by Cheryl Beesley, Landscape Designer & Horticulturalist
Learn how easy it is to blend edibles into your overall landscape -- your HOA won't even notice!
Row planting is great for farmers whose giant fields are optimized for mechanical planting and harvesting. It's not so attractive for residential landscapes.
Before You Dig
Don't paint yourself into a corner! Having to move plants around after they've been planted is not only a lot of extra unnecessary work, but it can damage or kill your plants. Make sure you've got them in the right spot before you dig.
What Makes An Edible Edible?
Most edibles are annuals, such as tomatoes, peppers, sweet potatoes and eggplant. Then there are fruit trees and perennials such as strawberries and asparagus.
Trees and perennials should be the bones of your garden. Those plants are there for the long haul. They'll grow and produce over many years in the same spot. Since they are the bones of your garden, they should be planted first. Just leave some small pockets around these larger, permanent plants. Afterward you can go back and fill in those pockets with your annuals.
The nice thing about growing annuals is that they are super easy to change! If something doesn't work one year, you can try another variety the next year, or try planting it in another location.
In fact, crop rotation of your annuals should be a part of your plan. Avoid planting members of the same plant family in the same location every year, rotating them as much as possible. For example if you planted tomatoes in one area and lettuce in another, switch them around the following year. This will help deter insects and diseases.
Sometimes plants within the same genus and species will cross pollinate with each other, which can result in some very odd looking vegetables! Brassicas are especially likely to cross with each other. Your veggies will still taste great, but the seeds you harvest from them may not be true to the variety you originally planted. To avoid this problem, keep family members at least 400 feet apart.
Plant your edibles in areas of where they can enjoy full sun and good drainage. So when you're evaluating your landscape, you need to look at the sun pattern. You need to look at where the drainage problems might be. You even need to consider the wind patterns. Do you need a big screening hedge? Things like this are universal to design.
Likes and Dislikes
Of course you also want to think about your personal preferences. Do you want to create small, intimate spaces? Do you want a grand vista? Do you want a parterre, which is a very geometric layout. Or a little kitchen garden -- a potager off of your kitchen? Maybe you'd like something close to the house so that you can just walk out and harvest vegetables, greens and herbs to use in your daily cooking.
Maybe you just want to fill in around your ornamental beds. You may want to have a border of strawberries or tuck in some Swiss chard or some red mustard. They're all very pretty plants that can be a very beautiful addition to an ornamental landscape.
Your Soil Is Your Foundation
The health of your soil is extremely important in an edible landscape. Be sure to spend a lot of time on that. Get all the grass out of your beds. Make sure that you're working in some good quality soil amendments. Compost is the best soil amendment -- especially if you have clay soil or caliche soil. About 90% of the soils in our area are one of those types and need to be heavily amended. I can't emphasize this enough. Because if you don't take the time to do that, you're really not going to enjoy your garden at all.
Go out and spend some time in your landscape. Look around and see what's there and consider what you might add. For example, perhaps you have a good spot for an ornamental tree or maybe you have room for a shade tree. Really spend some time on this phase of the project.
As you review your garden, also think about the fact that wildlife will be attracted to it. They're going to want to eat your edibles too. You may need to protect your edibles with bird netting or deer fencing part of the year. Or you may want to offer berrying plants for the birds. These are special considerations for edible landscapes.
Water Me, Water Me Not
Irrigation is critical. If you already have overhead irrigation, you don't need to change it out, but drip irrigation works best with any type of bedding plants but especially with edible plants in particular because you don't spread fungal diseases in the water droplets.
Consider too that not all plants need the same amount of water or the same watering frequency. When grouping your plants, make sure they all have the same watering requirements. In other words, don't plant a cactus (yes, it's an edible) next to your herb garden.
So think about all those things. This is the forefront. It's not the fun part, but it's going to make for a very fun landscape.
Time to Plant!
Now we get to the fun part! This is where you decide what you are going to put in.
As I mentioned above, when I plant, I do it in stages. I plant my trees and my perennials first. Those are the bones of my garden. That's what's really going to hold everything together.
Begin by laying out your trees and perennials where you want them to go. Set them on the ground first, so that you can shift them around and get them just where you want them before you permanently plant them.
Choose Texas Natives & Texas Adapted Plants
At Marshall Grain Co., all the plants we sell (except tropicals and houseplants) are grown within our region, so you know that the plants you take home are well suited for the North Texas climate. Why is that important? Because big box stores and large nursery chains often sell trees and shrubs that are not locally grown or well suited to our area. Planting the wrong variety for our area can mean they will fail to produce or may even die. Even plants that are suited for this climate but are raised elsewhere and shipped in can die from shock when they get moved from the nursery to your garden.
