Edible Landscapes

By Amanda Moon

There is a growing trend in this country to get back to the basics when it comes to both eating and landscaping. One way to combine both of these ideas is to incorporate edible plants into your existing landscape. Many of our food crops are not only satisfying to the palate, but to the eye as well; therefore, they are natural choices for the overall aesthetic of our yards.

One of the easiest ways to incorporate edible plants into the landscape is through the use of fruiting trees for color and shade.

Winter is the best time to plant trees in Texas, as they suffer less transplant shock when they are dormant. Some of the more traditional fruit trees that do well are peach, plum and apple. They bloom beautifully in late winter and then set fruit in the spring and summer. Just make sure the varieties chosen have the correct chilling-hour requirements for Austin (roughly 750 to 950 hours between 32 and 45 degrees). And don’t forget pecan, the state tree of Texas. Pecan trees make beautiful shade trees, and in a good year, the fruit is meaty and delicious—just watch for tent caterpillars, as they can defoliate your tree in a matter of weeks. If you have a large, sunny spot in your yard, consider a fig tree. Although they freeze back in the winter and therefore do not become full-fledged trees, they thrive as a deciduous shrub and bear more and more fruit every year.

Other, not so traditional, fruit trees include pomegranate, persimmon and the mission olive tree. ‘Wonderful’ pomegranate trees grow to 20 feet tall or more, and are beautiful plants with bright orange flowers and fruit that ripens in the fall. There is also a dwarf variety available for smaller landscapes, although the fruit is not as good as that from the larger trees. Oriental persimmons are also quite ornamental; Hachiya and Eureka are two popular choices. These trees are vigorous growers with bright, colorful fruit. Both pomegranate and persimmon trees are well adapted to the Austin area, and are drought-tolerant once established. Another great landscape tree is the mission olive. This particular olive has proven itself to be quite hardy in Texas. The olive tree has gracefully flowing branches with long, gray leaves, creating a textural accent reminiscent of Italy.

One last landscape consideration is the citrus tree. Although they are frost-tender in most of the state, the fragrant flowers add a tropical element to any porch or deck. The delicious Meyer lemon is one of the hardiest citrus trees for Austin.

Late fall until early spring is also the time to plant berries suited for Texas. Strawberries do equally well in hanging baskets to decorate a porch and as a natural edging in a flowerbed. The white flowers and red fruit add a touch of whimsy to any morning sun location. Just make sure you have excellent drainage for them to thrive. Two favorites for Austin are Chandler and Sequoia. Blackberries also work well in the landscape. Grow them up against a privacy or chain-link fence to soften the solid view of wood and metal.  Dewberries are our native blackberry and are also quite edible. Great blackberry varieties for this area include Brazos and Rosborough. Rabbiteye blueberries do best as an ornamental, fruit-bearing deck plant, as our soil is not acidic enough for them to thrive without extra care when planted in the ground. Give them a large pot to grow in and make sure you have two because they require a pollinator for the best fruit production.

Herbs are another group of edibles that work very well in the landscape. Many of our basic herbs are Mediterranean (think hot and dry) in origin, and therefore well suited to Texas. Rosemary, oregano, marjoram, thyme, lavender and sage are all evergreen in our climate. Lavender blooms in late spring and is beautiful mixed in with other full-sun perennials. Rosemary has become a staple landscape shrub for foundation plantings and large accents in many home and commercial landscapes because of its
heat- and drought- tolerance. Other herbs that can be easily incorporated into a flowerbed are bronze fennel (tall, wispy foliage), curled parsley (pretty, bright green mounds) and lemongrass (spiky specimen plant).

Veggies also work very well outside of the garden. Small fruiting peppers add interest in a flowerbed—many are even sold for their ornamental appeal. Swiss chard is another plant that works well in a landscape. Bright Lights chard can be planted en masse to create a colorful border of yellows, oranges and reds. One of the prettiest landscape vegetables is the artichoke. The part of the plant that we consume is actually the unopened flower bud, but if the bud is allowed to mature and open, this member of the thistle family will produce a large purple flower held high above its spiky gray foliage.

By incorporating more edible plants into our general landscape designs (both planted and containerized), it’s possible to enjoy the spoils of a vegetable garden and orchard without the space requirements usually thought necessary for success.