Your backyard can become so much more than just a patch of grass and a few tomato plants! This year, make the most out of your yard by planning an edible landscape.
Every March, I am consumed with spring fever. I can barely wait to get outdoors and turn my dull and dreary yard into a fairy tale garden, lush with edible plants galore.
A couple of years ago, I decided to start the long but productive process of turning my small yard into a food-producing, perennial palace. I researched perennial, food-bearing plants to make the most out of my small patch of land.
Now, annual plants are great. I love them for their bright patches of color. By choosing perennials, though, I can build my edible yard little by little each year instead of starting from scratch every time. It also means I can do some planting in late summer and fall, too.
My annual vegetable garden is normally filled with tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, and melons. In addition to that, I wanted to create more fresh produce for my large family of seven with much less work. If you’re interested in medicinal herbs, this tutorial could help you decide how to incorporate them into this process.
My solution was to begin an edible landscape — a lofty plan, to be sure!
What is an edible landscape?
When I use the term “edible landscape,” I simply mean filling my yard with food-producing plants instead of only flowers and ground covers. This is in addition to my Square-Foot-Garden-style boxes.
I simply combine produce from my vegetable garden with plants that provide beautiful spring foliage and then sweet, delicious goodies to be enjoyed later in the summer. It’s the best of both worlds and a good quite reasonable alternative to the idea of living off a survival garden.
Berry bushes, herbs, fruits like strawberries, and your favorite vegetables will all combine to create something beautiful and yummy. You’ll likely end up with more than enough at harvest time to do a bit of canning and food dehydrating.
And, if you do your planning wisely, you can end up harvesting one food or another over a period of several months!
How long will it take to make my yard edible?
Developing an edible landscape is a long slow process that is built upon each year.
Do not try to plant everything at once or get frustrated that all your efforts still have years to yield results. Keep in mind that many perennial plants may take two to three years to develop a strong root system and become established enough to grow and flourish. Berry bushes and asparagus are two such examples.
Fruit and nut trees could take even longer as they need several summers to reach their full potential.
However, the longer you wait, the longer it is before harvesting can begin.
Start now and add a little each year. In a few short years, your edible yard will be a rewarding and tasty accomplishment. In this way, you are able to prep in a more stealthy fashion.
A word about accessibility
As I’ve grown older, I’ve looked for ways to continue enjoying my gardening efforts and avoid some of the physical strain it can cause to my poor, aching back and knees!
Fortunately, almost all of the plants I’ve added to my yard are easy to reach, manage, and harvest.
I use quite a few pots and raised beds. These allow me to avoid a lot of kneeling and crouching. Also, I can vary the size of pots, which makes it easier for me to move them around to sunnier spots and when we have cold, autumn evenings, it’s easier to bring them inside.
I also have a couple of rolling plant dollies for heavier pots, and selecting smaller varieties of fruit trees helps ensure that I’ll be able to reach the ripened fruit. For my smaller pots, I’ve purchased a few decorative plant holders that allow me to place pots at waist level and higher, again, allowing me to take care of my plants easily.
Planning an edible landscape — Getting started
Before beginning your edible landscape, sketch out a plan on paper. This will become your landscape design. In your plan, be sure to consider the following:
- Spacing – Different types of plants require different amounts of space to grow properly. It helps to have a solid plan, down on paper, so you know how many plants fit into any given area. Plants need proper airflow to produce, and understanding the space requirements keeps you from overcrowding new plants. It’s better to provide plants with the space they need right from the start than to go through the painful process of pulling up struggling, young plants that have outgrown their areas.
- Use containers to add visual texture to your yard. Not only can a variety of colorful pots add interest, but they’re also very helpful in keeping certain plants like mint from overtaking entire areas.
- Lighting – Be sure you’re planting perennials in areas that get the proper amount of sunlight for each particular plant. Make a sun and shade map to find the most and least productive areas of your yard. If you want to use containers, move them around within the space of your yard until you find the ideal location with the right amount of sunlight. Be aware that deciduous trees will be filling out with an abundance of green leaves as the growing season progresses, limiting the amount of sunlight.
- Pollination – Know what plants are self-pollinating and which ones need a partner to produce fruit.
- Grouping – Consider what the plants are going to look like when they are fully grown. Can the groups survive together without choking each other? Will either of the plants become taller than the rest resulting in the low-lying plants not getting enough sunlight in future years?
- Zones – Be sure to select plants that can survive in your gardening zone. Not all perennials can survive the harsh winters of the north or the intense summer heat of the south. Your county extension office will have helpful information specific to your growing zone as well as any microzones within your property.
- Design – Get to know your plants. Research what they will look like throughout each season before deciding where to place them in your yard. Fruits and veggies do not have to be contained in one garden area. Make the most out of your entire yard!
- Label your plants – Maybe it’s just me, but all those little green seedlings look an awful lot alike! As you begin your plantings, label the plants so you’ll be able to assess their progress, watering and sunlight needs, and more as they grow.
- Be creative – One of my favorite ways to turn boring food gardens into works of beauty is by making a concrete block border. Turn the blocks on their sides so the holes are facing up, fill with potting soil and plant bright and colorful flowers. I like to try and plant flowers, such as marigolds, impatiens, and verbena, that deter deer and other wildlife from stealing my goodies.
- Keep track — Make sketches of your plantings and notations of what does well, what doesn’t, and why. Be willing to move things around in the late fall when the plants have stopped producing.
