My daughter was sure that the ruffled purple cabbages in the fall planting outside a fancy hotel were not the same kind of cabbages that we eat: “But they’re so pretty! They don’t look like the kind of cabbage we put into soup.” (But in fact those elegant landscape plants are cabbages!)
My daughter’s observation came about the same time our neighbors beautified the fence by planting vines with pretty heart-shaped leaves and long purple beans (which turn green when you steam them up to eat). Blueberry bushes started showing up here and there in cities and towns as decorative shrubs (with an extra perk – blueberries!). Landscapers started planting cherry trees not just for their spectacular spring blossoms but also for their fruit for pies or eating.
Edible landscaping has moved in quietly, as more people feel hungry for the flavor of fresh produce free of invisible pesticide residue and are looking for ways to incorporate food-producing plants into their landscape plans. In the twentieth century, many gardeners felt a sharp distinction between the formal landscape plan designed to frame a building with ornamental trees and shrubs and flowers on one hand and a garden or farm field or orchard for growing food on the other. In the last decade, gardeners who might have previously shied away from the messiness associated with growing food have found that carefully chosen and maintained edible plants can add to the beauty and interest of the landscape.
Plus, it’s fun to trade predictable landscaping favorites for plants or trees that give you something more than shade or color. They give you food.
While there are vegetables and herbs that can hold their own in a flower bed –- soft green lettuces, bright red hot peppers, variegated sage – this column is focused on fruits in the edible landscape.
Exploring the Idea of an Edible Landscape
Careful planning for any kind of landscaping project is important, because we are talking about investing years of time and effort. This is different from trying out a new vegetable in the garden for a season.
Visiting farmers’ markets or farm stands is one way of thinking ahead and exploring the taste of locally grow-able varieties of grapes, berries, plums, peaches and apples. Visiting the Arboretum’s shrub and vine collection can show you what to expect a mature highbush or lowbush blueberry will look like and give you ideas about using vines in your own landscape (who knew that a kiwi vine could grow in our neighborhood?).
The Nanking cherry is worth checking out if your landscape could use a dense ornamental hedge with lots of flowers and fruit. A spring stroll on Peter’s Hill in the Arb will give you an idea of the beauty of a mature apple or crabapple tree in bloom. (It makes you think of Anne of Green Gables when she first saw the lane of apple trees she named The White Way of Delight.)
First Steps: Blueberries? Grapes? (and why I would not choose raspberries for landscaping)
For those just easing into the fruited edible landscape, blueberries could be a good way to begin. Like most fruits, they require well-drained soil, preferably a gentle slope, and full sun. Blueberry bushes provide blossoms in the spring, stunning foliage in the fall, and berries loaded with antioxidants. It’s a good idea to have at least three different varieties within 100 feet of one another to provide cross-pollination. (Also ideally at least one bush per blueberry-eater in the family.)
Of course blueberries don’t provide the rich drama of heavy-laden fruit trees, but they have the advantage of relative freedom from the pests and diseases that plague most fruit trees and they mature much faster.
What do blueberries bushes need? That well-drained soil needs to be relatively acid; they also benefit from mulching (a two inch layer of oak leaves and pine needles helps keep soil acid) and very regular watering. Once a year you could prune them. And you can begin to harvest berries two years after you plant (see what I mean about needing to plan ahead?). If you pull the blooms off a bush the first year so that the plant gives all its energy to getting established, you can expect to pick a couple of pints the second year, a couple of quarts the third year, and crops measured in gallons from the fourth or fifth year on.
An alternative choice for a first step into edible landscaping is grapes. Probably the biggest impact you could make on your landscape – a real WOW – would be the introduction of a grape arbor, which can frame a walkway or transform a blank spot in the backyard into a shaded alcove. The grape vines take off right away, doing their business of twining and climbing, and they start producing delicious fruit in the second or third year after planting.
