Increasingly, folks are realizing the benefits of growing edibles in their yards and in containers on their patios and decks. With careful planning, you can integrate annual and perennial edibles into your ornamental landscape.
The benefits that can be derived from homegrown vegetables and fruits include enhancing taste and nutrition, eliminating transport costs and reducing food costs.
So what does it take to get started?
Before incorporating edibles in your landscape, think about the balance between productivity, romance, order and charm. Look at your existing space and think about the poetry of the show, as it will evolve through the seasons. In order for edibles to thrive and produce, be sure to consider these four elements:
- Location: It's important because most edibles perform and yield best with at least 6 hours of full sun per day. When planting, keep tall plants on the northern edge of the garden and avoid planting edibles where current or future shade will occur. A camera is a handy tool to record how much sun a particular area gets; snap a shot every hour through the day to get the tally. If you are trying to create shade in a garden, remember fruit trees and trellises with fruiting vines provide shade with an edible bonus.
- Seasonal planting: It helps to know what to plant and when to plants it. Vegetable seeds germinate at certain soil temperatures and are accordingly classified as warm season and cool season crops. Generally, you eat the roots, tubers, bulbs and leaves of cool season crops. These include spinach, turnips, carrots, cabbage and beets. You eat the seeds or fruit of warm season crops, which include corn, melons, tomatoes, peppers, beans, eggplants and pumpkins. Warm season crops should be planted when soil temperatures range from 65 degrees to 80 degrees. Cool season crops germinate when soil temperatures are between 40 and 60 degrees. Soil thermometers, available in most nurseries, give the best indication of when to plant. Never plant until the soil reaches the right temperature for the edible of your choice as the wrong temperature can stunt and reduce the viability of the plant.
- Companion planting: Happening naturally in the wild, plants can be positioned to balance their differences and optimize their unique traits. Because plants don't like to fight for their nutrients, shallow rooted plants prefer to grow near deep-rooted plants permitting each to get nutrients from a different level in the soil. Some smaller plants even like a bit of weather protection from bigger plants. Native Americans utilized a planting method that perfectly illustrates this principle: the "Three Sisters Garden" of corn, beans and squash. The three vegetables were planted together allowing shallow rooted corn to be protected (shaded) by large squash leaves. Beans growing up the corn stalk gave stability and enriched the soil fixing atmospheric nitrogen by means of their root systems in a form of symbiosis with Rhizobium bacteria.
- Crop rotation: This is the practice of growing different crops in the same area in sequential seasons. Crop rotation assists in pest management and helps to prevent soil-borne disease. It also helps to reduce nutrient depletion of soil. An easy way to conceptualize crop rotation is to rotate where you plant "vegetable families" — Cucurbitaceae (squash, cucumbers and melons); Solanaceae (tomato, pepper, potato, and eggplant); Brassicaceae (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, and kale); and Chenopodiaceae (beets, chard and spinach) — every three or four years. Lettuces, beans and herbs can be planted on a nonrotational basis.
If you'd like to learn more about what, when and how to plant fruits and vegetables, visit the "Backyard to Belly" grow sheets for vegetables and fruites on the Marin Master Gardeners website.