Using Edibles in Your Landscape

This is the time of year (in the northern hemisphere at least) to plan for fruiting trees, vines, brambles and shrubs and groundcovers. In the US they show up in nurseries and catalogs in January and the earlier you can plant them the more time they have to get a good set of roots down before hot, dry weather hits.

This year maybe you could plant food-bearing plants instead of strictly ornamental plants; a pear, or apple, cherry, plum or persimmon instead of the usual shade tree. For shade on a patio try growing grapes or hardy kiwis on an arbor overhead. As a “good neighbor” fence try raspberries, blueberries, a row of filberts or hazelnuts or honeyberrys.

A fig tree with it’s big showy, deer-resistant leaves.

If you want a showy big-leafed plant for decoration, why not try a fig tree? Desert King is a winner in the Pacific Northwest. Fig trees are deer proof and very low maintenance, too. For a tree with wonderful fall color, you might try a Persimmon. The leaves turn an exquistite orangey red in autumn and the fruit hang on like Christmas ornaments long after the leaves fall.

Persimmon leaves in the fall. Asian pear in the background.

Another beautiful shade tree with large showy leaves is the Mulberry. The Illinois Everbearing Mulberry has large black berries all season – they look like blackberries and are just as tasty! I planted one in the wild Hazelnut grove where my chickens spend the day – so they could enjoy the berries that drop from the tree. It’s said that birds will favor a Mulberry over a cherry and so they are often planted in the hopes of distracting birds from eating every last bit of fruit on your prize cherry tree, but I have no proof whatsoever that this works. I’m just hopin’…

Another nice good-nieghbor fence plant or screen is thornless blackberry grown on two horizontal wires. They are graceful and easy to train because they have no thorns and produce large amounts of tasty blackberries without the aggressive tactics of the wild very thorny Himalayan blackberry so prevelant in the northwest.

If you just want an easy-to-care-for decorative shrub you can’t beat a blueberry! The new leaves have a bit of color to them, then they are covered with white or pink flowers in the spring, followed, of course, by delicious blueberries! In the fall the leaves turn wonderful shades of red and orange. A hedge of these would be beautiful, and you can get varieties that grow from 1 ½ feet tall to 6 feet tall. Tuck them in anywhere there is room and a bit of sun.

There are many evergreen shrubs and groundcovers that bear berries: Oregon natives include Evergreen Huckleberry, Oregon grape and Salal, as well as Yerba Buena, which is a pretty, low growing, minty groundcover native to southern Oregon. Then there are the non-natives Wintergreen and Lingonberry with their tasty red berries. There are even low growing, mostly evergreen blueberry varieties, too.

Evergreen native Coastal Strawberry on mound by pond.

My favorite groundcovers are strawberries of various kinds. The small-leaved evergreen Oregon native Coastal strawberry is tough and hardy and has dark shiny leaves, but doesn’t bear much fruit. The native Woods strawberry is beautiful and although it’s fruit isn’t abundant it’s the best tasting of any strawberry! Yum! I also grow Alpine strawberries – both red and gold – as borders because they don’t spread by runners like the others do. They bear small delicious berries all season long. The large-fruited everbearing Sea Scape strawberry bears big berries from late May to the first frost in October with a brief rest in mid-summer. The raccoons take bites out of the often bland and watery rained-on May berries and then leave them alone after that. Once it gets warmer and dryer the berries sweeten up nicely for the remainder of the season.

Border a flower bed with Alpine strawberries!

Another pretty but uncommon groundcover that can take a lot of shade is Oca, a South American relative of oxalis that bears small red underground tubers that were a primary food for the Incas. It grows only a few inches tall and has attractive clover-like leaves. The tubers can just stay in the ground in southern Oregon until you are ready to eat them. They are a bit like a water chestnut in texture. In colder climates it would be best to harvest them before the ground freezes and save some to plant the next spring.

South America Yacon – tall, big-leafed plant with sweet, edible tubers. Note the kale and swiss chard growing at the base, for a size comparison.

Another South American native that has an entirely different plant size and shape is the Yacon. It grows tall like a sunflower with large hairy leaves. Each plant will grow several underground tubers a bit like sweet potatoes. In fact they are so sweet that a syrup is made from them. The tubers that grow next years plants are smaller round tubers. These are harvested and stored in a cool place until the next planting season, much like dahlias or tuberous begonias. They are a big, showy plant and should be given a nice sunny spot to show them off during the growing season. I put mine in chicken wire baskets in the ground because the burrowing creatures I have here tend to eat them before I have a chance to!

Red-stalked Swiss Chard with Rosemary and strawberries.

Plants like Rhubarb and the colorful large-leaf Swiss Chard make showy accent plants around the garden, and can be mixed in a flower and shrub bed to add a nice bold texture.

Many herbs are great to grow in areas where deer tend to wander and especially near a front door or a main entry area, because so many of the nicer ones are not only evergreen and deer resistant, but they bloom as well. They are also enjoyed by many pollinators. Thymes are great as groundcovers and low borders, and lavenders and rosemary are taller and can be used as low hedges or tall borders or accent plants in sunny spots. Some of the lowest growing Thymes can make good lawn substitutes. There are such a variety of textures and sizes, that an interesting garden could be made of just various types of Thymes! So many flavors and colors! Oregano makes an evergreen mowable drought-tolerant lawn substitute as well, and survives with NO summer water here in southern Oregon. It’s also evergreen here.

Tiny-leafed creeping Thyme spilling over rocks on a Huglekultur mound.

I haven’t begun to cover all the edibles that can be used as landscaping material, but just a few of my favorites. So next time you are trying to figure out what to plant as you landscape your yard – think first of edibles! Many of them are enjoyed by birds, bees and butterflies, as well, so you will not only be doing yourself a favor, but feeding some wildlife too! Hopefully they will leave some for you…

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