What have you done for me lately?
The one-and-only Janet Jackson once asked that question of a bad boyfriend. But lately, we’ve been wondering the very same thing about a far less obvious offender – our front lawn. We water it and then water it some more. We give it a trim to keep it looking super fresh, and we do it all over again a week later. When the dog digs up a spot, we patch it right up.
According to a collaborative 2015 study by scientists from NASA, NOAA, Colorado State University, and the universities of Colorado and Montana, about 163,812 square kilometers of the American landscape is “cultivated with some form of lawn … an area three times larger than that of any irrigated crop.
Now, imagine the possibilities if we put even some of that wide open space – an area roughly the size of the state of Wisconsin – to better use for the planet. That’s right, by simply rethinking your own outdoor space and incorporating a few new landscaping techniques, you can do your part to fight for a healthier future for our fragile planet.
WHAT IS AN EDIBLE LANDSCAPE?
Edible landscapes are just like traditional ornamental landscapes – with one important twist. While they follow many of the same design principles, edible landscapes favor plants like herbs, vegetables, and fruit bushes and trees over comparatively “unproductive” decorative plants.
They allow homeowners to enjoy food crops while keeping their space aesthetically pleasing. And much like ornamental landscaping, you can scale up or down to meet your needs.
WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS OF EDIBLE LANDSCAPES?
Environmentally, grass is great – like really great – and of course, the kiddos and the pups need a nice, open place to play. But it’s not the only thing you can do with yard space – and here’s where edible landscapes come in.
As any gent in crisp white New Balance sneakers will tell you, a large lawn requires frequent tending to remain attractive. Which takes energy.
By converting grassy yard space into an edible landscape, you can dial down the amount of energy (and all that comes with it… vroom vroom goes the gassed-up mower) needed to keep it looking great.
Edible landscapes don’t just prevent carbon going into the atmosphere – they also help take it out. Replacing turf with larger, often perennial plants like trees, bushes, and vines removes more carbon dioxide (CO2) – the primary heat-trapping greenhouse gas driving the climate crisis – from the atmosphere than grass alone, sequestering it in both above- and below-ground biomass.
Even with the addition of vibrantly-colored annuals like red or purple lettuces, Swiss chard, mustard greens, and edible flowers, your new edible landscape is still likely to require a lot less fossil fuel-powered maintenance than a traditional lawn.
You’ll also be doing your part to save water – most home gardeners use far less water than commercial agricultural production of the same crop. All at a time when the climate crisis is driving major changes to precipitation patterns all over the world, resulting in some cases of drought and crop loss.
Ultimately, if done correctly using sustainable practices, edible landscaping can go a long way toward conserving valuable resources while creating a very effective carbon sink – and just think of all the money you’ll save growing even a few of your favorite fruits and veggies right in your own yard.
“Any landscape design begins with choosing the location of the paths, patios, fences, hedges, arbors, and garden beds — establishing the ‘bones’ of your garden,” according to Mother Earth News.
So, before you plant a single seed or transplant, you need to ask yourself a few simple questions: How much of my yard do I want to convert into an edible landscape? What exactly do I want this to look like? Are vivid, popping colors my thing, or am I after cooler shades of blue and lavender? Would a path made of wood chips be preferable to one made of gravel? Do I want to go all-in on semi-permanent raised beds?
What you want is, of course, up to you, but be mindful of the upkeep your garden plan will require – and keep in mind that you’re unlikely to be the only one who loves your new, climate-friendly edible landscape. Deer, squirrels, birds, groundhogs, and rabbits, as well as a plethora of creepy crawlies, all have a taste for many of the same delicious fruits and veggies we love to gobble down, so consider incorporating fencing and other barriers as part of your design.
And remember to not get overwhelmed. Gardening should be relaxing and fun, and you don’t need to completely overhaul your lawn all at once, if you don’t want to. Reimagining a landscape can be time-consuming and depending on how you do it, even a little expensive. So if you’d rather approach your project a little bit at a time, replacing a few square feet of lawn here or there with some berry bushes or culinary herbs and salad greens, go that route.
