a landscape requires a broadening of perspective. Consider the artichoke. Many of us recognize the flowering bud that we eat, but “the plant itself is a light, bluish green color with wide, spiky leaves,” Crosby says. “It’s really striking in a garden.”

Other favorites: A blueberry bush’s summer berries give way to attractive dark red leaves in winter, and layered pole beans create a “lovely” effect creeping up a trellis, Crosby says.

“I tend to like beautiful things that are also practical,” she says. Choosing low-maintenance plants that will succeed in Georgia’s climate is key. Our warmer, wetter weather attracts fungi and pests that can overrun gardens, edible or not. And edible gardens, like annual ornamental flower beds or vegetable patches, take work—and continuing education.

“So much of growing food has a technical component to it that is not part of our normal cultural understanding,” Yates says. He suggests that first-time edible gardeners start with one edible plant they’re interested in eating and expanding from there. “Herbs are an easy one,” he says. “They’re very gratifying, and you get a lot of flavor out of it.”

Pat McElroy has several herbs in her newly created garden landscape and 16 raised beds brimming with vegetables. Yates designed and installed the garden in April, and McElroy is enamored: “To see life happening in that way is a wonderful thing.”

Like Crosby, she sees beauty in her lettuces. “Cauliflower plants lined up like little soldiers,” she says. “I think that’s beautiful”—especially in contrast to the wildness of the pumpkin and watermelon vines growing feet away. It takes work and learning new tricks, says McElroy, but knowing where her food comes from is worth it.

Crosby hopes more Athenians will consider adding a few edible plants into their landscape plans for spring, especially foods they would normally eat. “It’s a more practical use of the land that you have,” she says.

Her No. 1 tip: Take the time to build up the soil. Georgia has lost much of its nutrient-rich topsoil, and red clay isn’t friendly to many plants. “It’s the hardest thing to do retroactively,” Crosby says.

So, for those of us who want our food produced close to home, it may be time to swap out a few begonias for berries this spring.