Gardener's Journal: Edible landscapes can be delicious
Last year we noticed a significant increasing interest in growing fruit trees, herbs, vegetables and other food crops among our garden center customers. Our summer Friday afternoon farmers' market likewise surged in popularity, often selling out of specialty vegetables.
This appears to be a fundamental change from the "buy it at the store" trend of the last couple decades. It is encouraging that more people are showing greater concern about what they eat, where it comes from and how healthy it is.
Until about the 1960s, maintaining a home garden to grow vegetables, herbs and fruits had always been part of the traditional suburban family lifestyle. But during the 20th century, society/economics began demanding more from each family member, our lives became busier - time was now at a premium and there was little time to "waste" growing food that was readily available at the store. Particularly with our newfound affluence and the increased availability in grocery stores, it was far more convenient for most families to simply buy those items.
Unfortunately, in the last couple of years huge questions about the safety of our fruits and vegetables have arisen: E. coli contamination of spinach in 2006, tainted tomatoes and peppers last summer, salmonella in peanut butter this winter ... what can we trust? Most of us are, rightfully, questioning the wisdom of relying so heavily upon mass-produced foods. And we're reconsidering growing them ourselves, or at least knowing more about where and how they have been produced.
Some families are converting a section of the yard into a vegetable garden or area to grow herbs or an orchard. Information on the basic requirements for location, soil preparation, crop maintenance and harvest is easily available at local garden centers and online.
Most gardening tasks can be divided into relatively simple parts, and the project usually turns out to be a rewarding family experience. Few experiences are more gratifying than planting, nurturing, cooking and enjoying vegetables you grew yourself.
Some areas offer community-supported agriculture opportunities or have groups of like-minded people who share seeds, plants, information and harvests. Locally grown and organic foods are more readily available. Terms like "locavore" and "slow food" are now becoming part of our vocabulary. Restaurants and even some grocery stores have begun to feature products from local growers.
Even if there is little space in your yard to convert into a separate garden, edible plants are easy to integrate into your landscape. Garden design magazines and TV shows are increasingly featuring landscapes that include non-traditional components like edible plants. Why not train pole beans or a kiwi vine to grow on your garden-entry trellis?
Herbs like basil, rosemary, thyme, mint, sage and parsley are commonly used in many landscape plantings, often as groundcovers and fast growing "fillers." Swiss chard, rhubarb, kale, colorful lettuces, asparagus, beets, onions and purple cabbage are suggestions for attractive-looking edible foliage crops that can be readily added to complement garden landscape settings.
Vegetables that produce fruit - like chili peppers, tomatoes, eggplant and Brussels sprouts - also offer interesting possibilities. Cultural requirements may differ somewhat for certain edibles, and naturally you'll want to avoid using toxic pesticides around any plants whose parts will be consumed as food.
Fruit-bearing trees like apple, pear, cherry, peach and plum, or nut trees like walnut and filbert, might be ideal options in your yard, taking the place of more traditional "ornamental-only" types. Some regular landscape plants produce edible fruit as they grow normally: shadbush (Amelanchier), grape, blueberry (Vaccinium), flowering crabapple (Malus), mountain ash (Sorbus), Aronia and elderberry (Sambucus) are among the choices. Good edible-fruiting groundcovers include strawberry, low-bush blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolia), bunchberry (Cornus canadensis), wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens) and mountain cranberry (Vaccinium vitis-idaea).
Our economy is in the throes of a number of fundamental changes this year. Perhaps the adjustments we're being forced to make will help us to consider what's really important in our lives, especially with what we eat. The experience and satisfaction of growing some of our own food is a step in that direction.
R. Wayne Mezitt is the chairman of Weston Nurseries of Hopkinton and a Massachusetts certified horticulturist. He has served as president of the Massachusetts Nursery and Landscape Association, the New England Nursery Association and the American Nursery and Landscape Association, based in Washington, D.C.