Edible Landscaping: Growing Your Own Food

Think your green thumb extends only to flowers? Expand your botanical and gastronomical horizons by integrating edible plants into your landscape design.
By: Alyson McNutt English


Growing fruit- and vegetable-bearing plants in your backyard is a great way to eat healthier, save money and reduce your impact on the environment — and it's not as difficult as you might think. It can be easy and beneficial to integrate edibles into your overall landscape design. You don't have to be a farmer to appreciate food from your own yard — in fact, you don't even have to have a traditional vegetable garden.

"It's not unusual to find edibles and ornamental (plants) coexisting, even if the owner isn't particularly interested in the possibility of a harvest," says Kris Bordessa, a former L.A.-based landscape architect who now lives on the big island of Hawaii and writes about landscapes and gardening at her Attainable Sustainable website.

Rosemary is a good example of this, she says. "It's available in quite a few cultivars, several of which are excellent groundcovers in dry conditions." But this undercover herb isn't the only edible plant that could — and maybe even should — already be a part of your garden. Make your plantings (and your kitchen creations) fresher and healthier by growing a gastronomically genius garden.

Plants That Look Good Enough to Eat

It's a misconception that fruits and vegetables are more about function (and harvest) than form. Many edible plants are botanical beauties in their own right. "Rhubarb, with its big, bold leaves, is a great landscape plant even if nobody ever harvests the stems," Kris says. "And strawberries make a good groundcover plant that will stay green throughout the growing season."

And some of the prettiest edibles come not from groundcover or small plants, but from trees. Many of the most beloved blossoming branches — like those on cherry, pear and plum trees — are modified versions of former fruit-bearing varieties. "The 'mess' of having fruit drop made the fruitless versions attractive (for a while), but I think the tide is changing," Kris says. "The idea of harvesting a crop and enjoying the flowers — as Mother Nature intended — has once again become desirable."

Designing an Edible Landscape

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Get inspiration from the edible landscapes at gardening expert P. Allen Smith's Arkansas retreat.

Plant Herbs and Onions With Roses

Herbs, onions and roses fill the cottage-style entrance of the One Acre Garden at P. Allen Smith's Garden Home Retreat. Many herbs (including rosemary, thyme, basil and lavender) and members of the onion family (chives, onions, garlic) are celebrated companions for roses because they repel common rose pests.

Photo By: Mark Fonville/P. Allen Smith ©P. Allen Smith Companies

Cover an Arbor With Edible Vines

Think beyond the basic flowering vines for an eye-catching and edible arbor or trellis. Here, a simple metal arbor serves as a trellis for sprawling tomato and bean vines in a lush landscape.

Photo By: Mark Fonville/P. Allen Smith

Mix Non-Edible Annuals Into an Edible Garden

Incorporating non-edibles into an edible garden elevates the design and moves it beyond just function. Lush coleus planted in a formal urn provides a striking, colorful focal point along a vegetable garden path.

Photo By: Mark Fonville/P. Allen Smith

Choose Plants for Color and Form

Just as in any landscape design, plant selection comes down to color and form, as well as suitability to the site conditions. This colorful garden border includes red salvia, marigolds and edible Swiss chard. The chard provides big, bold texture and lots of bright green color.

Photo By: Hortus, Ltd./P. Allen Smith

Use Plants in Masse

A path border garden is planted with large sweeps of colorful coleus and Swiss chard. Cold-tolerant chard is a great choice for fall and spring garden designs, and it can last through winter in areas where the season is mild. A biennial, chard will bloom in the second year after planting.

Photo By: Mark Fonville/P. Allen Smith

Plant Nasturtium Along a Path

An edible annual, nasturtium rambles alongside this garden path and provides pops of bright color.

Photo By: Jane Colclasure/P. Allen Smith

Combine Edible Flowers With Vegetables

Here, orange nasturtium blooms against green lettuce and purple amaranth foliage in an edible border garden.

Photo By: Jane Colclasure/P. Allen Smith

Nasturtium in a Summer Salad

Picked fresh from the landscape or garden, nasturtium blooms and leaves can be used in summer salads. Nasturtium leaves also make a tasty substitute for basil in pesto.

Photo By: Jane Colclasure/P. Allen Smith

Let Greens Bloom

When the weather heats up and edible greens, such as mustard or arugula, go to seed, leave them in the landscape to bear beautiful, delicate flowers. Here, mustard blooms in the backdrop of an herb and flower bed.

Photo By: Jane Colclasure/P. Allen Smith

Use Strawberry as a Groundcover

Spreading strawberry plants can be used as a perennial groundcover in the landscape, and the fresh strawberries are a welcome harvest for a home gardener. Clip some runners to keep the plants healthy and producing berries.

Photo By: Jane Colclasure/P. Allen Smith

Consider Fruit Trees

A blooming crabapple tree bursts with fresh spring color on P. Allen Smith's Arkansas farm, and signals expectation of the tart summer fruits. Other fruit trees that are beautiful landscape specimens include plum, peach, fig and apple, and citrus in the warmest climates.

