by   Suzanne Arca  , FAPLD  Arca Design Group  Albany, CA

by Suzanne Arca, FAPLD
Arca Design Group Albany, CA

Many of us caught the edible garden craze a few years back, but some of us may have found that a farm-to-table garden isn’t always the most aesthetically appealing scene. This doesn’t have to be the case. Using edibles in landscape design can increase the health and economic benefits we derive from our gardens, and can be done in such a way as to increase a garden’s visual appeal. Thoughtfully incorporating decorative containers, plant forms, and hardscape structures, as well as blending edibles with ornamentals are ways to enhance the ornamental garden. You are still able to reap the many benefits of growing your own food.

Although the traditional kitchen garden, potager, or parterre has its own kind of traditional beauty, that beauty may or may not jive with the aesthetic of your home or existing garden. Is your home and landscape modern with clean lines and minimal plant materials? Consider swapping out the traditional wood planter boxes for corten or stainless steel in a variety of shapes and shades. Food-safe options are available for these. Arranging your plantings in carefully chosen blocks of contrasting color and texture can also achieve a beautifully clean, minimalist look. Do you have a Mediterranean villa theme? Consider planting your favorite herbs, vegetables, or fruits in beautiful, deep ceramic pots arranged in groups throughout the garden.

Some edible plants provide their own structural support, and some require additional support. This gives us an opportunity to play with the valuable element of verticality in our outdoor spaces. Vines such as beans and peas, grapes, or kiwi can form a delicious, living green wall. They can be trained onto an existing wall with a few wires or draped gracefully over arbors allowing the fruit to hang for easy harvest. They can intertwine with artfully shaped bamboo or twig structures or climb the living wood of another plant. Fruiting trees provide another opportunity for creating sculptural vertical elements in the garden with some regular aesthetic pruning, the traditional art of espalier in particular. Espalier has the added benefit of training fruit trees to fit into tight spaces, such as flat along a wall. Not enough space for a traditional orchard in your yard, you say? With espalier techniques, you still get to have some fruit trees!

Photos courtesy of Suzanne Arca.

Another strategy many aesthetically-minded gardeners employ is the blending of the edible elements with the ornamental landscape. In some cases, this actually benefits our tender and high-maintenance annual food crops by providing a more ecologically diverse climate. Companion planting can increase resistance to pests and improve soil nutrition. Some of our vegetables also have aesthetically appealing qualities of their own such as flowers, fruit, interesting leaf texture or color, or plant structure, which can provide visually interesting components that change with the seasons. Think of the bold statement made by the flowers of chives or artichokes, the deep violet drama of a red cabbage or tree collard leaves, the verticality of a stalk of corn, or the way a pomegranate tree transitions from golden-leafed to red-globed glory in the fall.

While annual edible plants may sometimes require more maintenance than your average perennial ornamental gardens, the benefits they offer are multi-faceted. Being in touch with the rhythm of the seasons brings not just food to the table or a reason to work up a sweat outside, but psychological benefits as well. For gardeners with less time on their hands, there are plenty of interesting edible perennial plants beyond the obvious strawberries and lemon trees. Not to be overlooked is the fact that the Bay Area offers the unique gift of a year-round growing season. All it takes to get started is tucking a few herbs into the edge of that bed by the back door and you’ll be on your way! Along with enjoying the visual beauty of your garden, why not enjoy the taste?