Orlando Home & Leisure Magazine, October 2008
A Landscape Good Enough to Eat
Save your money, improve your cooking and help save the planet by transforming your lawn into an edible landscape.
By Cindy Heroux
No, we’re not suggesting you chow down on that boxwood hedge or dine on dracenas, but there’s a growing movement called “urban farming” that puts fresh ingredients at your fingertips—and next to your driveway. When it comes to home landscaping, purely ornamental plants once reigned supreme, but now those that bear fruit, vegetable and tasty flowers are transforming yards into edible landscapes that are both beautiful and productive.
Edible landscaping can be as simple as a few potted herbs and vegetables on the patio or as expansive as creating an urban farm. For some, such as Jules Dervaes, a former Central Floridian who now lives in Pasadena California, it can become a way of life.
“We had a serious drought here in the ’90s, and the city was going to charge more if you used more water than last year,” Dervaes explains. “I’m a frugal person, and I had a family to feed, so I smothered my St. Augustine grass with mulch and got rid of what was using water but was giving nothing back and turned it into a garden.”
When the rain returned the following year, the wild flower seeds he’d planted burst forth with colorful nasturtiums, an edible flower he began selling to a local tea house. This early success inspired him to expand his edible landscape, and 20 years later, his one-tenth-acre garden produces 6,000 pounds—that’s three tons—of edible produce, more than 350 varieties of vegetables, herbs, fruits and berries. Depending on the time of year, he and his family raise enough food to provide 55 – 85 percent of their own needs on a vegetarian diet and to meet increasing demands from local restaurants.
Dervaes pays attention to aesthetics as well as production. He creates microclimates of shade and provides dimension to the landscaping with vines and dwarf trees. Observing what grows well in the surrounding area and questioning nursery professional helps guide his plant selection; however, working with nature requires patience.
“I learned by trial and error, but mostly error,” Dervaes says. “You have to expect some mistakes, but there are also unexpected surprises.”
Tom McCubbin, Extension Agent Emeritus of the University of Florida, recommends beginners start with plants that aren’t labor intensive. For example, radish seeds sprout in five days and are ready to eat in 25 days.
“It’s important to improve the soil with compost and provide nutrients” MacCubbin explains. “And timing is critical. September is the beginning of the vegetable-garden season in Florida. It’s a good time to plant tomatoes, peppers, snap beans, cucumbers and squash. As the weather gets cooler, around October 1, there are more things to grow like onions, turnips, broccoli and cabbage. Kids love growing carrots and pulling them out of the ground, but they can be a little more challenging.”
MacCubbin finds gardening relaxing and rewarding, “especially when something you plant produces,” he says. “It’s also great family time where everyone can enjoy what nature really does.”
Most edible plants do best in a sunny location, but some, such as blueberries, fair better in the shade. Like traditional lawns and ornamental plants, edible plants require water, especially during the dry season which begins mid-September and lasts all the way through the good growing season. But unlike lawns and ornamentals, these plants give back food for the table. Rather than settling for the common vegetable varieties available in the grocery store, edible landscaping allows you to enjoy the many colors and flavors of heirlooms and exotics. You can grow organically, compost to decrease your trash output and worry less about being exposed to contaminated produce.
Edible landscaping is a time-honored American tradition. In the 1940s, Victory Gardens—a little produce patch in the back yard—were considered patriotic and an integral part of the war effort. With rising food and oil prices and increasing concerns about global warming, creating a family garden may now be the right thing to do for your planet. Just a small plot of land can provide a seasonal bouquet of delicious fruits, vegetables and herbs without the environmental impact of transporting them hundreds or thousands of miles.
You can learn more about the Dervaes urban homestead and find great advice on creating your own edible landscape at pathtofreedom.com or by contacting the University of Florida Cooperative Extension Service at solutionsforyourlife.ufl.edu.