I have had quite a few of our Turner Family Farms CSA Members ask me about planting fruits and vegetables in their landscapes. What some of them know but most don’t, is that before I returned to the family farm, I designed and installed landscapes in the Richmond, Virginia area for almost twenty years. Yes, I’m one of those guys that can give you the botanical name to almost any tree, shrub, perennial, or annual you can point at, and, if you get me started, you’ll probably wish you hadn’t. It’s hard to stop. Back then, we also maintained our clients’ properties, which, I think, gives the designer a more focused eye for ergonomics – designing properties that are easier to maintain.
In the years since returning to the farm, I have put a good deal of thought into how vegetable crops, and fruit and nut trees could be used in the landscape, partly out of my own necessity as the old farmhouse yard has needed landscape renovation for years now. In my daily farm work, I noticed that a lot of vegetable crops are very attractive, and vary in color, texture, and size, just the same as your standard landscape nursery plants.
When designing any landscape, edible or standard, there are some basic considerations that must be kept in mind. I typically begin with functionality, but with the understanding that function and aesthetics are two sides of the same coin that, when melded together at the most basic level, create quality. It’s the alchemy every landscape designer hopes to achieve – a living design that serves a purpose for the property owner and is all the more beautiful for it. A few of the basic considerations are:
Plant Size and Shape
So, how big is that Lagerstroemia indica (Crape Myrtle) that you just planted in front of the bay window going to get? The answer is most likely, “too big.” Even plants that have the word “dwarf” in them are deceivingly large. The point is that you want to make sure you have plenty of room, for example, I never plant a foundation shrub closer than four feet from the house, and any upright foundation corner plant needs to be off the corner, not in front of the house. Always leave plenty of room for specimen plantings and most definitely for shade trees.
Use different shapes and textures of plants. For example, in a lot of my larger projects, I would try to find a spot for one red Acer palmatum dissectum (Red Laceleaf Japanese Maple) planted as a specimen, obviously, with a groundcover of Juniperous procumbens ‘nana’ (Dwarf procumbens juniper) surrounding it, implying moss under a bonsai. This was a sort of signature feature. I could easily see planting a succession of radishes, lettuces, and mini-greens as a low groundcover in place of those junipers.
In landscaping terms, exposure usually relates to the amount of sunlight the plant thrives in, though, it can also refer to wind, water, and even soil conditions. Azaleas, rhododendrons, mahonia, pachysandra, and hostas are just a few landscape plants that do well in shadier areas, though almost none do well in deep shade. Incidentally, hostas are edible and delicious members of the Asparagaceae family. More on them later. Most vegetable crops prefer full sun, so, keep those areas saved for the edibles.
Function in the Landscape
I generally do a quick visual survey of the property and determine what purpose different areas (back yard, side yards, front yard) will serve. Foundation plantings, specimen plantings, shade tree plantings, ornamental plantings, and screen plantings, would be the five function categories I think of in landscape design. In certain situations, it’s necessary to add in erosion control plantings, too. With those categories in mind, I like to think of how the property owner will use different spaces. I often ask to go inside the house so I can see the views of the property from the most used spaces inside: the sitting areas, the kitchen, even upstairs looking down. Can the parent’s easily see the kids’ play area from inside? Is there an eyesore or privacy issue next door that needs a living screen? Are the walkways wide enough for people to walk side by side? Is the driveway designed in such a way that you can actually get the car in the garage? Can you get an extra vehicle or guest’s vehicle in the drive with just a tad more driveway space? These are all questions that should be answered before committing to a final design and install.
Foundation plantings begin the transition from structure to nature. Boxwoods and compact hollies are the archetypal foundation planting base, and with good reason. They have a compact, formal growth habit. There are some more original options that I like to use including certain laurels and gardenias, but generally I believe it’s a mistake to use free flowing shapes – think Eleagnus or Ligustrum – right up against the right angles and straight lines of a home’s foundation. In order to maintain that level of formality in the foundation planting, it’s best not to use edible crops here. As the plantings are intended to flow gradually from formal to more casual, save those edibles for the periphery.
If you’re starting from scratch, try to visualize the focal point of the house. It’s usually the front door, but not always. Once that’s identified, try to imagine a visual funnel, where as you move away from the center, your plants get taller. This can get complicated when you have existing specimen plants or trees to consider. You’re looking for balance here, not symmetry, but even then it can be a real challenge when you have, say, a big Magnolia tree in the front yard not too far from the house. How do you create a balanced look then? You do the best you can with the foundation planting, and then you start thinking about the peripheral plantings that help bring everything together as a whole.
These type of plants have a unique shape, color, or texture (sometimes all those aspects) and can stand alone as a point of interest. The Japanese Maples, Acer palmatum, are a good example, and, while they are probably overused, it’s hard not appreciate them. I’ve used everything from the truly unique Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick, to Winter Daphne, to single trunk Crape Myrtles and Weeping Cherry trees. These plants can stand alone in a lawn area, especially the ornamental trees, but, I typically like to place them in a bed that’s shaped to highlight the specimen.
This surrounding bed space is an easy place to begin substituting edible plants for standard nursery plants. Self-pollinating fruit trees like peaches and pears are a good choice as they are easy to grow. One great choice is the Fuyu Asian persimmon. Unlike the native persimmon tree (Diospyros virginiana,) the Fuyu Asian persimmon bears much larger fruit and lends itself readily to unique, even extreme, trellising options. Best of all, the fruit has none of the bitter tanins associated with the native persimmon fruit. I will be experimenting next Fall with trellising these trees into an arbor and along a fence as a screen planting.
When designing those beds that surround specimen plants, shade trees, and other focal points, the space from that plant to the edge of the bed is the perfect space for food crops in lieu of, or in combination with, annual flowers. Incidentally, there are quite a few landscaping annuals that are edible. Pansies would be beautiful grown in a bed of red and green salanova lettuces, and warmer season crops would go well with the varied Celosia genus of flowers – all edible. Take a look at Johnny’s Seeds’ Edible Flowers pages for tons of ideas. Let’s not forget herbs in this category as some of them are very hearty perennials, and in warmer climatic zones, even evergreen (ex. Rosemary.) The key to success here is to make your beds large enough and build them up. More on that later.
Everybody loves big beautiful shade trees. If you’re lucky enough have a property with quality existing native trees, then you want to think how best to use them in your design. When I’m drawing a plan, any existing large trees have an immediate effect on the overall design considerations, particularly as it pertains to balance, and plant choices due to shade. On the other hand, if you’re planting new shade trees, this is a good opportunity to choose edibles like pecan, walnut, mulberry, and one of my favorites that nobody else plants, pawpaw. However, keep in mind the work that goes into harvesting and maintaining large fruit and nut bearing trees. For every grandfather that has large pecan trees in his yard to pick up and shell, there are about a dozen grand kids that despise pecans.
Some Final Thoughts…for Now
What we’ve covered so far is some basic considerations and simple (but important) core principles. In future posts I’m going to talk about very specific techniques, plants, and crops. There is one piece of advice above all the rest and that is this. Draw out a plan as completely as possible and stick to it even if you can’t install the whole thing at once. If you start buying plants on a whim and installing them willy-nilly, there will be no cohesive whole, ever. If you choose affordable sections of the plan to install as you can afford them, and stick to the design, then you’re going to have a quality landscape in the end – not a bunch of disjointed design elements that don’t flow in form or function.