At first, Brie Arthur tried to be sneaky by tucking edible plants into the ornamental landscape in front of her house. Her Home Owners Association (HOA) had strict rules against tearing out turf and building raised beds, but she wanted to find a way to grow food.
“I started growing my own food in college after I got E. coli from commercially grown lettuce,” says Arthur, who earned a landscape design degree from Purdue University. “Then, after I bought my first home in the suburbs of Raleigh in 2006, I needed to grow vegetables because I couldn’t afford to shop at Whole Foods.”
So Arthur started “foodscaping” — integrating edibles into ornamental landscapes — by planting lettuce and broccoli in front of the holly hedge lining her sidewalk.
“None of my neighbors even noticed I was growing food in my front yard because it looked beautiful,” says Arthur, a propagator, speaker and public television personality. “By summer I had expanded into my foundation landscape and incorporated my favorite warm-season crops with no complaints, but rather compliments, from the HOA board — and even the honor of being ‘Yard of the Month.’”
Arthur creatively planted around HOA restrictions, utilizing her design background to find potential for food in open mulch space. Since realizing the benefits of foodscaping, other HOAs and even commercial properties are helping Arthur advance this trend from a sneaky workaround to a meaningful shift in the way landscapes are managed.
Utilizing unused space
The problem most HOAs have with planting food is that homeowners want to either remove a tremendous amount of turf or construct an eyesore of a raised bed. Arthur’s approach to foodscaping doesn’t require either.
“People are convinced the only way they can grow food is in a boxed bed,” says Arthur, also the design correspondent for PBS’s “Growing A Greener World.” “I want to get people to think outside the box, because boxes are never going to look good enough to be in your front yard. The food is not always going to look good, either, so I can see why people complain about it. That’s where foodscaping provides the design implementation of utilizing the space you already have.”
A raised box built for crops will look empty and ugly by November, she says. But by incorporating edibles into open mulch space around existing landscapes, the ornamental backdrop keeps the space attractive after seasonal crops fade.
“Ornamentals compensate for the seasonality of food,” Arthur says. “Food isn’t going to be beautiful all year long, so you have this palette of permanent ornamentals that perfectly complement the food when you’re waiting for seeds to germinate or plugs to grow out.”
This makes foodscaping an appealing and functional use of suburban space that’s being irrigated, weeded and mulched, anyway.
“When you grow food in a suburban landscape, you’re not a farmer so you don’t have to grow plants in a row like you’re a farm,” Arthur says. “This strategy enables you to have food spread out through your foundation landscape so you can more easily manage the space organically than you could by doing a big box in the corner of your backyard.”
A perfect match
Foodscaping isn’t just for edibles; in fact, ornamentals are critical. Arthur says edibles, by themselves, lack biodiversity because most crops come from just two families — brassicaceae and solanaceae. Common foundation landscape plants like needlepoint holly, crape myrtle and Knock Out roses, on the other hand, all hail from different families.
“Ornamentals are the most important part of foodscaping because they bring the plant biodiversity, which ultimately results in better insect biodiversity to help manage common pests and reduce diseases,” Arthur says. “Ornamentals make foodscapes easier to manage organically long-term because Knock Out roses attract pollinators at different seasons than solanaceous crops that only bloom through mid-summer.”
Since foodscaping her HOA’s entry landscape — which has become a community garden and seasonal photo op — Arthur has saved the neighborhood money by cutting down on maintenance costs. She doesn’t have to mulch or artificially fertilize the beds like the landscape company did, because combining edibles with ornamentals contributes to healthier soil. Plus, the neighborhood has access to fresh organic produce.
Foodscaping is a balance of aesthetics and cultural conditions. Swiss chard, for example, echoes the brilliant red backdrop of the Encore azalea, while both plants thrive in the amended soil, full sun and light irrigation that are common in suburban landscapes. Arthur’s favorite combinations use sun-loving shrubs as natural stakes for tomatoes.
“Tomatoes aren’t always the most beautiful plants, so I like to pair tomatoes — particularly heirloom tomatoes that grow long and lanky — with upright shrubs like Hydrangea paniculata, quince, lilacs or even Japanese maples,” she says. “These ornamentals provide the structure the tomatoes need, and then hide the foliage when it gets ugly.”
This year, Arthur added 12 varieties of wheat to her one-acre suburban foodscape. Wheat grows like ornamental grass, creating a three-foot-tall privacy screen. It’s mixed with spring-blooming annuals like larkspur, California poppies, nigella and centaurea, and with edibles like cilantro, kale, chard and spinach – turning Arthur’s landscape into a “biodynamic edible meadow.”
Beyond the front yard
Foodscaping has been around since the 1970s, when Rosalind Creasy introduced the concept through her books on edible landscaping. Now, the younger people who are starting to buy homes are concerned about the cost and quality of food in grocery stores, like Arthur, and they’re seeking practical ways to make landscapes more functional than just pretty.
Now, foodscaping is growing beyond the front yard and becoming commercially viable. Arthur isn’t just consulting HOAs but also doctors offices, schools, retirement homes, office parks and several Chick-fil-A locations to incorporate edibles into traditional landscapes. Instead of trying to sneak in vegetables like she did at home, these commercial properties want foodscapes to make bold statements.
“They’re trying to connect with a new demographic that’s more conscientious of health and wellness, and they see landscaping as an opportunity to extend that message,” Arthur says.
The visual of fresh radishes or lettuce growing outside a restaurant communicates a strong message. While customers may have ignored ornamental landscapes, edibles add a recognizable element that stops them in their tracks.
“If nothing else, I’d like to have people greenwashed with food rather than plants that they’re intimidated to learn the name of,” says Arthur, whose book “Foodscaping” will be published next year. “There’s a disconnect between [ornamental] plant nerds and the rest of the world. But food is this great equalizer because we all eat, and even if you don’t buy produce, you do see it in some context. So when you see it in a landscape, you tend to say, ‘Oh my gosh, is that lettuce?’ whereas you don’t necessarily say that about an ornamental because you don’t know or care what it is. There’s a story behind food that resonates with people.”
Because of that recognition, Arthur thinks landscaping companies and ornamental growers can both benefit from foodscaping.
“Foodscaping is a service that landscapers can provide with just a slight shift in paradigm, and ornamental retailers can sell more plants by cross-marketing them with edibles,” she says. “This is a great opportunity for the green industry to make their products more meaningful. The landscape as we know it does not resonate with everyone — particularly people who don’t have a lot of expendable income — but accessing food matters to everyone, period.”
See more of Arthur’s suburban foodscape at www.BrieGrows.com.