The garden is no longer banished to a far corner of the back yard. Instead, some homeowners are now putting the kale and carrots on display as parts of an elegant—yet edible—landscape design. The idea allows even a groundskeeping perfectionist to have their yard and eat it, too.

“There’s tremendous interest from consumers in having a local, safe, and sustainable food supply,” says Fred Meyer, co-director of Backyard Abundance (backyardabundance.org), an Iowa City, Iowa, nonprofit that helps homeowners create beautiful, resilient landscapes that provide healthy food and habitat.

“A traditional garden fits that purpose, but if you move that garden closer to the house, maybe around the patio or areas where the family enjoys gathering, then it becomes a part of daily life and not a chore that requires tending. And, beautiful landscapes are inviting, and they say ‘the best thing to add to a garden is your shadow’.”

Elegant onions. The landscaping that gives Justin and Britney Rohner’s suburban home such stunning curb appeal comes from a surprising source—it’s provided by the green onions, chives, kale, swiss chard, and dwarf red amaranth that you would expect to find in the garden. Instead, they line the sidewalk and entryway to the couple’s Gilbert, Arizona, home—proof that elegance can be designed into an edible landscape. Even the flowers in the front yard—dianthes, pansies. marigolds, and more—are all edible. Another area—dubbed the ‘farmacy’— features pansies and violas that are the family’s first medicine cabinet.

While citrus is well adapted in Arizona’s Valley of the Sun, Shamus O’Leary incorporates more exotic species like Star Fruit by using food forest concepts.

“We got started with edible landscaping in 2001,” says Justin. ‘In fact, we closed on our first house on September 11, the day of the terrorist attacks. Like many people at the time, we became concerned about food security and wanted to produce our own, but our lot was small and neighborhood HOA regulations made gardening difficult, so we started sneaking edible plants into our landscaping, hoping nobody would notice.”

Justin adds that the deception didn’t work—the neighbors did notice, but instead of reporting it they came over asking for advice on how to copy the idea. “Before long I was holding classes and delivering talks on edible landscaping and our own landscaping business got very busy designing and installing projects for area homeowners. There was so much interest that in 2014 we started Agriscaping Technologies—a company that uses online tools, education, and professional support to help homeowners and landscape providers transform residential and commercial landscaping into elegant, edible food gardens,” he says.

“Our goal at Agriscaping Technologies (agriscaping.com) is landscapes that taste as good as they look. By joining the best of ornamental landscaping and production agriculture, our growing community of 144 trained professionals are improving local food access and sustainability with landscaping services in 24 states,” he says.

Agriscaping offers online training programs ranging from do-it-yourself homeowners to full certification as Agriscaping Educators and Professionals for landscape designers and contractors. And, a Utopian Harvest program even allows homeowners to participate in local food networks to sell their extra produce.

A dugout under the family trampoline creates a unique microclimate for the Rohners while a tower garden lets strawberries thrive on a landscape wall.

“Edible landscaping has reached the point that some subdivision developers are even offering buyers a choice of either landscaping or agriscaping for their new home,” says Justin.

Microclimate is key. A key feature of the Agriscaping program is identifying microclimates that exist in a homeowner’s landscape and providing details on the best locally adapted edible species to plant, as well as when and where to plant them. “The model we’ve developed fine-tunes the USDA’s climate zone map to reflect temperature and sunlight variations that occur at one’s residence. It’s not uncommon to find up to a 30 degree difference in temperature across the yard and that’s enough to broaden possible plant choices by two climate zones either warmer or cooler,” says Justin.

Justin adds that understanding microclimates not only lets you expand the choice of edibles, it also allows for an extended growing season. “This is allowing us to grow Rainier Cherries—which are very sensitive to temperature and wind—in the harsh conditions in Arizona while some customers are growing bananas as far north as Canada.”

A new computer app from Agriscaping uses a homeowner’s zip code to get growing degree information that is combined with planting date and plant type to provide care instructions based on the stage of growth. “It’s like putting a garden pro in your pocket,” says Justin.

Shamus O’Leary’s food forest is another example of how understanding microclimates enables edible landscaping. On his two-acre yard in Phoenix, Arizona, O’Leary grows scores of fruits and berries that are unique to his area.

“While visiting Hawaii and southeast Asia I became intrigued with the tropical and exotic fruits grown there. However, when I planted them I learned our climate was too harsh and everything died. Now I’ve learned how to create a microclimate that favors things like star fruit, banana, mango, kei apple, papaya, avocado, loquat, figs, and many others not native here,” says O’Leary.

Edible flowers and vegetables provide elegant landscaping to the entry of Justin and Britney Rohner’s Arizona home .

O’Leary creates that microclimate by using tall canopy trees to create shade and manage airflow to tropical trees and shrubs growing below. “Canopy trees need to be tall enough to walk under, or to trim so you can walk under them. They form a natural tent to shade the ground, making it up to 25 degrees cooler in the summer and also warmer in the winter. This is a big deal for lower-growing fruit trees trying to get started underneath. Without this favorable microclimate the list of things I can grow would be far more limited,” he says.

His experience has enabled O’Leary to open his own tropical fruit nursery (greenlifebyshamusoleary.com) with more than 70 rare and exotic offerings. “Education is critical to successfully growing them so besides learning how to establish a microclimate, we teach homeowners proper feeding and watering, There’s more to establishing a food forest than just putting trees, bushes, or plants in the ground,” he says.

Family friendly. Meyer says his favorite landscape plantings in Iowa are divided into ‘front yard edibles’ and ‘back yard edibles’ depending on their ornamental appeal. “The former have a nice shape, beautiful blooms and don’t drop fruit on the lawn. Examples would be cherry and peach trees or serviceberry bushes, which have gorgeous fall color. Back yard edibles could include gooseberries, which are easy to grow and wonderful to eat, but have a more irregular form,” adds Meyer.

“Growing more of your own food makes common sense but needs to be common practice,” adds Meyer. “It’s alarming that the average food item on our grocery shelves travels an average of 1,500 miles to get there, even though we’re surrounded by the most productive agriculture in the world. Edible landscaping gets the entire family involved, provides environmental benefits and returns a bit of sanity and security to chaotic times.” 

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