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An edible education

It’s not too late to visit the Edible Landscape, especially if one is looking for tasty inspiration

By Emily Tepe and Adam Overland

Edible Garden 165
An sign leading to the Edible Landscape asks "What's Growing on?"

September 30, 2009

The University of Minnesota Edible Landscape was conceived of in January 2009, while several inches of snow still covered the beds in the Demonstration and Trial Gardens on the St. Paul campus. Emily Hoover, professor and head of the Department of Horticultural Science, wanted to see something new in the gardens. With the rising cost of food, growing concern about “food miles” and food safety, and the push toward eating locally, the logical choice for the season seemed to be an organically managed garden showing how fruit and vegetables might be incorporated into the home landscape.

Emily Tepe, research and extension fellow, Department of Horticultural Science, took on the special project. She wanted to encourage more people to try growing their own food, by making edible plants look spectacular in the garden. "Learning to appreciate the ornamental qualities of edibles may get more people growing their own, spending more time outside, eating what they grow and hopefully becoming healthier because of it," says Tepe.

The Edible Landscape takes advantage of the forms, textures, and colors of food plants to enhance the aesthetics of the landscape while offering fresh, organic food for the gardener. The plants include vegetables, fruits, herbs, and edible flowers such as calendula, bachelor buttons, and nasturtium. And like a four-course meal over a delicious evening, the landscape evolves with the seasons, taking advantage of various plants that reach their peak at different times.

Tepe has been blogging about the garden all spring, summer, and fall, connecting readers to Extension bulletins, fact sheets, newsletters, and other University-produced, research-based information on how to grow certain crops, common pests and diseases and how to deal with them, planting guides, and other U of M resources such as the Soil Testing Lab.

And the work has had been both personally fulfilling and, well…filling. "I don't think I've bought a vegetable from the grocery store since May," says Tepe. "Working on this garden has made me want to eat with the season even more than shopping at the farmer's market. As any gardener will tell you, there's something so satisfying about knowing you produced that food--and there truly is nothing like eating a tomato that is still warm from the heat of the sun."

It’s not too late to visit the Edible Landscape, especially if one is looking for inspiration on how to get started. The garden is divided into beds, dissected with wandering paths that weave through creative groupings of edible and ornamental plants, both annuals and perennials. By taking a stroll through the garden, it is easy to see how a few edibles could be incorporated into an existing landscape, or how one might start an edible landscape from scratch. Colorful signage placed at the ends of the beds guide visitors to some of the features of the garden.

Adding it All Up

In the spring, leaf lettuces and other salad greens filled the garden with a rainbow of color and texture long before the flowers bloomed. Gradually, warm season plants like cucumbers, squash, peppers, tomatoes and eggplant took their place along with the many flowers that attract bees and other beneficial insects. Now, as fall approaches, cool-season crops like beets, radishes, and leaf lettuces are filling in, providing interest and produce through the first few frosts. Mainstays such as Swiss chard, kale, and about 15 varieties of herbs have been colorful and productive throughout the season.

In addition to vegetables and herbs, the Edible Landscape includes a variety of fruits. A raspberry patch is surrounded by colorful flowers, which help to support the arching canes. Container-grown blueberries can be found peeking out from among the summer squash and peppers. Strawberries creep along the ground under eggplant and marigolds. Currant and gooseberry bushes anchor the garden with their sturdy structure, offering great edible alternatives to ornamental shrubs.

Naturally, by late-September some of the season’s grandeur has started to fade. The towering dill has gone to seed and turned a dry shade of copper. The cosmos, sunflowers, and borage reached such lofty heights during the summer that they are growing weary of holding themselves up. Despite that, they are still full of activity from butterflies, bees, and hoverflies anxiously feeding on pollen and nectar while it lasts.

Powdery mildew, a common fungal disease, has taken hold in recent weeks, casting a dusty haze over the squash, zinnias, and bee balm. This could have been controlled as it started to show up in late-August, but at this point in the season, as most plants are beginning to fade anyway, it doesn’t pose much of a problem. It can, however, be a valuable teaching tool for numerous CFANS courses like plant pathology, and the plant pathology students that visit the gardens will be able to see this and other plant diseases firsthand.

The Edible Landscape is a 1,500 square foot garden, containing almost 70 varieties of plants, about 50 of which are edible and cover approximately half of the area of the garden. As of September 15, almost 400 pounds of fresh produce had been harvested:

Chard 79 pounds
Zucchini 38 pounds
Lettuces 33 pounds
Eggplant 46 pounds
Tomato 28 pounds
Cucumber 26 pounds
Carrots 23 pounds
Peppers 24 pounds

View a slideshow of the garden.

Most of these plants are still producing heavily. In mid-August, open areas in the garden were seeded with beets, radishes, leaf lettuces and kale. These are all fast growers that don’t mind, and in some cases are enhanced by the cooler weather to come.

Benefits of an Edible Landscape

  • It’s a great way to teach children about where their food comes from, without sacrificing the beauty of an ornamental landscape.
  • Edible plants can offer textures and colors that are unmatched even by many ornamentals. Think of silvery blue kale, contrasting rows of red and green leaf lettuces, glossy leaves and deep red stems of chard, and the ruby red leaves of a blueberry shrub in autumn.
  • Inter-planting flowers with vegetables, herbs and fruits helps reduce pests in the garden.
  • Homeowners can grow the foods they and their families like the best, and they can grow unusual varieties that are rarely found at the grocery store or even at the farmer’s market.
  • Water is used to produce food, rather than on an expansive lawn or ornamental garden.

The Edible Landscape is located on the U of M St. Paul Campus, just outside the Plant Growth Facility on Gortner Ave