This article first appeared in the June 2018 issue of Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine.
As is often the case, it is our belief about how things ‘should be’ that holds us back – in this case, the belief that vegetables ought to be grown separately from ornamental plants, in a straight line, in raised beds that require maintenance, in some remote corner of your property. This approach, borrowed from intensive farming practices, can require a lot of space that isn’t always available in the average yard and is also a relatively new approach to home food production. In growing meccas like France and Italy, edible plants traditionally grow alongside ornamental plants in home kitchen gardens. The French, for example, mix herbs, edible and non-edible flowers with their fruits and vegetables in what is called a ‘potager,’ which translates to ‘for the soup pot.’
This approach to home food production is more of a creative exercise that requires active engagement and change. This shift in approach also has practical benefits — incorporating food plants into your ornamental landscape almost guarantees you’ll notice when plants are stressed or ready to be harvested because they are more visible; we’ve all had that vegetable bed at the back of our yard where the only thing cultivated is a willful ignorance as the season wears on.
I also get clients worried about attracting bears with edible plants and while this is a real concern in Revelstoke, this active engagement encourages people to harvest their produce as it ripens and clean up any windfall, thereby reducing bear attractants.
Where should I plant?
Brie Arthur, author of “The Foodscape Revolution”, suggests incorporating edibles along the edges of foundation plantings or borders. This area typically requires a lot of maintenance because it is open ground, which encourages grass and/or weeds to move in. It is also a good place to start because you will not be disturbing existing plants and offers easy access.
What should I plant?
Perennial plants give consistency and structure to the garden and the same principle applies to perennial edibles, so I have focused on a few of those plants here. Since the plants will be in the same spot for years, you need to find a place that meets all their growing requirements.
Herbs are the go-to plants for novice gardeners and with good reason; they are beautiful plants, easy to grow and will work in almost any garden. Lavender has been embraced for its ornamental qualities, however, sage and thyme also do very well here and are useful garden plants — sage is lovely in a sunny mixed border and thyme makes a great edging plant.
Sorrel (Rumex acetosa)
Sorrel is an underused and unusual plant — technically classified as an herb, this leafy perennial has a tart flavour and the young, tender leaves are great in salad and you can sauté the more mature leaves just like you would spinach. Pair with perennial flowers to create a long-lasting show. Sorrel will readily self seed, so best to plant it with that in mind.
Rhubarb (Rheum rhabarbarum)
A fixture in any cold-climate garden, rhubarb has few pests and diseases and, if properly placed, a plant will last a lifetime. The large, dramatic leaves look almost tropical when placed in a mixed border and you can harvest from spring well into summer. Rhubarb grows well with other acid loving plants such as coniferous evergreens and rhododendrons. If you are introducing rhubarb into your garden do not harvest any stalks the first year to allow the plant to establish.
Asparagus (Asparagus officinalis)
Pretty much the coolest perennial food plant you can grow. Although asparagus plants take three years to establish before harvesting can begin, it’s worth the wait. Asparagus is one of the first vegetables ready to harvest in the spring and then matures into an airy, fern-like cloud which changes to a golden color in the fall — if space is a concern, many people use asparagus as a border or hedge plant.
The options are endless when it comes to incorporating food plants into your ornamental garden and it is also a great opportunity to highlight the beauty, not just the function, of edible plants.