Crunchy, greenish tomatoes at $2.75/lb. Wilted, road-weary lettuce and limp green beans. We’re supposed to eat more veggies, but the offerings at the local supermarket aren’t very appealing. You’d like to grow some of your own food but you don’t have room for a vegetable garden. What can you do?
Try edible landscaping! While it’s traditional to sequester our food plants apart from the ornamentals, many fruit and vegetable plants are very attractive. Let fruits and vegetables take center stage in your garden, as well as in your kitchen.
Apples are the most reliable fruit trees for our area, and they look lovely in the landscape. It’s important to choose varieties resistant to fireblight, which is prevalent along the Front Range. Those with later bloom times are more likely to avoid frost damage. Apples require a pollinator—another apple variety that blooms nearby at the same time. CSU Extension recommendations include Cox Orange, Golden Delicious (a good pollinator), and McIntosh.
Both gooseberries and currents are attractive four-foot shrubs native to the Rockies, and hardy to 10,000 feet. Gooseberries have thorns, while currents do not. Full sun, regular watering and fertile soil will encourage a bigger berry crop; however, these tenacious plants will still grow and produce in more marginal conditions. If you don’t pick the berries, the birds will be sure to clean them up for you.
Rhubarb is another large, ornamental plant (see photo, top). The big green leaves make a bold garden statement and the bright red stems are beautiful as well as tasty. A hardy perennial that dies down to the ground each year, rhubarb needs good soil and regular watering to produce large, tender stems. Remove the flower stalk when it appears in early summer to direct the plant’s energy into growing roots and leaves rather than an abundant (and annoying) seed crop. Be sure to only eat the stems; the leaves are poisonous.
Many annual vegetable plants are beautiful enough to plant among your flowers. Leafy greens such as kale, lettuce, and Swiss chard come in an assortment of striking colors. ‘Bright Lights’ is a chard variety with stems ranging from white to yellow, orange, rose red, and purple! Even petunias don’t come in so many hues. By picking one leaf at a time, instead of cutting the entire head, you can maintain the attractive appearance of your garden beds all summer long. Peppers, eggplant, and summer squash are decorative as well as delicious. In fact, tomatoes used to be grown purely as an ornamental. These crops need moist, fertile soil and a warm, sheltered spot.
Even groundcovers and edging plants can contribute to your table. Alpine strawberries are a real treat. Imagine all the flavor of a large berry concentrated in a half-inch fruit. Alpines don’t put out runners, so plantings stay well-behaved and in-bounds.
No matter what plants you choose to grow, remember good gardening practices. Most edibles appreciate fertile loam, which doesn’t just “happen” in Colorado. Amend your soil before planting. A 3-inch layer of compost dug it in at least 6 – 8 inches deep will improve both sand and clay. Simplify watering by grouping plants with similar irrigation needs. Mulch to even out soil temperatures and moisture, and reduce the need to water. Control pests as they become a problem, but keep in mind that you are growing food you intend to eat.
Growing edibles gives you a double return for your gardening efforts—beauty and food!