Join the Growing Group of Virginians Who Are Gardening for A Taste and Beauty

February 2018

American gardening used to be all about the edibles. Early Americans needed to eat and didn’t have time for “pretty” gardens. They grew flowers and ornamentals only when useful for medicine, dye or other essentials.

Gradually, though, especially during the 20th century, priorities changed. Fruits and vegetables became readily available in supermarkets. Gardens, no longer indispensable, metamorphosed into a source of middle-class homeowners’ pride. It was considered déclassé to grow edible plants, implying that the gardener couldn’t afford to pay farmers to do the work.

Ornamentals, many imported and eventually invasive, dominated American gardens. The most notable among these, of course, has been fescue (yes, lawn grass!), still the most widely grown “crop” in our nation.

For much of the past hundred years, if gardeners grew fruits and vegetables at all, they relegated them to the back, where judgmental neighbors wouldn’t see. Fortunately, this mindset is now evolving, as the Edible Landscaping movement blooms.

The cost of store-bought produce daunts consumers, who also worry about ingesting toxic chemicals and genetically modified crops. Even urban gardeners try to produce a few edibles here and there, while those of us fortunate enough to live in rural areas have far more options.

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This doesn’t mean we have to give up the pretty. Contemporary gardeners understand that many edible plants are exquisite as well as tasty, delivering far more visual interest and conversation value than old standbys like boxwoods, ivy or liriope.

Edibles don’t need to be segregated from ornamentals. Intersperse them boldly for garden interest. Imagine, for example, the delicate flowers of a fruit tree, or the bright pop of tomatoes and peppers, against a hedge of dark evergreens. This strategy fits perfectly with classic landscape-design principles.

You don’t want a landscape of sameness: Beauty grows from variety, challenging the eye. Contrast plants of different heights, textures, leaf shapes and colors. Spiky artichoke looming above a sea of soft, fluffy lemon balm makes a statement. Try yellow tomatoes, red chard and whitepetaled daisies together.

What about ethereal blue borage among orange habanero peppers or crimson strawberries (whose flavor the borage will improve)? Or zinnias with almost any vegetable, for a riot of exotic color and shape. The options are endless, and since most vegetables and many flowers are annuals, you can experiment with a new palette each year.

Even different shades of the same color appeal visually. If you plant herbs together for ease of harvesting, juxtapose fleecy silver sage leaves with tiny golden thyme and bristling, vertical rosemary. Emphasize variegated herbs: Sage, thyme, mint and oregano all offer multicolored varietals.

Some of my favorites in the herb garden are the delicately mapped leaves of redveined sorrel, as well as deep plum-colored basils such as “Purple Ruffles.”

In addition to aesthetic arguments, solid gardening logic underlies the inter-planting of edibles and ornamentals. For centuries, gardeners have practiced companion planting, mingling vegetables, herbs and flowers to repel insects and enrich nutrients without resorting to chemicals.

The allium family, including garlic, chives, onions and ornamental alliums, protects other vegetables and fruit trees against a wide variety of insect pests. Tansy, loathed by pests, sports compact feathery leaves and button-sized yellow flowers that bloom in late summer, when pollinators are running out of options. It’s an especially good companion for berry canes and roses. Nasturtiums and marigolds, visually and gastronomically piquant in their own rights, are top of the “bad” bugs’ hate list too.

Flowers don’t just repel harmful insects; they lure beneficial ones. Choose flowers that bloom simultaneously with the edibles you want pollinated. Plants in the aster family (including dandelions) and carrot family (including dill, fennel, parsley and coriander) appeal to useful parasitoids that prey on maddening vegetable gobblers like tomato hornworm.

Plants of varying heights perform from a companion-planting perspective, in addition to a visual one. Salad greens wilt and bolt in summer sun, but plant them next to tomatoes or peppers. By the time the weather gets really hot, the fruiting plants will be tall enough to shade the greens, while the greens crowd out weeds under their protectors.

Ditto strawberries mingled with asparagus in a perennial bed: Strawberries appreciate the dappled shade from asparagus fronds, and make weeding the bed much less work for you. Throw in some dwarf marigolds or borage for color and insect insurance, and you have a three-season success.

By now, hopefully, you’re convinced that edibles deserve pride of place in your whole garden, not just a few beds in the back. So how do you go about incorporating them among your ornamentals? If you’re contemplating new plantings, take that opportunity.

Looking for a showstopper? Instead of a rose to delight the Japanese beetles, try a  twisty “Flying Dragon” hardy orange, the only citrus that can grow in most of Virginia. Vaguely reminiscent of a medieval torture device, its deep contortions and talon-like thorns wow even in winter, when the structure is most visible.

