Gardens good enough to eat

  • Article by: KIM PALMER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 11, 2010 - 9:17 PM

The edible landscape trend is transforming lawns and gardens, both public and private, as more people experiment with mixing food plants with ornamentals.

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Thomas DeGree likes the scents he cultivates in his garden. This pot in the outdoor kitchen contains thyme and other herbs handy for cooking.

Photo: Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune

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Last year, Tom DeGree and Dean Schlaak tended a big, 40- by 20-foot vegetable garden behind their home in Lake Elmo. Or tried to tend it.

Most of the time, they were too busy running their Minneapolis restaurant, Wilde Roast Cafe, to give the garden enough attention. "It didn't get tended," DeGree said. "It just became too much."

This year, DeGree is still growing vegetables and herbs, but on a smaller scale, and combining them with ornamental plants in beds and containers. "I mix them with the flowering stuff," he said.

That approach, sometimes called "edible landscaping," is one of the hottest trends in horticulture.

"There's a lot of interest," said Emily Tepe, a University of Minnesota research fellow who created an edible landscape (www.umediblelandscape.blogspot.com) on the St. Paul campus last year. "It's part of the local food movement." A lot of people don't have space or time to tend a huge vegetable garden, so they're taking a few favorite edible plants and working them in, as part of the landscape. "It's almost a new concept, the idea of mixing," Tepe said.

The term has been around since at least 1982, the year California landscape designer Rosalind Creasy published "The Complete Book of Edible Landscaping." The book sparked a flurry of interest, becoming a bestseller and putting Creasy on "Good Morning America." Then the topic faded from public view for decades, only to roar back with a vengeance last year.

"This edible thing is taking off like a rocket -- we're just holding on," said Creasy, who has sold out some recent lectures and is publishing an updated edition of her book, now titled "Edible Landscaping," later this year. "We're in a perfect storm. It's the economy and people's desire to save money on the price of food. There's more environmental awareness, particularly by young people. Then there's the whole food-safety issue."

Edible landscaping is different from ripping out your lawn and replacing it with a vegetable garden, Creasy said. "That doesn't work for most people. An edible landscape is still beautiful, but includes edible plants. Instead of putting in a crabapple tree, put in a real apple tree. When putting in shrubs, why not put in a gorgeous blueberry plant?"

Edibles on campus

For the edible landscape at the U, Tepe incorporated a lot of greens. "Little leaf lettuces are a great substitute for flowers, and you can clip them all season," she said. "Swiss chard is one of my favorites because there's such a variety of stem and leaf color." She also used edible flowers, such as Signet marigolds, and herbs, including lavender, oregano and thyme.

The landscape also included tomatoes, although "making them look pretty is a challenge," Tepe said, because of the staking required. Instead of the traditional tomato cage, Tepe substituted steel spiral stakes. "It worked really well for lighter-weight tomatoes," such as cherry varieties, she said.

This year, Tepe is moving to Wyoming and won't be able to re-create the edible landscape. But the U and the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum are teaming up on a project, "Veggies by the Yard," that will include plans (available online at www.arboretum.umn.edu/veggiesbytheyard.aspx) and teaching gardens for five different small (4- by 12-foot) edible landscapes. The gardens are "Adventurous Cook," "First-Timer's Garden" "Two-in-One" (successive planting), "Salad Lover's Special" and "Dig It" (root vegetables). All five will be on display at both the arboretum (outside the Visitor Center) and the U's St. Paul campus (at the intersection of Gortner and Folwell Avenues).

"On campus, we'll be mixing in ornamental plants," said Julie Weisenhorn, state director for the U's Master Gardener program. "The goal is to show people that you can grow edible, healthy food in an urban back yard."

Interest is huge, she said. In her 14 years as a master gardener, four at the U, she's heard a lot of gardening topics come and go. "At first, people were asking about composting. Then native plants. Now it's all about 'How can I grow my own food?'" she said. "We want to show people how they can grow great food in an ordinary landscape. They don't need 40 acres."

Kim Palmer • 612-673-4784

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