For example, a critical factor in choosing a fruiting tree is how many "chilling hours" it requires. Your tree will not produce fruit unless it gets enough chilling hours. For our area, you need to choose a variety that can thrive on 600 to 800 chilling hours each winter. If you have a fruit tree that produces little or no fruit, the reason may be that it isn't receiving enough chilling hours.
There are lots of fruit trees that do very well in our North Texas climate. See the accompanying list of fruit trees for North Texas at the end of this article for some great choices.
Once you've made your plant list, make sure you've place them where you want them in the landscape before you put them in the ground. And don't forget to use lots of compost, along with any other soil amendments you may need.
Aesthetics & Function
As you're placing your plants, you'll also want to consider the aesthetics. You want to thing about form, color, texture and size.
Not Just a Formality
Form refers to the mature shape and size of your plants. Trees, obviously, will be taller than the surrounding plants and will probably cast shade, which can come into play in your design. Vining plants such as grapes need to be supported. You may want to plant them against an existing fence, or provide a trellis or espalier. Blackberry and blueberry bushes can be grown in large half-whiskey barrels or other large containers that can provide a unique accent or focal point.
All The Colors of the Rainbow
Vegetable plants offer many beautiful colors! Peppers, for example, come in not just green, yellow or red, but orange and purple. Some varieties even have multiple colors on the same plant! There are eggplants that are white with purple speckles. Chinese noodle beans, which are a beautiful shade of red, grow to be 12 feet long.
What you can do is get a seed catalog and see how the plants actually look and then you can start to play around with your annuls. I prefer seeds that are open pollinated so that I can save my seeds from one year to the next.
Green Is A Color
Don't forget green is a color. A lot of herbs are evergreen. Oregano and thyme don't like to get their leaves wet so plant them where they can spill out over the edge of a garden bed. Thyme gets to be about 6 to 8 inches tall. The oregano can get to be a foot to 18 inches wide and tall. Rosemary is another evergreen that looks great either in the ground or in a pot. Potting it is nice because you can give it better drainage that way. There are different styles of rosemary. Some of it trails, some of it is upright. Just select the one that works best for what you're trying to accomplish.
These herbs also bloom, too. Oregano, for example, gets a little purplish bloom. The bees just go crazy for it! Thyme is not known so much for its bloom, although it does have one. And of course, rosemary also gets pretty purplish blooms.
Mint is another herb that's evergreen. And there are over 600 hundred different kinds! Some of the more most popular ones are peppermint, chocolate mint, spearmint, orange mint, and julep mint.
Another herb I really love is bronze fennel. It can reseed in your garden. It provides more interest in the winter than in the summer, but it does persist through the hot weather on occasion and then it seeds out.
Strawberries are evergreen as well. In the spring they have either white or reddish blooms, and then of course, you get strawberries. Allow them to trail it out over the edge of your bed, or mulch them really well. Strawberries don't like to have their fruit or foliage come into contact with the soil because that can cause fungal issues and pill bugs love it.
Texturing Adds Interest
The third way to create more interest in the garden is to use different textures. There are essentially three types of textures:
BOLD -- things like fig trees, loquats and artichokes -- that have large leaf patterns. Those things make nice accents and backdrops.
FINE -- like carrots or asparagus -- I like to do them as kind of a sea of finely textured things punctuated by more bold textures.
SAVOYED -- plants with curled or wrinkled textures include curly parsley, curly kale, and redbor kale.
As you play with your placement, these concepts will become more apparent to you.
like parsley or curly varieties of kale
Again, most of these are annuals. If you don't like it one year, take it out and plant something else the next year. Don't be afraid to play around with things.
Maintaining Your Edibles
Another thing you need to think about with edible plants is maintenance. There is a trouble-shooting guide in my book, "Landscaping with Edible Plants for Texas," where you can compare the symptoms with the appropriate treatment. And all of the treatments in my book are organic.
Edible plants require a little more maintenance than other types of landscapes. They need a little more care on the front end and little more care during the season, then they have to be harvested and you have to have a place to put all that produce! You know you're an accomplished gardener when your neighbors run in the other direction when they see you coming with a bag of zucchini!
A Note About Shade
Nearly everyone wants plants that will perform well in shade. However, when it comes to edibles, sun is a universal requirement. Two edible plants that can tolerate a small amount of shade are mint and elderberry. Mint will thrive almost anywhere, even in wet conditions, as long as it gets a few hours of sun daily. Elderberry will also take a small amount of shade, however both will do much better in full sun and so will the rest of your edibles.
Keep in mind it's all an experiment! As you plant and grow your garden, you'll learn what works and what doesn't as well as what you eat a lot of and what you don't.
All of these deliciously beautiful plants are waiting for you here at Marshall Grain Co!
Guided Tour of Cheryl's Backyard
In this video, she walks you through her garden as she showcases the principles we discussed in our previous chat.
