Fun-Size Farming: how to unlock your landscape's potential

 Being sneaky about growing food in a traditional neighborhood setting

People exist who tear out their entire lawns and start growing food in it. Some to great effect, like the folks over at Tenth Acre Farm. Or any of the hippies who live in midcentury neighborhoods where they call the houses "bungalows." (I ain't hatin. I love me some bungalows.)

But for the rest of us, who live in typical suburban neighborhoods, with HOAs or just a sense of not wanting to stick out like a sore thumb, you can still grow a substantial amount of fruit- and vegetable-bearing plants without doing anything drastic. This method is called an Edible Landscape.

What is an edible landscape?

If you're a deer or a squirrel or a certain kind of dog, the whole world is an edible landscape. (I'M LOOKING AT YOU CODY. I HAVEN'T FORGOTTEN THE COUCH EATING INCIDENT OF '07.) But for normal folks, an edible landscape is simply incorporating multitasking plants into your existing landscape plan, either by adding new plants or replacing ornamentals.

Some ornamentals (like daylilies and tulips and American holly bushes) aren't actually useless, because wildlife can eat the berries or they provide a natural weed and grass barrier; or they provide habitat for birds, beneficial insects and pollinators; or they break up hard packed soil.

Other ornamental plants, like the beautiful but invasive Mimosa tree, aren't well suited to our region, and therefore don't have many insects or birds that can benefit from their presence—or keep them in check naturally.

So if you're picking certain plants because they're pretty, by all means do it. But if you choose a native species (most tags will tell you if a plant is native or not, especially at nurseries as opposed to the hardware store), you can be confident it'll be beneficial to the bugs and birds and bees that make our gardens grow.

Where to begin?

Rip out all your landscaping and start over!!!!!!

Just kidding.

I always recommend starting small, racking up some experience and moderate victories, before doing anything rash.

For instance: have some free space in an existing flower bed? Plant some carrot seeds! Or radishes! You only need about a square inch of open space for a carrot, so you could potentially get 100+ carrots from just a square foot of garden bed. (You probably won't, but you could potentially.) Just clear a little patch of your mulch (because you ARE mulching, aren't you?), scatter some seeds, cover over with a light layer of soil, water it, and see what happens.

Or you could buy some little cabbage seedlings from the farmer's market and plant them in between your daylilies. Or get a bag of little onion bulbs and plant them among your annuals. Have some small ornamental trees? Plant peas or beans around the base, and the tree will act as a natural trellis! Bonus: legumes fix nitrogen in the soil, so they actually benefit anything their planted alongside.

And as I mentioned before, you can tuck herbs almost anywhere that gets sun.

Getting Gutsy

Wanna take it to the next level? Say you want to improve your landscape, or add a floating garden bed (not like floating on water, but floating away from the edges of your house, like our front garden bed.)

Here's where you can get really creative.

Blueberry bushes are beautiful and can perform the same visual function as virtually any other shrub—with the added bonus of delicious, human-edible fruit.

Want some small trees? Instead of planting a Bradford pear tree (which are popular around here, because they're fast-growing and stay reasonably sized), plant an actual pear tree!

Bradford pear blossoms are virtually indistinguishable from...

Bradford pear blossoms are virtually indistinguishable from...

...actual pear blossoms.

...actual pear blossoms.

Or a couple of dwarf apple trees! Or any number of varieties of sweet or sour cherry trees! All are deciduous (meaning they're naked in the winter), but the Bradford pear doesn't give you much but a stinky smelling flower in spring and a mess of leaves in fall.

Need some ground cover to add color and limit weeds? I love me some phlox, but why not consider strawberries? In many climates strawberries are even semi-evergreen, they come back year after year, they grow and spread quickly, and they're yummy.

Beans and peas can create a pretty vine effect along a fence line.

If you have an apartment with a sunny patio or balcony, you can grow just about anything in a pot, from those legumes I mentioned to tomatoes, peppers, and even carrots!

Quick-Start Guide

If you want to start righthisveryminute but don't have a lot of time or energy or money to invest, here are my suggestions:

  • Zucchini, squash, cucumbers and pumpkins make pretty ground cover vines. All you have to do is get a pack of seeds and plant them now in any free garden bed space you have.
  • Buy some herb starts and plant them in empty spaces between your annuals.
  • Peas and beans grow quickly and they're good for the soil; plant a few seeds anywhere you already have something that could act as a trellis (like small trees or fence posts or even porch railings).
  • Pots are your gateway garden plots. Tomatoes and peppers are easy to grow in pots, and you'll see the literal fruits of little labor before too long.
  • Next time you want to add a new element to your landscape, do a little googling (or email me!) for suggestions about which plants can multitask.

As always, my main piece of advice is just do it!