In past articles I have explored the fact that modern lawns, yards and landscaped areas are an ecological disaster. From the tens of millions of pounds of pesticides applied to them—whether herbicides, fungicides, insecticides or synthetic fertilizers—to their immense energy and water footprint, modern lawns make little to no sense, while costing a pretty penny. Estimates put the amount spent on lawns and landscaping at around thirty billion dollars per year!
Yet there is a way to redeem this outdoor space—transforming it from something that consumes to something productive, and from a place that harms the planet to something that helps heal it. You can make your landscaping edible so that it can help feed you and all the various creatures that also call it home.
Even better, you can grow almost all the plants that I am going to describe in even the most draconian of homeowners-association-governed neighborhoods and similar restricted areas. There are now hundreds of options that you can use to repopulate your yard with beautiful food and medicine that will fly under the radar. These plants come in many varieties and cultivars, and all sorts of shapes and sizes, providing options for people in almost every place and circumstance. Let’s take a look at some of the most versatile and valuable.
BUSHES, SHRUBS AND OTHER MEDIUM-SIZED PLANTS
Imagine a plant that produces berries that are more nutrient-dense than the beloved blueberry but do not require such specific soil conditions. The serviceberry is a reliable grower, with a wide range of suitable habitats and growing zones. Moreover, the serviceberry is already a common ornamental in many areas—but one that many don’t realize is quite edible! While this medium-sized shrub’s flowers and foliage were the features that made it a go-to choice for landscaping many years ago, its fruit is what now makes it a clear winner to have around your home or homestead.
I was going to list the elder(berry) first, but since I just wrote The Elderberry Book, and our family has an elderberry syrup business, I figured I wouldn’t let my bias for this beloved plant be too obvious. However, there are few plants in history that humanity has used as extensively as the elder. While most people only think of the berries, the elder’s flowers and many other parts also have medicinal and other value. In addition to the plant’s important role as food and medicine, the wood of the elder is excellent for making a wide range of useful tools and crafts.
Many companies now provide ornamental elderberries: Black Beauty, Black Lace and Lemony Lace, to name just a few! And because the elder responds well to pruning and partial shade, it gives you many options for how and where to plant it. Historically, the elder was often used to make screens, living fences and hedges; if you choose the appropriate-sized variety and prune it to the desired height, it can provide privacy along with its many other benefits.
The seaberry is a newer arrival to the United States, coming from Russia and central Asia, and is similar to the serviceberry. This plant is prized not just for its beauty but also for its prolific fruit production. The seaberry is one of a few plants that fixes nitrogen for itself and its surrounding plant friends.
The seaberry dates back to Alexander the Great or even earlier, when its leaves and fruits were used to promote the wellness of both people and animals. The technical name, hippophae, harkens back to its use to create excellent coats on horses (hippo means “horse” in Greek and phae refers to “shine”).
Seaberry plants are male or female, so you will need at least one of each to ensure proper fruiting. The fruit is a bit tart right off the bush; traditional preparation involved steam juicing or similar approaches.
In addition to fruit-bearing plants, homeowners can take advantage of the many small traditional nut species. Hazelnuts are one of our family’s favorites. This plant makes a great screen or windbreak, growing densely and to about eight feet in height. The nut clusters are easy to harvest, come late summer, and make a tasty addition to salads or other dishes once soaked and dehydrated. They are also a good source of many nutrients. In Europe, ground hazelnut flour is the basis for many a delicious flourless dessert.
There are many other medium-sized plants that you may wish to consider incorporating around your home—sour cherry, ariona berries (chokeberries), fig, hardy kiwi and dozens of others. The important thing is to pick something and get started.
FLOWERS THAT FEED
Flowers! Once upon a time, a flower garden was considered more ornamental than useful. Nowadays, many people know that flowers are important for feeding pollinators—but they may not realize that flowers also can help feed your family.
Hostas are a surprisingly edible plant, and in many Asian countries, they have a long history of household consumption. The young leaf shoots of hostas, which are similar to other wild edible greens, can serve as an asparagus-like substitute with a lettuce taste. The flowers are also edible. Though bland, they can provide a colorful addition to salads and other dishes. Hostas are fine for people but toxic to cats and dogs, so don’t offer any to your pets.
The nasturtium has both edible flowers and leaves. I have seen the nasturtium plant grown successfully in very small spaces—even in window planters on the upper floor of a duplex in between two houses. The nasturtium plant likes to crawl and sprawl, making a beautiful ground cover and helping suppress weeds and other unwanted plants. For this reason, nasturtiums make a great companion to taller perennials and annuals.
