When people think of urban food production, they think first of community gardens, rooftop farms, and a vegetable bed in the back yard — which is entirely accurate but woefully incomplete. For there are many ways to combine food production with ornamental landscaping. And for people whose only food-producing option is a visible front yard in a neighborhood where growing potatoes there would be frowned on, edible ornamentals are the way to go.
(It is to be hoped, of course, that urban/ suburban food-growing will become more accepted as more people start doing it, and that municipal and homeowner association agreements will then cease to discourage front-yard food gardens, and that societal expectations of what should be visibly grown will adapt to new needs and aesthetics. But until that happens — and to start the ball rolling — food production that looks more traditionally ornamental is a good idea.)
And it is not at all hard to accomplish, for many plants considered ornamental can actually produce food if appropriately tended and actually harvested.
Trees you can use as ornamentals, for example, include (depending on your climate zone) orange and other citrus fruit trees, apples, pears, peaches, cherries, mulberries, pawpaws, walnuts, and almonds. I especially like amelanchier species trees (also called serviceberry, juneberry, or shadbush), which grow well in part shade and have pretty white flowers in Spring, beautiful Fall foliage — and delicious blueberry-like fruits in late June if you can get them before the birds do. Serviceberries grow almost anywhere in North America east of the Mississippi; Native Americans used to add the berries to pemmican, but they’re also yummy eaten out of hand or added to pancakes.
Grapes and kiwis are woody vines that grow very attractively on a decorative trellis. So do roses, the petals of which are edible, and if you grow a variety that produces hips (bright orange seed cases high in vitamin C), you can harvest your own rose hip tea.
Blueberries make fine ornamental bushes, producing white flowers in Spring and nice red Fall foliage — and food in between. Or try an asparagus bed wherever a gorgeous feathery-leaved 3-5-foot-high summer hedge would be useful (mine lines my front walk). Asparagus is a long-lived perennial; you plant crowns in early Spring, and the next two Springs you harvest a very few spears/ shoots (just the fat ones) and then let each crown produce several unharvested thinner shoots that become the aforementioned hedge. By the fourth Spring you should get a good harvest of fat edible asparagus spears; when the spears start coming up thinner you stop harvesting and allow them to make the summer hedge while replenishing the crown. And then you’re in business for about the next twenty years.
Sunflowers and amaranths are other tall (although annual) ornamentals, from which you can harvest edible seeds (amaranth seeds are teeny and used like quinoa). Strawberries and chamomile, on the other hand, make beautiful low ground covers, with more white flowers that provide berries and herb tea respectively.
Then there are herbs. Interspersed among other herbaceous perennials, herbs such as thyme, savory, sage, mint, lemon balm, chives, and rosemary add attractive flowers and foliage. Clip branches of some of them for drying before they flower, or just cut what you need for a recipe any time. Oregano (also perennial) grows taller but can still be useful in an ornamental garden. Or grow an herb bed as an ornamental bed in itself, in which the perennial herbs form an attractive pattern (it can be quite formal) and such annuals as basil, parsley (a biennial grown as an annual), and dill are added in the Spring. Perennial violets and annual nasturtiums, “gem series” marigolds, and calendulas can be in there too, as all produce edible flowers and nasturtium leaves are a tasty ingredient in salads.
Pushing the envelope of expectations a little further, a number of vegetables have quite pretty varieties. If you like Swiss chard, for example, plant the “rainbow chard” variety with its brightly colored stalks as part of a flower bed. Scarlet runner beans grow on a trellis and produce beautiful red flowers and edible snap beans; a few bush bean varieties have pretty flowers too. Many chili pepper varieties are highly decorative. You might even get away with some of the red-leaved lettuces and feathery carrot tops if you place them among other pretty plants. And then there’s the curious fact that before colonists realized that tomatoes are edible, they were growing them as ornamentals.
Given all these possibilities, no one needs to wait for changes in zoning and aesthetic sensibilities to start growing food even in gardens visible from the street. Appropriate choices of decorative plants vena add beauty to your yard while adding another little bit to the food supply of the world. And every little bit counts.
Louise “Gentle Bee” Quigley