When I was growing up I thought that the only grapes that grew in New England were Concords, those wonderful dark blue ones with the cloudy surface that you take into your mouth and then squish. The fruit pops out of its skin (it’s called a slip-skin fruit), and you have a mouthful of unusual musky or “foxy” flavors going on. When we made grape pies, the skins were an essential part of the recipe. They are first separated from the pulp, and then after the seeds are removed, mixed back in.
The grapes were such a unique taste of New England that when we moved out to California and I was feeling far away, whenever I saw a box of Concord grapes in the market I had the warm feeling of seeing someone from home.
Nowadays there are all kinds of varieties of grapes available for New England gardeners: red and white and pink as well as purple. And they do well. Some friends of mine in East Boston planted their vines in 2010 and this summer there were plenty of clusters of sweet grapes hanging among the lush leaves.
While red and purple grapes are supposed to be especially beneficial for the antioxidants they provide, they are not alone in New England’s edible landscape. According to the nutrition researchers at Tufts, the fruits with the most antioxidant power are prunes (dried plums), raisins (dried grapes), blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, raspberries, plums, oranges, red grapes, and cherries (in that order). Except for the oranges, we can grow all of them right here in Boston!
About those raspberries...
So some raspberry fan is questioning why I didn’t choose to focus on those berries as an easy first step into edible landscaping -- especially because of the attractive financial savings involved. Raspberries at the store are wildly expensive and start to go bad almost before you get them home, while homegrown raspberries are there for the picking and glow with exquisite flavor and freshness throughout the season. Our younger daughter planted raspberries last year and has been reveling in luscious berry desserts this summer.
But there are some downsides to growing raspberries and blackberries; they need good air circulation -- which means giving them lots of room -- and cane fruits (such as raspberries) require the construction of trellises of horizontal wires to keep them neat and upright. (My stylish aunt approved of well-maintained raspberries as the only berries she would harvest, because the berries were right there on the top of the bush where she could pick them without having to bend down. She always wore her high heels when picking berries.)
And, I need to be honest about my relationship with raspberries: I hate thorns, and an experience I had trying to bring order to an overgrown patch of berry brambles some years ago has made it impossible for me to mention raspberries and easy in the same sentence. And delicious as they are, raspberries can look scruffy toward the end of the season, just when blueberries are strutting their fall foliage, so they don’t hit my all-star list of landscaping favorites. My daughter would strongly disagree with me on this one.
The Beauty and Bedevilment of Fruit Trees
A larger step into edible landscaping with fruits is the category of fruit trees. Trees are the pillars on which landscapes depend. Their shape, flowers, foliage and fruit can determine the success of a landscape plan. Planting berries or grapes is a relatively low-risk investment of time compared to the decision to plant and maintain fruit trees.
I’ve always dreamed of growing a tree or two of my Dad’s favorite Northern Spy apples, an all purpose flavorful apple that is great in pies. When we were growing up we made a pilgrimage each fall to an orchard that grew Spies. On the way home the sharp aroma of the heirloom apples filled the car, pleasantly mixing with the expectation of the pies and applesauce to come. It was my job to cut the apples and cook them with their skins on and then smoosh the soft chunks around against the sides of the food mill so that the tart-sweet pink applesauce came through its holes. (In these modern days when fibre is a virtue, I smoosh less and leave the skins in the sauce.)
But nostalgia aside, fruit trees are susceptible to disease, and their fruits are vulnerable to insects. It’s no wonder commercial orchardists are out spraying their trees and then back again whenever there is a heavy mist that threatens to dilute the chemicals they just finished spraying.
Why it is so difficult to grow fruit trees, especially that all-American apple tree? One reason may lie in the history of the apple and its long manipulation by humans.
Apples don’t grow “true to seed;” that is, if you plant the seed of an apple you like, you are not likely to reap fruit of the same size, color, taste, or texture. In fact, the five seeds in one apple could result in five trees that have very different apples. There are a crazy number of variables.
Over time, people have found ways of getting the kinds of apples they wanted by grafting the branch of a tree with desirable apples into a trunk with a healthy set of apple tree roots. (This was already taking place thousands of years ago!) If you look closely at an apple tree you can usually see where the graft took place.