Photo By: Hortus, Ltd./P. Allen Smith

Grow Fruit Trees in Espalier Form

A peach tree is being trained in an espalier form at the Garden Home Retreat. Espalier is an ancient technique for training trees, often fruit trees, into interesting and architectural shapes.

Photo By: Hortus, Ltd./P. Allen Smith

Flowers and Food, so Healthy Together

Farmers and backyard gardeners who use organic methods of pest control have long known what many other people are now finding out: Interspersing plants and vegetables can be a mutually beneficial arrangement. "Some flowers, like marigolds and nasturtiums, help repel certain insects that can cause damage to crops," Bordessa says. "And herbs like coriander, parsley and dill will attract beneficial insects like ladybugs who keep aphid infestations at a minimum."

Small-Space Edible Landscapes

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Incorporate edibles into your small landscape using container and raised-bed gardening techniques. Find ideas at P. Allen Smith's gardens.

Plan for Raised Beds in a Landscape Design

Garden designer P. Allen Smith incorporated formal raised vegetable beds into the landscape at his Garden Home in Little Rock, Arkansas. The large square space includes four square beds sited diagonally in the center and four triangular beds at the corners, with gravel paths between.

Photo By: Hortus, Ltd./P. Allen Smith

Formal Raised Bed Design

Cool-season vegetables and flowers are planted in the raised bed garden for fall and spring. Warm-season plants such as tomatoes, cucumbers and eggplants grow in the beds during summer.

Photo By: Kelly Quinn/P. Allen Smith

Consider Colors of Flowers and Fruit

Often, the showiest part of edible plants is the colorful fruit, so be sure to think about fruit color when designing beds and containers. Here, a dwarf yellow cherry tomato plant is a delightful companion for red geranium in a container garden.

Photo By: Jane Colclasure/P. Allen Smith

Rely on Repetition

Repetition, often in groups of three (or other odd numbers), is a common strategy of landscape design, and it also works for containers, as this grouping of Mediterranean herbs (thyme, sage, oregano and rosemary)shows. These herbs grow well in terra-cotta clay containers because the material dries out quickly and provides great drainage.

Photo By: Hortus, Ltd./P. Allen Smith

Plant Pansies With Cool-Season Veggies

The cool-season edible garden can look bland because so many of these veggies are leafy greens, but pansies provide the perfect perk-up touch of cold-tolerant color.

Photo By: Kelly Quinn/P. Allen Smith

Bury Bulbs in Vegetable Beds

Think ahead to spring when preparing beds before winter. In these raised beds, purple and white tulips (planted in fall) now bloom alongside spring-growing lettuce and broccoli.

Photo By: Hortus, Ltd./P. Allen Smith

Tall Tulips Shade Lettuce

Here, the tall tulips provide a little much-loved shade for low-growing lettuce.

Photo By: Hortus, Ltd./P. Allen Smith

Plant Pots in Raised Beds

Containers are used as design elements in P. Allen Smith's raised beds to add height and color. Here, lavender and white pansies play off the rich color of purple cabbages and green lettuce in the cool-season vegetable garden.

Photo By: Kelly Quinn/P. Allen Smith

Consider Container Color

Painted metal buckets planted with herbs line the steps of a garden shed at the Garden Home Retreat, providing cottage-style color.

Photo By: Hortus, Ltd./P. Allen Smith

Design Raised Beds in Blocks of Color and Texture

This raised garden bed is striped with plants in varying colors and textures, including (from front) broccoli, Swiss chard, green onions, kale, purple cabbage and red lettuce.

Photo By: Jane Colclasure/P. Allen Smith

Plant a Square Foot Vegetable Garden

A vegetable plant occupies each square foot of this raised bed, following a small-space vegetable growing technique known as square foot gardening. Dividing a bed into squares makes color-blocking easier.

Photo By: Hortus, Ltd./P. Allen Smith

Digging In Can Be Delicious

If all this talk about adding food to your flora has whet your gardening appetite, remember the first step to starting these plants is understanding them. "Some of these plants may start out cute and tiny, but they can get quite large," Kris says. "And while most vegetables like full sun, some do appreciate afternoon shade, especially in really hot locations." Talk to local nurseries and other gardeners to find out which edibles will thrive in your climate.

And remember, you don't have to go full-fledged food to add edible plants to your garden. "Lavender is well-loved for its scent, but the flowers can also be used in baking," Kris says. "Nasturtium and pansy flowers can be added to salads. And we can even give a nod to something not usually welcome in either vegetable or flower garden: Dandelion leaves are considered an early 'spring green' by some people!"

So no matter whether you're looking to dig in and veg out or you just want to add a few potential kitchen partners without disrupting your overall landscape, rest assured you can create a delicious design with plants that are, quite literally, good enough to eat.

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