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Edible landscaping is the merging of landscape design with edible gardening. Yes, you can have a beautiful yard and eat it too!
Let’s face it, using edible plants in a garden design and actually having it turn out pretty is a challenge. Sprawling squash vines, chaotic tomatoes, and scraggly peppers with naked stems are why so many vegetable gardens are relegated to the furthest corner of the yard – usually hidden away in a few backyard beds.
Edible plants can be attractive
The good news is that this common conundrum is not a confirmation that edible plants are unsightly.
In fact, an edible garden can rival the very best Chelsea Garden Show winners. Indeed, some edible gardens have won at Chelsea!
We’re about to show you how to achieve this in your own yard with some easy hacks and tips.
We find that visual examples of design elements are the easiest way to get ideas, so we’ve gathered a diverse collection of potential garden features/resources you can utilize. Whether you’re thrifty, crafty, or looking for quick convenience, you’ll find options to suit your time and financial budget, including DIY, free/upcycled, and commercial choices.
Yes, we’ll make a small commission if you buy something we recommend from an Amazon affiliate link, but our policy in promoting any product is that we only recommend high quality items that are as eco-friendly as possible – many of which we’ve used ourselves.
Edible Landscaping: Planning Checklist
Creating the basic edible landscape design
You don’t have to be an artist or adept at drafting a landscaping blueprint to design your garden. Some people draw detailed to-scale designs and others just write loose notes on the back of a scrap piece of paper and then eyeball everything once they get into the yard.
Another great way to come up with an edible landscape design: take a standard landscape design and substitute edible plants in for the plants in the design. (This is how Tyrant Farms was originally designed.)
When you’re ready to start sketching, any writing utensil + sheet of paper (or the non-printed side of last night’s pizza box) will do for this exercise. However, if you’re the kind of person who has to restrain themselves from rolling around like a cat in catnip when faced with the potential for new office supplies at the beginning of a written project, here’s some useful garden design tools that are more than just guilty pleasures:
- a “decomposition” notebook for jotting ideas and sketches – a play on the “composition” notebook
- a template stencil tool perfect for designing edible landscapes
- recycled color pencils
Five practical considerations for an edible landscape design
Beyond the artistic side of things, there is a practical side to edible landscape design. Below are five essential elements you’ll need to consider when planning your edible landscape:
Know the spots of your yard that get the most and least sunlight (our article on microclimates will help). Use a compass or type your address into suncalc.net (you’ll need to account for shade-casting objects like trees and buildings).
Most vegetables and fruits need a minimum of 6 hours of sunlight per day in the summer to produce well. However, there are tons of edible plants that grow perfectly well in shade as well.
2. Water Source(s)
Where is the water source for your garden? This can be an irrigation system, spigot, hose, pond, rainwater catchment, or other moisture supply during dry spells.
Sure, you can lug a bucket to the far corners of the yard but it’s better to plan ahead so that doesn’t have to happen — and so that your edible landscape stays well-watered.
3. Existing Soil Conditions
Where are the most problematic soils in your garden? Too wet, dry, sandy, rocky, compacted, polluted, etc?
Each spot should be taken into consideration. Plan to alleviate these issues or put the garden elsewhere.
4. Accessibility Without Stepping
Don’t step in it! Part of having great soil and great garden design is to NEVER need to step in a bed for weeding, watering, harvesting, planting, or any other reason. This causes soil compaction, which harms your plants.
All beds should be designed as single-reach beds (around 2’ wide and used against walls, fences, or other obstacles) or a double-reach bed (around 4’ wide, or as long as your arm can reach to the center from all sides).
Large planted borders wider than 4’ should have hidden paths or stepping stones that utilize double or single-reach measurements so that you can access every inch of the landscape for maintenance without compacting the soil—you want to make sure you can recognize and easily use your designated stepping areas so that you aren’t tempted to “just this once” walk in your bed.
5. Plant Type
What types of plants do you want to grow? Most edible plants prefer either a “meadow”environment (includes most annual vegetables grown from seeds) or a “forest” (often woody shrubs and understory perennials).
Note that many forest plants are opportunists that produce their best when a tree falls and the resulting canopy gap gives them full sun for a few years. You can design your beds to mimic these preferences for healthier plants and heavier production. For instance, you might site your “meadow” beds in full sun with lightweight mulches of straw and leaves and your “forest” beds in full to part sun using heavier wood chip mulches.
Once you’ve covered these five things, everything else is icing… really tasty, beautiful icing! Keep reading to learn how to upgrade the garden equivalent of a drab, from-the-box cake to a professional-looking, multi-tiered artisan masterpiece!
Analyzing Your Property, Personal Tastes and Gardening Goals
To design your “cake” of a garden, you’ll need to examine your EXISTING landscaping situation.
Don’t forget to include any problem factors in addition to your excited daydreams; this means your design notes should include the things you don’t want in your edible garden. Maybe it’s an ongoing frustration like runaway weeds or an eyesore like a fast food restaurant looming behind your chain link fence.