Below is a list of tried-and-true fruit trees varieties suitable for North Texas:
Ornamental Fruit Trees for Zone 8a (800-900 Chilling Hours)
• Arkansas Black – Large, late-season variety with dark red skin, good for cooking, keeps well.
• Braeburn – Late-season, crisp and tart green apple with red blush, self-fertile but does better with pollinizer.
• Golden Delicious – Sweet, yellow, crisp fruit. Good pollinizer for ‘Red Delicious’
• Jonagold – Cross between ‘Jonathan’ and ‘Golden Delicious’. Yellow with red blush. Good flavor
• Kumquat – Not a true citrus, but will grow on citrus rootstock. Can reach 15’ in height and are hardy to 15° F.
• Lemon – ‘Meyer’ and ‘Ponderosa’ lemon varieties are very popular that are thought to be hybrid crosses Eureka and Lisbon types and are well-suited for Texas. ‘Improved Meyer’ is a cross between a lemon and a mandarin orange and is hardy to 25°F.
• Lime – Less cold hardy than lemon.
• Mandarin Orange and Tangerines – Erect habit with willowy branches. More alternate bearing and cold hardy than most citrus (except kumquat).
• Orange – Can grow up to 20’, so may be limited to smaller varieties for container planting.
• ‘Belle of Georgia’ – Freestone with white flesh. Very sweet. Ripens end of July. Usually self-fertile, better with a pollinizer.
• ‘Bounty’ – Large, reddish freestone fruit with yellow flesh. Ripens early July.
• ‘Elberta’ – Red-yellow, freestone, Ripens late July.
• ‘Loring’ – Large, firm, yellow-red, freestone. Disease resistance. Ripens mid-July.
• ‘Monroe’ – Large, yellow-fleshed freestone with good flavor. Ripens mid-August.
• ‘Ranger’ – Large, yellow fleshed, freestone. Vigorous. Ripens mid-June.
• ‘Redglobe’ – Large, red freestone with yellow flesh. Ripens late July.
• ‘Redskin’ – Large freestone fruit with yellow flesh. Ripens end of July.
European Hybrid Varieties:
• Kieffer – Durable and prolific. Fruit is tough and gritty. Good for preserves. Good pollinizer. Ripens in September-October.
• Orient – Large, round fruit with yellow skin and white flesh. Resistant to fire blight. Good pollinizer.
• Moonglow – Juicy, smooth textured fruit. Vigorous with good fire blight resistance. Ripens in Late August.
• Magness – Hybrid of ‘Comice’ and ‘Seckel’. Medium sized, oval, greenish-yellow fruit with some russeting. Resistant to fire blight. Not a good pollinizer.
• Chojuro – Firm, round pears with some russeting. Ripens in mid-August. Leaves are known for fall color.
• Hosui – Medium sized to large Asian variety. Pollinate with ‘20th Century’. Ripens early August.
• Shinko – Medium sized to large fruit with rich, sweet flavor. Most resistant to fire blight of all Asian pears. Ripen mid-August to mid-September.
• 20th Century – Similar to an apple in taste and texture. Early producer – ripens mid-August.
• Allred – Red leaves and fruit. Makes a nice ornamental tree. Ripens in June.
• Bruce – Chickasaw and Japanese Hybrid is a large, red plum. Needs a pollinizer to produce fruit. ‘Methley’ is a good choice. Ripens in early June.
• Methley – Purple skinned and amber to reddish pulp. Good pollinizer. Ripens early June.
• Morris – Large, round fruit with purplish skin and red flesh. Resistant to fungal problems. Ripens early June.
• Ozark Premier – Large fruit with bright red skin and yellow flesh. Self fertile*. Ripens late June.
• Santa Rosa – Large purplish plum with amber flesh. Self-fertile.*
• Stanley – Oval shaped fruit with deep purple flesh and golden yellow pulp. Self-fertile*. Ripens early September.
Low-input Ornamental Trees:
*Fruit trees will produce more fruit if they have another variety for cross pollination.
Note: Most fruit trees will be alternate-bearing, producing better in alternate years.
Chilling hours may fluctuate in micro-climates, dependent on proximity to downtown areas and low-lying areas.
About Cheryl Beesley
Cheryl Beesley is a landscape designer for Marshall Grain Co. and author of "Landscaping with Edible Plants for Texas," a best-selling book published by Texas A&M Press in 2015. She has been designing commercial and residential landscapes in North and Central Texas for over 25 years. She graduated from UT Arlington with a Master’s Degree in Landscape Architecture and a Bachelor's degree in Horticulture. Cheryl is also a "Green Associate" with the US Green Building Council, and is a strong advocate for sustainable landscape design.
All content copyright 2020, Marshall Grain Co., Grapevine, TX
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