Much like swapping out your old incandescents in favor of energy-efficient lightbulbs, every little bit helps. One or two berry bushes or dwarf fruit trees will sequester far more carbon than a patch of grass. The planet will thank you.
WHAT TO PLANT?
Selecting plants for your edible landscape is double the fun of a traditional flower bed because you’ve added a dimension to your decision-making – your plants need to be beautiful and yummy.
Of course, what you can grow depends on the conditions of your yard. And, with our warming world and possible changes to your region’s climate in mind, consideration should be given to types of plants that may require less watering and/or are more drought or heat tolerant, as well as those more tolerant to increasing salinization, if you live in a coastal area.
With the design and color scheme you’ve sketched out, you also want to be sure to plant fruits and veggies that you, as well as your family and friends, actually enjoy eating. Good thing there’s plenty to choose from.
“I'd challenge anyone to find a shrub with more visual impact than a blueberry that covers itself with white flowers in spring, dusky purple berries in summer, and radiant red leaves in the fall,” the Spruce’s Marie Iannotti writes.
Blueberries live their best life in full sun, so if you’re after berries, but your yard or garden space is a bit shady, consider raspberry bushes, which do well in medium shade, instead.
A little shade won’t stop you from planting veggies either. Luckily, there are plenty of attractive, shade-tolerant varieties you can tuck into the sometimes-shadowy corners of your edible landscape, including beets, cauliflower, and cabbages and leaf lettuces that come in a variety of colors.
If arbors, fencing, or trellises are part of your design, pole beans make for an attractive climber. They feature soft, heart-shaped leaves and speckle themselves with tiny flowers in the springtime. These posies tend to skew white or very pale purple, so if you’re looking for a flash of color, pick up scarlet runner beans, which light up with their namesake red instead.
For a more perennial arbor cover, grape vines are hardy plants with a lot of character, offering up tasty fruit in the summertime and vivid red leaves in the fall.
But what should you put in your garden beds? Well, like we said, that depends a lot on you, your climate, and what you find tasty and easy on the eyes, but here are a few things to keep in mind:
- Tomatoes do particularly well when planted with flowers because isolating them to some extent helps prevent common diseases from spreading easily from one plant to the next.
- Because they are strong, well-defined, and can be planted in clean lines, lettuces make great edging plants, and can be found in more colors than you think, including deep purples.
- Speaking of color, it’s your friend – and numerous traditional “greens,” including Swiss chard and some cabbages, come in a rainbow of colors, while others like kale, according to Better Homes & Gardens, “have gorgeous fall color and are ideal for tucking into containers and borders for color late in the year.”
- On the herb front, rosemary is a particularly pretty and fragrant plant.
- It’s also important to remember that plenty of flowers are themselves edible. Nasturtiums and violas are among the best known and easiest to grow, but borage blossoms, calendula, chives, and hibiscus also make for attractive offerings … in both the garden and the right salad.
If you’re looking for a fern-like perennial to add a bit of drama to a corner of your evolving new yard, think about asparagus, which comes back again and again for decades and serves up one of the season’s first harvestable vegetables. It may take some time to get the desired effect, but left to its own devices, asparagus plants will develop big feathery fronds that catch the breeze.
Other less-common perennials to think about to give your edible landscape a little added character include artichokes, rhubarb, and French sorrel.
As for groundcover, consider strawberries. In the spring, they pop with white flowers that give way in early summer to sweet red fruit. By fall, their leaves take on a rich reddish-orange.
NOW, TAKE THE EXTRA STEP TO HELP US PROTECT WHAT MATTERS
In addition to helping you lessen your carbon footprint, transforming your outdoor space with some edible landscaping could also help protect the health of your soil, which is threatened by climate impacts like erosion, pollution, and losses in organic matter.
Take an in-depth look at climate change’s impact on soil health as well as what’s at stake and what you can do to support a world where we can provide our booming population with fresh, healthy food grown in a sustainable soil ecosystem in Right Under Your Feet: Soil Health and the Climate Crisis.