You should also include anything on your wish list, even if you’re not quite sure if it fits in (hello strawberries and raspberries!).
We’ll start with surveying your property in its current state (not what you plan for it to be). What do you already have? We’ve provided you with this handy checklist to print and use as a reference (printable link here):
Next, think about what matters to you (aka, your defined goals).
Your goals for your edible landscape will affect how you change your property from its current state. There’s no wrong answers because your edible landscaping plan can encompass any of your preferences and needs.
Again, we recommend using our prepared checklist to organize your thoughts (printable version here):
Above image: The back gardens at Tyrant Farms in April. Two years before this photo was taken, this area was a steep slope covered in poison ivy and kudzu. Water and red mud would run off into the creek below during heavy rains. With dry stacked rock walls and wood steps, water and nutrients now stay on the property, helping to provide an attractive edible landscape for people and a cleaner creek for wildlife below.
Problems are a solution
In permaculture, one design principle is “the problem is the solution.” Look at your list (on paper or in your head) and think about the things you consider problems.
If you keep those problems in mind and ponder what they might be a solution for, it’s very possible that you’ll have a “Eureka!” moment.
Maybe you’ll decide to grow espaliered apples along that chain link fence to hide your ugly view or you’ll realize that moving your vegetable garden from the far back of the property to the strip along the side of your driveway (that you see daily when you walk to the mailbox) means you’ll snag weeds while they’re still tiny instead of forgetting until they take over the world.
Suddenly, your “eyesore” is hidden by practical edible beauty, or plucking your few weeds becomes a way to unwind as you wander the garden after work. “Problems” force us to think outside the box and often result in some of the most notable design elements in our gardens. The problem can be the solution!
Adding a “Unifying Theme” to Your Edible Landscape
The second thing to consider is a unifying theme for your edible landscape. This may feel somewhat artificial if you aren’t artistic by nature, but trust us that coming up with some sort of theme will likely please you more than you ever knew possible.
Your unifying theme doesn’t have to be something obvious, nor does it need to be abstract and “deep,” though that is certainly an option.
Here are three simple suggestions for having a unifying visual element in your garden design:
1. Consistent Hardscaping
Use at least one consistent hardscaping material throughout the entirety of your landscape. This is the most efficient and effective way to connect the elements of your garden.
You likely already needed paths, edging, and plant trellises, and it’s convenient to use the same material for one or all of these. As an example, rocks that already exist on your property would both unify the design and likely turn a problem—rocky soil—into a solution.
No rocks? What garden trellises or fences are you naturally drawn to? Wrought iron? Bamboo? Painted lumber?
Using whatever material you choose consistently throughout your landscape design will give you an intentional, planned appearance.
2. Repeated, Long-Lasting Plant Variety
Choose one plant variety to repeat frequently throughout your edible landscape. Preferably choose something that stands out all season long vs. a plant that is inconspicuous or has a brief season.
For example, you might choose to use disease-resistant roses for their beauty, edible flowers, and edible rose hips. (Eliza’s favorite landscaping rose is ‘The Generous Gardener’ since it also has huge, tasty hips).
*Beware that rose SEEDS on Amazon or Ebay are nearly always a scam since roses are not easy to germinate and don’t come true from seed—the best option is buying from reputable nurseries or finding bareroot or potted plants at local or online specialist “own-root” rose nurseries.
Another good, inexpensive option is to stagger plantings of a single variety/color of a long-blooming annual flower. Some of the easiest in most climates include: zinnias, cosmos, cleome, marigolds, or rudbeckia. You can choose any plant species or variety you want for this purpose, whether it is an annual, perennial, edible, or ornamental.
Make sure the plant you choose will grow in your USDA hardiness zone (you can type your zip code into this site to find out what your zone is).
4. Color Selection
Choose a color or palette of colors to focus on throughout your garden. (Snag some paint swatches from the local big box store, if you feel inclined, or look into the garden color wheel.)
This can be meticulously premeditated or it can develop organically over time.
If you’d like to read in more detail about unifying garden themes before you decide, the Royal Horticultural Society does a good job explaining traditional ones like “Wildlife Gardens,” “Cottage Gardens,” or “Formal Gardens.”
The Fragrant Garden.com has a similar list with a lot more categories. Alternately, perhaps you’d rather head further down the untrodden path and would enjoy brainstorming from this Garden Design Magazine article.
Remember that no matter what theme you choose, you’ll be tweaking it to apply to an edible landscape so it’s going to turn out unique no matter what.
Once you finish answering the above questions, brainstorming your needs, preferences, and goals, and choosing a theme to help unify your landscape design, it’s time to get started on your edible landscape!
Other edible landscaping articles from GrowJourney:
- How to create a beautiful edible patio garden (or pot arrangement) by Eliza Lord
- How to have your butterfly garden and eat it too by Dr. April Gordon