Grafting is a fascinating process. JP plant-lover and political activist Brian Cady couldn’t resist trying his hand at it earlier this season. His mother’s peach tree has suffered every spring from peach leaf curl, which causes the leaves to drop off and stresses the tree so much it produces little fruit. Brian found a variety of peach tree which is resistant to peach leaf curl and grafted a branch of it into his mother’s peach tree. Brian had been thinking about grafting ever since he heard about this amazing process of joining trees as a kid. He actually tried to graft a twig from one tree into another as a youngster (not realizing that even though the leaves looked similar, one of the trees was a mountain ash and the other a honey locust).
In any case, for thousands of years gardeners have experimented with apple trees. The ancient Greeks wrote essays about their grafting techniques. The Romans spread knowledge of the fruit through their empire, and French Huguenots and English Puritans came to pride themselves on their orchards. There were always new characteristics to introduce: flavor, color, cold tolerance,resistance to a specific disease, increased productivity, and so on. English settlers brought their best young apple trees with them to America.
So what does this long history of grafting and tweaking for specific characteristics have to do with the challenges of growing apple trees? Jeremy Dick, the Boston Natural Areas Network horticulturalist, speculates that the trees we are growing today have been so manipulated in their long relationship with humans that their natural resistance to diseases and pests may have been weakened and the trees made more vulnerable. Many of the apple trees we grow today are vulnerable to scab, scale, cedar-apple rust, fire blight, powdery mildew, sooty blotch, bitter pit, apple maggot fly, codling moth, mice, voles, and so on.
It is possible to grow your fruit trees organically; there are sprays of natural chemicals to help protect the trees and their fruit. Some folks say that cherries are easier to grow than other fruits; they don't need to be pruned as regularly, and the plagues and pests don't seem to affect fruit production.
But the reward of trees full of fruit comes at the price of continued attention. There are specific points in the season when a problem needs to be addressed: a time to set your codling moth traps and a time to protect your fruits from plum curculio by spraying them with a dilute clay solution which irritates the insects. It is a daunting task, protecting a tree from disease and predators.
Hmm. About those Northern Spy apples I wanted to grow -- I just checked on the web for local growers and discovered that there is an orchard in Harvard, Mass. where I can get my Northern Spy fix.
Preparing the site
If you decide to add some fruit -- berries, shrub cherries, vines or trees -- to the landscape next spring, right now is the time to choose and prepare the spot where you want to plant (remember to plan a space for the full-sized plants). All the fruits we’ve mentioned prefer well-drained soil, a gentle slope if possible, and full sun. Actually sunny south or western slopes may be too much of a good thing, because in the winter these slopes tend to warm up (and warm plants up) before the danger of frost has passed.
Remember to think about pollinators; how many bushes or trees will you need to insure a good harvest? All apple trees require a second variety of apple tree for pollination (just about any apple or crabapple within a quarter mile will do; in our part of Boston that is probably not a problem). Some pears, plums, peaches, and blueberries appear to be self-pollinating, but a second variety may foster more abundant pollination - and therefore fuller fruit baskets.
Once you’ve chosen the right place, you need to test your soil. While blueberries like acid soil (pH 4.0 – 5), soil for grapes should be less acid (5.8 – 7). Soil for fruit trees should be between pH 5.5 and 8, toward the higher end for peaches and the lower end for apples. The test results should give suggestions of amendments to adjust the acidity.
Now you can begin to apply compost and/or soil amendments over the whole area where you plan to dig the hole(s) next spring. Fedco has a tree planting guide that is useful, except that our Boston soil is usually already so rich in calcium that it probably doesn’t need any more. Adding seaweed to the mix is always a good idea.
And once you’ve done your planning and preparation you can relax for the winter with dreams of fresh fruit as part of your landscape in coming years. You might even have time to explore the fascinating history of apples further in Michael Pollan’s Botany of Desire, Frank Browning’s prize-winning Apples, or the beautiful book by Brookline author Amy Traverso, The Apple Lover’s Cookbook.