Some gardens are workhorses, dedicated to growing food, while others are supermodels, all about adding beauty. But more of today’s gardens are multi-taskers, expected to do both.
Author Emily Tepe (“The Edible Landscape,” $24.95, Voyageur Press) doesn’t accept the old notion that food-producing plants should be segregated in their own plot. She advocates combining them freely with ornamentals to add color, texture and visual interest to beds and containers. “I believe a yard can be both beautiful and productive,” she writes.
Tepe’s handiwork was on public display for several growing seasons on the St. Paul campus of the University of Minnesota, where she designed an edible landscape demonstration garden while she was a graduate student and fruit researcher. (Another student took over the garden last year.) Agriculture is a second career for Tepe, who spent a decade working in theater design before a garden epiphany convinced her she wanted to spend more time outdoors.
Tepe, a research associate with the university’s Department of Horticultural Science, now lives in Wyoming most of the year, but she’ll be returning to the Twin Cities this month for a series of seminars and book-signings.
Q: Are you surprised at the way edible landscaping has taken off?
A: I am a little bit. The Victory Garden thing is coming back. It goes along with local food, farmers markets, CSAs — I think the Obama White House garden has been an influence, and books like Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.” People are talking more about pesticides, and thinking, “I should just do this myself, then I don’t need to be worried about it.” Edible landscaping is as local as local can be. Whatever is sending people into their gardens is good.
Q: Why did you decide to write a book?
A: I started a blog (www.artichokesandzinnias.com) to share resources. The acquisitions editor at Voyageur Press contacted me in summer 2010 and asked if I was interested in writing a book. I hadn’t thought about it, but I enjoy writing about edible landscaping and thought it could be a great opportunity.
Q: What did you think was missing from other books on the topic?
A: There are a lot of books but few focused on northern climates. We have our own set of challenges. I wanted to address those while being inspiring to people everywhere.
Q: What makes growing edibles especially challenging up here?
A: The shortness of the season means having to think ahead and get things started inside. Some of the perennials we have to work a little harder to protect. With fruit plants, it’s important to choose the right varieties that are hardy here. And placement is important. We have to create protected spaces. Even for herbs — they might say they’re hardy, but if you don’t have good snow cover, they might not make it.
Q: What are your favorite edible plants for northern gardeners?
A: I’m strangely enamored of Swiss chard. It’s such an easy plant to grow and so pretty. It’s my favorite. You can’t really mess it up. I’ve only seen it bolt once in my life. I also like other greens — kale and lettuces. You can stick them in here and there, and they play off a lot of ornamentals. They seem to look good so easily. Then there’s tomatoes. Everyone loves to have them, but it takes thought and creativity to have them look nice.
Q: What do you suggest?
A: Instead of the standard ugly tomato cage, build or find an interesting trellis for support. Maybe an old wrought-iron headboard from an antique bed, for a little decorative flair. Plant colorful things around the base, like signet marigolds. The rounded form looks nice and hides ratty stems.
Q: What can someone do now if they want a more edible landscape this growing season?
A: Now is a good time for looking through catalogs, thinking about what you want to eat. If people want to put in fruit this year, they should start ordering from nurseries now. There are a lot of great fruit nurseries online. Most won’t ship until it’s closer to planting time, but many will run out of the popular varieties, so people should get their orders in as soon as possible. Just be sure to purchase varieties that are hardy to your area. Most nurseries will have this information on their websites. Strawberries are easy and fun to grow, and a great way for new gardeners to incorporate some fruit into their landscapes.
Q: When should gardeners start seedlings?
A: I wouldn’t start tomatoes and peppers until well into March. If you grow them too long inside, they’ll get leggy and spindly. With some herbs — oregano, sage, thyme — it’s good to start early. February is not too early, as long as they’re in a nice, sunny window. Lettuces, chard and kale are some of the first things to plant outside — as soon as you can get a trowel into the ground. But make sure to harden things off before you take them outside. Let them get used to the outdoor climate during the day, then bring them in as the night gets cold. When it gets warm in March, we all assume it’s going to stay warm, but in the climate we live in, it’s important not to jump the gun.
Q: What did you learn doing the edible landscape demonstration garden at the university?
A: The first year, I made some huge mistakes. I planted nasturtiums and peppers together. I had an idea the nasturtiums would ramble underneath the peppers, but they got bigger and overpowered the peppers. The textures didn’t go together. Trial and error is really fun. Petunias and peppers did work together. I used lavender petunias, and the coolness of the color really popped against the dark, glossy green peppers.
Q: What are common mistakes people make when adding edibles to their landscape?
A: The big one is trying to do too much, too fast. It’s easy to get in over your head when perusing seed catalogs. Start small. Try a few things that are easy. Work up to it. Another mistake is not paying enough attention to light. Tomatoes and peppers do need six to eight hours of sunlight a day. That’s a problem for a lot of urban gardeners. Pick plants for the right spots. Greens don’t need that kind of intense sunlight.
Q: How does your design experience influence you as a gardener?
A: I spend a lot of time thinking about colors, textures and backgrounds. Even though I don’t have technical training in landscape design, I think about plants and how I put them together. A lot of it depends on your personal taste. What plants do you like to eat? What feels good to you — a formal garden or a crazy, cottage-style garden? It’s so personal. You can play around with it and change it from year to year.