Think Outside the Box

Parsley in the flower garden
Photo by ZDA, Inc.

Everyone enjoys the deliciousness of fresh and local food. Vegetable gardening is experiencing renewed popularity. Wonderful farmers’ markets abound. Farm to table has become the hallmark of good eats. But the potential to harvest food from foundation plantings, shrub beds, and flower gardens is often overlooked. Once we think outside the box, edibles are easy to integrate into our landscape even when time and space are limited. Many ornamental plants are edible and delicious, and many of our food crops have exceptional ornamental value. Truly nothing tastes better or adds more to a meal than just-picked foods, so why not incorporate plants that provide fruits, nuts, vegetables, and herbs into your landscape plantings?

My favorite place to grow herbs is in the flower beds and containers just outside my kitchen door. Parsley and thyme provide excellent edging for flower beds, and basil’s light-green color and good form is a perfect foil for flowers of all colors. Dill and fennel are reliable self-seeders whose feathery texture and beautiful chartreuse flowers are a welcomed addition to flower beds and bouquets. Lovely silver foliage and good form make culinary sage a wonderful perennial to incorporate into the garden. Besides always having fresh sage to cook with, their spikes of showy lavender flowers are beautiful in bouquets.

Photograph provided by ZDA, Inc.

Vegetables with good form, flowers, fruits, or leaf color can also add variety to shrub beds and flower gardens. Perennial rhubarbs’ strong bold leaf textures and statuesque flowers make a dramatic statement when incorporated into perennial flower beds. Pepper plants have glossy, dark-green leaves and abundant colorful fruit that spark a fall flower show. Eggplants perform beautifully, adding unique shapes and colors. Lettuce, cabbage, kale, and chard add distinctive leaf colors and textures to the front of the garden. You would be surprised at the amount of salad you can harvest from planting a border of mixed greens in front of your foundation plantings.

Edibles can also be used as ground covers, and can eliminate the need to mulch around trees and shrub. Homegrown strawberries are exceptionally delicious and sweet, and make an excellent perennial ground cover for sunny spots. Alpine strawberries are shade tolerant and fun to plant near pathways so that you can easily pick extra flavorful tiny berries throughout the summer. A tapestry of mesclun mix could be a lovely ground cover for lightly shaded areas. Consider combining salad greens with drifts of other low-growing vegetables, such as radishes, beets, and carrots, to enjoy more diversity. The only hardship is that to keep it looking fresh you need to harvest and often replant when crops are done.

Photograph provided by ZDA, Inc.

Create more fun foraging in your yard by choosing trees and shrubs with both edible and ornamental value. For small flowering trees, nothing is more carefree or beautiful than sour cherries. Their spring flower display rivals flowering crabs, and their beautiful red fruits make exceptional pies. Birds also love cherries and will race you for the fruit so that there is never a mess on the ground to clean up. Other ornamentals with worthy fruits include Cornelian-cherry dogwoods, Juneberries, elderberries, Dolgo crabapple, hazelnuts, hickory, and junipers. The berries can be used for jams, pies, wine, and sauces, and the nuts, though difficult to crack, are a great winter treat that is well worth the effort.

Flowers may also be worthy of grazing on, using for garnishes, and adding to salads. Not all flowers are edible, but it’s surprising how many common flowers are. Begonias have a slightly citrus flavor. Hibiscus has cranberry overtones. Nasturtiums are peppery. Dianthus is clove like. Daylily shoots are fresh tasting and add a slightly sweet crunch to salads. Violets, lilacs, and lavender have a sweet perfume and may be used to decorate cakes. Impatiens, fuchsia, marigolds, and chrysanthemums are also used for garnishes.

The idea of combining flowers, herbs, fruits, and vegetables to create a beautiful landscape is as old as time. Even if the responsibilities of a vegetable garden or fruit tree are not for you, your landscape can be both beautiful and delicious!

Photograph by Betsy Haynes Photography

Joan W. Ziegler is a horticulturist and garden designer and winner of the 2015 Perennial Plant Association Merit Award for Residential Landscape at ZDA, Inc. Landscape Architecture, 4797 Capitol View Road, Middleton. Call (608) 831-5098 or visit zdainc.com .