Grow an Edible Landscape

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The term “edible landscape” is or will become quite familiar to many North Carolinians in future years due to the popularity in local foods, sustainability, and cooking. An edible landscape challenges the home gardener to incorporate fruit- and vegetable-producing plants into the overall design. It is not necessary to substitute these plants for all ornamentals in the landscape. The idea is to progress from the typical backyard garden and develop a plan that uses edible plants to solve functional landscape problems.

For example, try planting fruit trees. No matter how small the space, there is some species and variety of fruit that can be planted. Dwarf varieties generally reach a height of 6 to 10 feet and should bear fruit within three to four years. Semi-dwarf varieties grow to approximately 15 to 20 feet. Consider apples, figs, peaches, persimmon, and Asian pears.

Instead of planting junipers, liriope, or cotoneaster to cover the ground, think about planting strawberries, cucumbers, or melons as a ground cover. With strawberries, an area with well-drained soil that receives at least 6 to 7 hours of direct sunlight will produce lush green foliage, spring blossoms, and early summer fruit. Be certain to choose a variety adapted to your area, like Chandler or Camarosa, and plant disease- and insect-free plants. Set individual plants 12 to 18 inches apart in the spring, allowing runners to develop and mass over the entire bed. Clean cultivation is essential. Strawberries are perennials, but their beds need to be renovated every three to four years.

Edible landscape image

Edible Landscape of Will Hooker, retired Professor of Landscape Design at NC State University

Blueberry bushes are a good substitute for a holly hedge. The Rabbiteye type is more widely adapted to different soils than are high-bush varieties. Rabbiteye blueberries will not tolerate the cold climate of the mountains but grow well all across the piedmont. Blueberries are an ideal year-round addition to the landscape. They have delicate white or pink flowers in the spring, the summer fruit has an attractive blue color, and the fall foliage adds great red and yellow colors to the landscape. In addition, blueberry plants lend themselves to the “organic” approach of gardening, because pesticides are rarely needed in home garden plantings. Blueberries require a lower pH than many other small fruit crops. Before planting, take a soil test. Acid soils (with a pH of 4.5 to 5.5) usually promote best growth. Modify soils by adding plenty of organic matter and by mulching with 4 to 6 inches of decayed sawdust or pine bark. Two or more varieties should be planted to ensure proper pollination. Plant the bushes in full sun about 4-1/2 to 5 feet apart.

For a very dry, full sun bed try plantings of thyme, basil, oregano, rosemary, comfrey, lemon balm, chives, mint and other herbs for flavoring and medicinal purposes. Many herbs are extremely tolerant of drought and shallow soils while requiring little to no pesticides.

Use vertical gardening of fence, posts, and walls to train blackberries, grapes, Malibu spinach (which is not a true spinach but an awesome summer spinach-like annual vine), melons, and cucumbers.

Finally, do not forget our native and naturalized foods for natural areas like persimmon, pawpaw, scuppernong, ramps, elderberry, walnut, and many others.

Extension offices in every county offer publications on vegetable gardening and on the culture and care of fruit trees, blueberries, strawberries, figs, and so much more. So challenge yourself to grow more!