The Road to Edible Landscaping
Our journey to homesteading and eventually edible landscaping had humble beginnings. We lived outside Atlanta on less than a quarter acre lot with a typical suburban home on it. I was raised on a farm and wanted to get back to it, so when my wife and I got married we decided to start a little backyard garden.
I should probably elaborate some on the “little” aspect. Our backyard went about 25 feet past the house. Then it began a very abrupt and precipitous drop to a fairly large community pond in the back. There, 20 year old pines encircled the pond (it was Georgia after all) that made it seem slightly more secluded, though you could hit your side neighbor’s house with your grass clippings if you weren’t careful.
My wife enjoys fresh produce and I was determined to grow some for her. I used retaining wall blocks to make a small (about 5 feet wide and 2 feet deep) garden to grow cucumbers. That first year they didn’t do too well getting partial sun constantly by the large pine trees. However, we weren’t discouraged and that gave us our first foray into suburban gardening.
Subdivision Gone Wild
Our subdivision had fallen victim to the housing crisis, and the developer had gone bankrupt while building. As a result, there was no functioning HOA, no dues, or any official guidelines of what could be grown. It also left more overgrown lots than built houses, and it just so happened that a row of those vacant lots bordered ours.
One day while outside, we noticed what looked like blackberries growing on several vacant lots. Being inexperienced, I called my father to correctly identify the berries as wild blackberries, so I wouldn’t inadvertently poison myself. He quickly responded to my question by saying “Well… do they look like blackberries? If so, then they probably are.” While that didn’t inspire huge amounts of trust, I convinced myself that I’d be the guinea pig, and sure enough they were wild blackberries.
If you’ve never picked wild blackberries before, you’ve missed quite an adventure. I can only describe this as a “briar patch”, and these wild blackberries in Georgia were sweet but small. You couldn’t see what was under your feet and you were constantly being scratched by the large thorns. However, my wife and I cut some paths through the brambles to allow us to pick more than just the berries at the edge. After a couple of weekends with a machete and a weed trimmer, we had convenient paths built.
Right about that time, we received notice that we were relocating to the Midwest for work. Unfortunately, all our hard work prepping for next year’s harvest would be someone else’s gain. While disappointing, it had given us our first glimpse into what it was like to have significant amounts of food growing right beside our house.
The Midwest Experience
A few years and job moves later, and we found ourselves in a house that was further from the city. We didn’t like the landscaping at the home, so we decided to trash it all and start from scratch. Over the last few years we had become more interested in gardening and growing our own food. With each move, we planted progressively larger gardens gaining experience each year. We discussed how replanting with traditional landscaping plants seemed foolish if our goal was to feed ourselves.
That’s when we changed the approach to plant perennials that were attractive and also served a purpose feeding our family. After some research, we landed on “edible landscaping” as our choice. We decided to make berries the backbone of the landscaping but also wanted plants that provided year-round greenery.
Another requirement was that we wanted some flowering plants that would add color and add some height variability as well. We prioritized plants that would produce at different times during the year to extend harvest.
Step 1: Shrubs
Our first choice was to use blueberries as the landscaping “shrubs” around the house. They have the woody appearance of shrubs and grow well in both sunny and slightly shady areas. They are green spring through summer and turn a beautiful red tint during the fall before they shed their leaves. Blueberries are a great choice in edible landscaping because they can produce significant amounts of fruit if fertilized correctly, and are generally low maintenance. One consideration should be how to keep the soil around the plant acidic so it can thrive. Blueberry plants often grow very well in areas that Azaleas thrive in due to similar affinity for acidic soil. Pine straw is acidic, so areas in the southeast US that have easy access can use it as a natural soil amendment.
Step 2: Fillers
In addition to the blueberries, we chose to add in red raspberries and blackberries around fence lines and near wood edges as a type of filler. Raspberries are the one berry that everyone in the family loves, so we grow quite a few on our property.
Domesticated raspberries and blackberries don’t typically have thorns, so they don’t deter animals like wild varieties, so be sure to protect them with netting. If you’re interested in learning how to grow raspberries and blackberries, check out this video on our YouTube Channel. It’s part of a berry growing series, so check it out if you’re interested.
We’ve found that our raspberries seem to do very well in both direct sun as well as partially shaded areas on the north side of our house. If you live in areas where wild black raspberries grow (also known as blackcaps), they have delicious flavor and are rich in antioxidants. These can be a great source of wild edibles. Just be careful as the thorns and aggressive growth can make it a bit of a challenge to control for backyard homesteads (similar to wild blackberries). It doesn’t take long to create a briar thicket if you don’t keep them pruned back yearly.
Step 3: Evergreen Shrubs
Our “go-to” for year ground greenery is rosemary. As you can see in the picture, the plant has a beautiful deep green color to it that stays vibrant most of the year. Where we live (borderline zone 5/6), rosemary is a perennial that is fairly hearty. When the temps get into the single digits and negative numbers (Fahrenheit) we will often see some temporary tip burns on the plant. If snow and ice stay on the plants for long periods of time, you’ll also see some death of the edges of the plant, but we’ve had great luck with them bouncing right back after a spring prune of dead branches.
We use rosemary in a ton of recipes so having fresh rosemary virtually all year is a huge benefit. If you were wondering, rosemary is a great source of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds which can help boost the immune system. It can also provide a boost to your cognitive function to help with alertness and focus.
Step 4: Flowering Plants
There are lots of great plants out there, but our choice was lavender. The deep purple of the flowers is breathtaking and once again these plants are typically perennial, so you don’t have to replant each year. Lavender is edible (English Lavender is the most common variety used for food) and has an amazing scent that is undeniably decadent to use around the house for everything from infused oils to soaps. It’s also a step down plant, so as you move from tallest plants (blueberries) to rosemary, and then to lavender, it creates a great step down look to your landscaping that is highly desirable for depth and curb appeal.
If you want to learn more about some of the benefits of lavender and how to grow it, check out this article with all the details.
Step 5: Honorable Mention for Ground Cover
In addition standard landscaping, we also had a sloped area that we wanted to put down some edible ground cover. It was the area surrounding our solar panels on the south side of our house, so we needed something that didn’t need full sun, but could tolerate it. We decided to go with the lowly strawberry plant.
The plant really fit all of the goals we wanted for this area. Strawberries aren’t overly fussy about needing pristine soil and they grow low to the ground (no impact to our solar panels). In addition, they naturally like to push out runners and create new plants while crowding out many weeds. They also made for beautiful flowers and tasty berries all summer long with the everbearing variety we purchased. I’d highly recommend the everbearing variety as they will produce all the way up to the first frost! We’ve also had great luck with our strawberries coming back each year even after hard winters. Just add a little extra mulch and they do great!
Check out how you can also use your strawberry runners to make a little extra money at the farmer’s market.
This combination of plants creates robust landscaping around your home that both looks great and also serves a purpose. Space is precious in backyard homesteading and we’re all about having a purpose to every plant we use. These plants also complement each other well because they don’t all bear their fruits at the same time. Typically our raspberries start the show and our lavender is one of the final harvests of the season. Now with winter almost upon us, we’re already looking forward to next year’s harvest!
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