Edible Landscaping: An Eco-Friendly Investment You Can Profit From

In the two years since our family ripped out our smallish front lawn to plant food, the financial and quality-of-life benefits have been many, but one in particular has me smiling: I no longer get solicited by neighborhood kids or the occasional unemployed adult to have our lawn mowed.

Edible landscaping, for us, has been an investment that pays off in small and big ways, and now, when I see people walk down the sidewalk in front of our house, they're staring in admiration. A few weeks ago, I watched with my jaw open as a group of college students with backpacks stopped to take several photos of my yard.

Small Outlay, Big Return

What's more, it produces big value. Last year, I estimated my garden yielded about $1,000 of produce for about $200 in seeds, fertilizer and plants. Not bad for a beginner. A more established gardening couple measured their crops for 2008 and estimated their net yield was $2,149.15 on a 1/25 of an acre plot. (Here's a round up of their harvest.)

While a number of feel-good reasons exist to switch from a conventional grass lawn to edible landscaping, in simple terms, it's both lower maintenance and (if you follow a few basic principles) less investment of water, fertilizer, and the labor of the neighborhood underemployed.

Let's talk about those feel-good reasons, though. First, it's a way to be kind to the Earth year-round. Access to a wide variety of flowering edible plants gives bees the diverse, high-quality diet that helps them fight Colony Collapse Disorder and it preserves the structure of the soil better to prevent erosion. Vegetable and fruit gardeners also tend to use far fewer harmful chemical pesticides and fertilizers than lawn gardeners. Fruit and nut trees provide habitat and food for wild birds, squirrels and the lower members of the food chain.

Second, edible landscaping can be richly beautiful. Yes, pansies and rhododendrons are pretty, but in my opinion, they don't hold a candle to the bunches of flowering lavender, rosemary and thyme plants, winding grape vines and the stunning red-gold sunflowers that border my front yard in the summer.

Many edible plants like those herbs and grape vines are attractive most of the year. I particularly love the architectural starkness of a wintered-over grape vine and the first green-tipped plum branches in February. Of course, in the summer, my yard is a riot of sunflowers and fat green figs and the wild curlicues of bean vines and the exuberant spreading of pumpkins, and there are rich colors, buzzing bees, happy birds, and raspberries as big as a baby's nose and almost as cute.

Third, edible landscaping makes for happy neighbors and more community-focused neighborhoods. These neighborhoods have extraordinary benefits in well-being (happiness is, according to a multi-decade study, based chiefly on "wide and deep relationships with those around you") and can even result in better health. Every edible landscaper I know reports having seen a complete shift in their relationships with their neighbors after starting to grow food in their front yard. "People stop to talk every day," one city gardener said in awe. Urban planners and academics agree that edible landscapes help build stronger communities. Researchers say that strong communities lead to healthier people, with benefits from better immune systems to resistance to heart disease.

A Productive Selection

Edible landscapes can range in labor intensity from extreme to virtually effortless. The following is a selection of plants that were named by experts and friends as the most productive, in food and beauty, with the least amount of fuss.
  • Blueberries. A perennial that requires almost no effort beyond annual fertilizing with compost and occasional watering, the blueberry is delicious, fantastically good for you and gorgeous. Garden newbies will be wowed by the dainty, bell-shaped blossoms blueberries show off in the spring. Many varieties retain their leaves through the winter, and some display surprising and lovely red fall foliage. Blueberries are easy to harvest -- no thorns or ladders -- and equally easy to preserve. I spread them by the pint on cookie sheets in the freezer, and then keep them in a jar for snacks, smoothies, muffins and pancakes all winter. The Oregonian last week named the blueberry the Edible Plant of the Year.
  • Swiss chard. An annual that sprouts straight out of the soil and can even survive a few light snowfalls, Swiss chard is brilliantly hued, easy to grow and incredibly nutritious. If you're the sort who likes to group plants by color, you can even choose from ruby-, silver- or rainbow-ribbed varieties. The plants I've put into my garden have defied the description of "annual" and have continued to produce for over two years now. What's more, in relatively temperate climates, chard can be harvested at just about any time of year, making it a great vegetable for those who wish to go local all the time.
  • Rhubarb. Another hardy perennial that requires little effort but does like full sun, rhubarb is a showy harbinger of spring that will surprise gardeners by continuing to produce tangy red stalks into the fall. A rhubarb rootstock can be purchased for only a few dollars and, once planted, needs virtually no investment other than fertilizer and compost in the early spring.
  • Shelling and dry beans. While their time in your garden each year is short, their growth rates are stunning and their crops unmatched. Some varieties of green beans sport vines that reach 8 to 12 feet tall with winding, curling shoots and blossoms that range from creamy white to a deep crimson red. While in bloom, bean plants look like a decorative flowering plant. Some bean plants' beauty even extends to their amazing seeds. While preparing the soil and putting up nets for the vines to grow on does take a bit of time (my bean beds took me a good weekend of work), the seeds are so easy to grow into big plants that cultivating them is a common project for elementary school students.
  • Fig trees. Fig trees are beautiful, from the first bits of leaves sprouting at the ends of each branch in April to their sensual purple harvest. The color of ripe fruit is nuanced and the leaves' shape is so lovely it's part of classical art history. Fig trees are relatively fast-growing, resilient and easy to maintain. While pruning is nice to keep your tree under control, it's not necessary once your tree is established. The best part about figs, of course, is the fruit. Harvesting them can require daily attention, yet they're easy to preserve by drying or making into jammy filling that will have you rethinking the whole concept of fig bars. Jim Gilbert of One Green World told The Oregonian that popular varieties of figs "are self-fertile, often bear the year after planting and are not bothered by pests or diseases."
  • Herbs. Perennial and annual, herbs give you the most edible bang for your buck, literally. An analysis by one garden writer has cilantro clocking in at number one: $21.20 in value per square foot, with dill and chives just behind at $16.40. Lavender, sage, thyme and rosemary all flower in the spring and summer, some sending up delicate floral shoots of brilliant and pastel hues, and can be harvested just about year-round, depending on climate. Parsley, chives, dill and chervil can be easily grown from seed, making them a great bargain; but the perennials are nearly as good a value as starts cost a few dollars and can last for healthy, beautiful decades.
Edible landscaping reaps all sorts of benefits from the environmental to the emotional, and the financial, as well. If I were to select just one way to spend Earth Day, I'd skip the litter pickups and the activism and plant edible trees and shrubs where once there was lawn. The investment is small; the payoff is nuanced and multifaceted.
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