I am cheating here by listing chives, which cross over between herbs and flowers. Chives fall into the “both/and” category, producing a tasty, onion-like green to add to salads and other dishes while providing a delicate and delicious flower to enjoy as well.
Other edible flower options abound: calendula, rose, day lily, echinacea, borage, pansies, hibiscus and more! These delicious, nutritious and often medicinal plants have many possible uses in the kitchen and home.
HERBS ALMOST ANY TIME
The number of herbs that nature affords is immense, as are their uses in edible landscaping. Herbs a lso m ake g reat c ompanions to the other edible and medicinal flowers described above. Indeed, the small kitchen garden of old often was a mix of herbs, flowers and a few vegetables.
You can plant herbs either in pots or in the ground, depending on the location and your desired goals. Growing herbs in pots allows you to transfer them indoors during the winter, protecting the less hardy ones from the travails of winter weather and extending their growing season.
Our favorite herbs include sage, rosemary, thyme and lemon balm:
- Sage is bushy and quite hardy. If you have never seen a sage in flower, you have missed a sight that, once enjoyed, is not soon forgotten. Its copious blue flowers are the definition of beauty.
- Rosemary is pleasantly fragrant, with lovely flowers if allowed to bloom. Its upright, cone-like growth habit makes it easy to tuck into smaller spots here and there among other plants and landscape features.
- Thyme is another plant that is worth seeing flower at least once. It is a very slow grower, so we keep it in pots (or similar) to give it the longest growing season possible.
- Lemon balm is quite prolific, offering a g reat deal of low-to-medium-sized foliage and growth. Lemon balm is a lovely addition to teas and—in small amounts—to salads and many other dishes.
TREES OF ALL SHAPES AND SIZES
If you want to provide productive shade and landscaping on a larger scale, consider some of the trees listed below.
The basswood/lime/linden tree ranks up there with the elder(berry) for its immense range of uses and benefits. The entire tree is edible, including the layer between the inner bark and the wood, though its young leaves in March through May are especially palatable. The flowers and leaves make a great addition to salads or can be brewed into tea.
A staple of many Native American tribes, the mighty oak produces the amazing acorn, a food suitable for beast and, if processed properly, for man as well. Among different oak species, the white oak is particularly suitable for foodstuffs, but all acorns are edible.
The European beech is another tree with prolific production of edible, nutrient-dense nuts. Historically, uses of beechnuts have included pressing out the oil, roasting and grinding the nuts to make a coffee-like beverage and using the flour for baking.
GARDEN PLANTS THAT HIDE IN PLAIN SIGHT
Many plants typically considered vegetable garden plants can be successfully substituted for ornamental options. For instance, instead of ivy and other ground covers, how about sweet potatoes? Their shapely greens (which are edible) and lovely flowers (for both people and pollinators) are visually attractive. You can even grow them in containers, allowing the plant to trail down over the side of a porch or ledge.
Artichokes are another option. They make a lovely looking screen— and few people will realize that the underground growth is “choke full” of edible tubers.
GROW YOUR OWN FERTILITY
When putting in edible landscaping, it is the perfect time to plan ahead to reduce your need for additional input later. For example, planting comfrey around perennials allows it to “dig up” nutrients that otherwise would be lost deep below in the soil, bringing the nutrients back to the surface for more shallow-rooted neighbors to enjoy.
Establishing a living clover understory helps attract pollinators and other beneficial insects. In addition, clover captures nitrogen from the atmosphere, turning it into the soil-based form of nitrogen that plants need. We especially enjoy red clover—the blossoms are traditionally highly prized for making teas with health-promoting benefits.
NEARLY ENDLESS OPTIONS
The above is just a small sampling of the range and variety of plants— of all shapes and sizes—that we can use to turn our lands and communities back into spaces that produce rather than consume. In this, we can emulate the wise practices of some South American tribes, who created “food freeways” by planting edible and medicinal plants in abundance along common routes of travel, ensuring a nutritious and abundant supply of food wherever they went for themselves and their progeny.
SIMPLE ELDERBERRY JELLY
1. Start by using a good quality elderberry syrup or homemade elderberry syrup. (If preferred, use a syrup without cloves, ginger, cinnamon or other additional spices.)
2. Measure out 1 cup of syrup and place in refrigerator to chill.
3. Dissolve 1½ teaspoons of gelatin into 2 tablespoons of the cold elderberry syrup.
4. Place the remaining syrup over low heat and gently warm while whisking in elderberry-gelatin mixture.
5. Heat the liquid to 110°F (34°C).
6. Put into a jelly jar and place in fridge.
7. The jelly should set in about four hours.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Winter 2019