Creeping thyme spills over flagstones for an
attractive and edible ground cover.
Sustainable and edible options
make a great alternative
BY SUSAN E. MILLER
PHOTOGRAPHY BY DAVID JOHNSON
You’ve embraced the move to natural living. Recycling is part of your routine. You buy organic food whenever possible. Even your laundry detergent is friendly to the water supply.
You’re feeling better about your impact on the world when you glance out the window and realize you need to mow the lawn—that big, wide green expanse surrounding your house, rimmed on the edges by some bushes and annual flowers.
You’re thinking about the amount of gas needed to run the mower all summer and the intensive watering your shrubs require. Perhaps your outdoor world is ready for a change, too.
If you fear you’ll have to yank all the bushes or spend more time on maintenance, don’t worry—a sustainable landscape is possible for anyone and can be a change for the better.
Sustainable landscape design The overarching definition of sustainability is that you don’t borrow from future generations to meet current needs. Anything sustainable has these three elements in common: ecological, social and economic good.
Asparagus grows into an attractive multistemmed
bush that turns golden in the fall.
Sustainable elements in landscape are used in the design itself, as well as in the construction and management of the area. Whether you are a new gardener or have an established landscape, the idea of creating a more sustainable design might be daunting, for different reasons.
“I encourage people to start where they’re at,” said Lucie Martin, owner of Lucie Martin Design, LLC, a Northern Indiana–based company specializing in sustainable landscape design. Martin’s work is founded on the principle that every landscape has the capability of being beneficial to human and environmental health.
The beginning, very timid gardener can start by planting containers with herbs, strawberries or vegetables. More experienced gardeners can introduce new plants to their existing design.
“I think people are being inspired to grow in underutilized spaces,” Martin said. She likes to do regionally appropriate designs that follow the common sense that plants suited to a zone won’t require quite as much nurturing.
“I use native plants for a number of reasons, but one reason is that they’ll do well,” she said. “Diversity creates a healthy environmental ecosystem.”
SUSTAINABLE WITH A TOUCH OF EDIBLE
One way of introducing some edibles is to do a hybrid plan. If you need to replace a tree or bush consider an edible replacement like pawpaw or serviceberry.
“The healthiest design incorporates both sustainable and edible elements,” Martin said.
Edible plants automatically make the landscape more inviting, beckoning visitors to explore what’s around a curve or inviting them to stoop and run a finger over the creeping thyme snaking around the stepping stones. Plus, edible landscapes can be beautiful. Consider using edibles as ornamentals—berries, creeping thyme and even squash vines work nicely. If you have an arbor or pergola, add a grapevine rather than climbing roses.
Blueberry shrubs provide edible
fruit and beautiful red fall color.
“It is sort of luscious to surround yourself with fruit,” Martin said. She noted that it is also important to consider the question of “edible for whom?”—just us or animals, too?
For example, if you live in a wooded area, you can expect to see the occasional deer roam into your yard. If you have no interest in sharing your succulent apples with them, try a strategically placed planting of some thorny bushes to deter them.
FULL-FLEDGED EDIBLE DESIGN
If you long for the ability to wander into your yard and eat almost anything you touch, then consider a fully edible plan. Like any landscaping plan, this involves layering.
“From an aesthetic point of view, more of a naturalistic or informal look is suited to edible and sustainable designs,” Martin said. Pops of color can appear in edible annuals, such as pansies or nasturtiums. For an edible hedge, try asparagus, rhubarb or berry bushes.
(See sidebar below for more on plant options.)
BEYOND THE PLANTS
If you think an edible and sustainable landscape will be high maintenance, note that a traditional vegetable garden is the highest maintenance design of all. There isn’t a “no maintenance” way and for most gardeners that isn’t an issue. With some forethought, however, you can eliminate some work.
Purdue University Cooperative Extension Service produces publications to aid the home gardener. In “Fruits and Nuts for Edible Landscaping,” it explains the importance of considering climate and soil quality when selecting plants. Blueberries, for instance, are very specific in regard to soil needs. They must be located where the soil is, or can be made, acidic and a large quantity of organic matter can be added to the soil. If you will be fighting your soil, pick a different plant.
Serviceberry are great edible ornamental
trees for humans and wildlife.
Watering can become manageable when thought is given to materials used in walkways and patio areas. “A permeable surface, such as pea gravel, is an important element as it allows water to soak in,” Martin said. And a healthy layer of mulch, some of the best being leaves and chemical-free grass, will help the soil retain moisture and will cut down on weeding.
Pests are drawn to a monoculture and to stressed plants. So, a mixed landscape will help reduce bugs. Remember to try tricks like aluminum foil to keep squash bugs at bay. When the seedlings first emerge or are set out, create a barrier with aluminium foil. Use a piece 1½ inches wide by 3 to 4 inches long, positioning it around the plant, and pushing it down into the soil to secure it. This prevents the larvae from entering the stem. As the plant grows, the foil expands to accommodate the expanding stem. As for the destructive tomato worm, “Chickens find them irresistible,” Martin said with a smile.
To learn more about transforming your outdoor space into something livable and good for the world around you, take classes, search for more information online and don’t be afraid to experiment.
Susan E. Miller is owner of Creative Chameleon Writing Services in Bremen, Indiana. She offers professional writing services to businesses and is a personal historian, working with families and businesses to capture their stories. Learn more at www.ccwms.com.
Here are some plants to consider for a sustainable and edible landscape:
- Vines for arbors, pergolas or other structures: grape
- Low ground cover: strawberry, creeping thyme
- Shrub or bush from 3 to 8 feet in height: blackberry, blueberry, currant, elderberry, gooseberry, quince, raspberry, serviceberry
- Large shrub or small tree 8 to 15 feet: apples, apricot, cherry (tart), filbert, pawpaw, peach, plum (European), quince, serviceberry
- Attractive blossom display: apple, apricot, cherry, crabapple, peach, pear, plum, quince, serviceberry
- Attractive fall foliage display: blueberry, crabapple, persimmon, serviceberry Plants for specific uses:
- Food source for wildlife: blueberry, cherry, crabapple, raspberry (black), serviceberry, strawberry, nut trees
- Choices for containers: apple (dwarf ), blueberry, crabapple, currant, gooseberry, peach (dwarf ), pear (dwarf ), strawberry
Source: “Fruits and Nuts for Edible Landscaping,” Purdue University Cooperative Extension Service
Lucie Martin holds a Master of Arts degree in Landscape Design from the Conway School of Landscape Design, a graduate program in Sustainable Landscape Planning and Design, www. csld.edu. Along with a previous career as a nurse, Lucie brings a unique perspective that is grounded in both design and health principles.