Or, instead of a non-fruiting ornamental cherry, plant a weeping mulberry. It will be your children’s favorite hideaway, complete with built-in snacks. When you’re putting in a new perennial bed and waiting for the plants to mature, fill the temporary space with one-season eye-catchers like rainbow chard or “Lemon Drop” peppers.

Edibles can be worked into existing garden designs, of course. We frequently underplant trees with grass, but the trees hate that. Fescue, an extremely heavy feeder, competes for vital nutrients that young trees desperately need. They’ll thank you if you replace the grass with shallow-rooted plants like strawberries.

No garden? No problem … 

use a container!

Don’t have a garden? Or have a garden, but deer/groundhogs/the neighbor’s dogs gobble everything you plant? Or is your soil so terrible you fear to plant in it?

You can grow thriving edibles in containers on a protected deck, a driveway or even a sunny windowsill. Container planting offers many advantages, particularly the ability to control soil quality and moisture. Insect pests and blights don’t migrate so easily among containers, while portability allows you to extend the season. Overwinter your tender herbs indoors every year, or keep tender annuals alive longer by bringing them in during fall cold snaps.

Container gardening doesn’t work quite like growing edibles in the ground, however. Follow these tips for success:

  1. High-quality potting soil is essential. Trust me, I’ve tried cheap garden soil incontainers; I’ll never do it again. Edible plants are heavy feeders, so they need a generous dose of compost and, ideally, some timerelease fertilizer mixed into their soil. Once you’ve bought the good stuff, you can reuse it by adding compost and nutrients each year.
  2. Keep it watered! Potted plants dry out much more rapidly than those in the ground. In a hot, dry summer, you might need to water as much as twice a day. Make sure your container has ample drainage and is near a convenient water source.
  3. Size matters. So does shape. Suit your container to the plant: Shallow-rooted spreaders like lettuce orstrawberries prefer wide pots, while deep-rooted types like tomatoes demand depth. Really large edible plants, like pumpkins or melons, aren’t realistic at all for containers.
  4. Repurpose creatively. Glazed ceramic pots look stunning, but they’re heavy and expensive, and the plants won’t know the difference. Think outside the box; you may have something suitable already. With drainage holes drilled in the bottom, a five-gallon paint bucket makes a perfect tomato planter … and the handle’s useful for toting it around!

If you live near Winchester and want some TGIF fun with hands-on container planting, come to the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley’s Make & Take ‘‘Companion’’ Containers Workshop, the evening of Friday, April 27. You’ll apply companion-planting techniques to combine vegetables, herbs and flowers, and bring the result home with you to harvest all summer. Register at www.themsv.org.

Also, swap in edibles in areas where you normally plant flowering annuals. Mesclun lettuce looks great with pansies, and both thrive in cool weather. Try that this spring, and decorate your salads with pansies.

Often edibles provide solutions for problem areas. Many Virginians suffer the eternal frustration of clay soil and wonder if anything can survive it. Some thirsty, shallow-rooted vegetables actually prefer clay, though. Experiment with greens, brassicas and legumes. The legumes (peas and beans) are nitrogen-fixers as well, so they’ll improve the soil while they’re feeding your family.

Fast-spreading herbal ground covers like mint excel at stabilizing eroding banks or hillsides. Mint or creeping thyme will also jump to the task of colonizing areas where lawn won’t grow or you simply don’t want to mow anymore. They’ll choke out weeds and smell much better than grass. Of course, like most ground-cover plants, these develop extremely aggressively, so sow them only where you want them to take over or where  they’re naturally contained by hardscaping.

Finally, most climbing edibles are speedy annuals, zooming upward to cover anything you don’t want to look at for the season. Scarlet runner beans or Malabar spinach (one of the few heat tolerant greens) grow easily from seed and prove far more attractive than chainlink fences.

Gardening Events for This Spring

If you’re looking for more information on Edible Landscaping, or want to bounce your ideas off of other gardeners, join us at either of two series of Edibles-themed garden talks this spring.

Organized by Sustainability Matters, a collaborative focused on gardening, nature and environmental education, the series covers berries, herbs, companion planting and preventing vegetable-garden problems. The talks are free, open to all, and will be followed by discussion, Garden Q&A, and an optional “Garden Stuff” swap (bring extra plants/seeds/produce to share if you’d like to).

Adventures in Gardening, hosted by New Market Library, takes place the fourth Saturday of every month from February through May, at 3 p.m. at the library. Sustainability in the Garden, co-sponsored by Clarke County Library and the Barns of Rose Hill, will be at 1 p.m. on the third Saturday of every month, February through May, at the Barns in Berryville.

For details, email sustainabilitymattersVA@gmail.com, or see www.facebook.com/newmarketarealibrary (Adventures in Gardening) or www.barnsofrosehill.org (Sustainability in the Garden).