Spend time in your garden, even when the summer really heats up!
I make a point to get outside early in the morning almost every day to check on my plants. The success of your edible landscape is proportionate to the amount of attention you give it.
If you think you might want something that echoes homesteading, you can learn more about backyard farming in this article.
Which perennial edibles should you plant?
The following is a list of some perennial edibles to help you build your edible yard year after year, without starting over. They’ll provide food for your family in times of crisis and give you plenty of fresh produce for eating and preserving.
Often treated as an annual in the north, artichokes will overwinter with mulch protection and return in the spring. They are terrific for eating fresh. The plants have large lobed leaves that add interest to sunny borders, and the unharvested artichokes produce spikey vibrant purple blooms.
With its pointy spears poking through, the unique shape of thriving asparagus can certainly add an interest-peaking aspect to your yard. If left to mature, the spears become 3 to 4 feet tall with delicate stems and leaves. This perennial can take up to 2 or 3 years for asparagus plants to produce a sizable harvest, so the best time to plant asparagus was 3 years ago. The next best time is right now!
Blackberries & Raspberries – Typically produce delicate star-like white flowers in the spring and produce tasty fruit throughout the summer. The beautiful color variations of the red to blackberries provide a pop of color to any landscape.
Blueberries – The Patriot blueberry produces snow white bell-like blossoms in the spring, sweet fruit over the summer, and ends its season with vibrant red leaves before going dormant in the winter. Usually thought of as a northern hemisphere plant, every climate has some form of blueberry that will grow.
All berry bushes love sunlight and can do very well in large pots.
Lemons, tangerines, oranges, and limes provide sunny green tree leaves coupled with brightly colored fruit. Try planting dwarf varieties that allow more sunlight for other plants to grow. All of these can be grown in containers and will overwinter inside a greenhouse (or IN your house) when the weather turns cold.
Cranberries are an evergreen perennial that are a little challenging to grow but make a beautiful and tart ground cover.
Every climate can grow a type of fruit tree. Depending on the amount of heat you receive each growing season you could consider planting an orchard of apples, cherries, pears, peaches, plums, bananas, figs, persimmons, and papayas. All these provide beautiful, richly colored leaves and an array of hued contrast for a beautiful landscape.
Be sure that you plant only as much as you can eat or preserve. Otherwise, the fallen fruit becomes a nuisance in your landscape. Also, plant in areas where fallen fruit cannot damage other landscaping efforts or vehicle windshields.
This is one edible landscape plant that can be planted in the early fall through early winter. Eye-catching rows of green garlic stalks add height to a planting area. Then when harvest time arrives, you’ll end up with a batch of garden-fresh garlic you can enjoy for many months.
Add a wall of greenery in a sunny location when you plant a grape arbor. Class up your landscape with the vineyard appeal. Consider training the vines to grow over trellises creating a rainfall of colorful and delicious clusters at harvest time.
I think a backyard filled with nothing but herbs is a grand idea, and there are so many varieties, you would never get bored! Lavender, basil, oregano, thyme, rosemary, parsley—they add texture, a variety of colors, and are very forgiving! I have an 8-year-old oregano plant that continues to thrive despite my negligence!
I still remember the delighted grins of my kids when they recognized different, colorful varieties of lettuce on a trip to Disney World. I never thought of using lettuce as both an edible and an ornamental, but there are so many colorful varieties with different textures, that they are a great choice. Lettuce tends to do best in shady areas, and I’ve included it in my list of perennials because it can fill the gap between seasons and give you an additional harvest in colder months.
The large bluish leaves of sea kale make this perennial a beautiful consideration as a border for flower gardens. It’s another perennial green that works well for salads.
Identified by its fun, pointy leaves, this green grows well in sun or partial shade making it a good landscape filler that is great for a salad later!
Remember that it’s the root of this perennial that you want. Consider creating a separate planting area for perennials so you can dig during harvest without damaging other plants. The soil needs to be loose and prepared for harvest.
Every climate can grow some form of nut tree. In the South, you can grow pecans, black walnut, chestnuts, and hickory. In the North, you can grow almonds, English walnuts, chestnuts, and hazelnuts. Again, your county extension office can help you identify the specific varieties that grow best in your area.
Mature trees often have unique and interesting-looking trunks, small green leaves, and tiny fruit. Be sure to consider the size of an older tree and the shaded reach of its spanning branches as it matures. Olive trees are beautiful!
A uniquely curious-looking berry that resembles strawberries but is white and has a pineapple-like taste. Sure to be a good conversation piece in any edible landscape.
Big and beautiful, this edible perennial needs room to grow. Bright red stalks and large green leaves. Remember to only eat the stalks of this plant as the leaves are poisonous.
Green leaves, petite white flowering blossoms, and large, sweet berries. A must-have for an edible landscape! They can also attract deer, rabbits, and other 4-footed pests.
Wild Leeks (shade)
With long, tapering leaves, this edible perennial works well as a border around trees and often thrives off the organic nutrients from fallen autumn leaves. A refreshing spring flavor used in many dishes.
Wild and Foraged Plants
And before you eradicate any weeds, check to make sure they’re not edible weeds!
The effort that goes into planning an edible landscape and then bringing that plan to life is worth every drop of sweat. I feel good knowing that everything I’ve planted will benefit my family this season and for many seasons to come.
Have you considered transforming your backyard or front yard into a food-producing edible garden?
This article was originally published on March 22, 2019, and has been updated and revised.