There has been a lot of emphasis on growing edible plants in recent months. From the new, organic veggie garden planted on the White House lawn this spring, to millions of patios and porches across the country flush with tomatoes and beans, there seems to be a definite trend nationwide of people returning to a sort of ‘do it yourself’ mentality. An emphasis on the home. On tactile, hand created objects. On growing your own food. Maybe it’s the economy, maybe it’s a correction from having strayed so far from knowing how to do the things our grandparents did day in and day out (I’ve been thinking lately about the afghan knitted by my grandmother that sits on my couch, and how I have no clue as to how to go about making one...), or maybe it’s a desire to feel self sufficient and in control. I was not expecting to be as busy as we have been in the nursery this year - I’ve seen first hand a shift as people put more emphasis on the home, on nurturing and using the soil and land around them. One of the most popular requests this spring? Veggies and herbs.
Growing your own food is amazing on so many different levels. Yes, it can in fact save you money - you’d be surprised how much food even a few plants can yield. But more than that, it’s about a connection with the soil, with the land you live on, a bit of self empowerment almost - ‘yes, I CAN grow this!’ By growing food, you can learn first hand what it means to ‘go organic’. It will make you cook, and on some level, eat better. It’s an awesome thing to do with kids. I recently read a great article by David King (www.beautifulfoodgarden.com) about growing your own food, in which he wrote, ‘there’s an affirmation here, growing your own food, even if it’s a small portion of what you eat, makes a very direct statement, to you and the world, of your intentional love of yourself.” Or, as our friend and Johnnye Merle’s gardner Darcy put it, ‘you know, I pretty much just want to to go hide somewhere and start a farm!’
If you are anything like me, your first thought might be that you can grown your own mint for mojitos. Some food can be for drinking!
The biggest issue most people face when it comes to growing fruit, vegetables and herbs is space, and feeling like they don’t have the room. The reason for this is that we have a sort of preconceived idea that veggies and herbs have to be in their own special, designated area, with nothing around them and lots of space, hidden in the back yard because ‘they aren’t attractive’. While this is one style of veggie gardening, it’s not a hard fast rule by any means. Plants are versatile, and like you and me, they want to live! They can put up with much more than you’d expect. Your tomato plants don’t have to be banished off to a corner somewhere, but rather, can be integrated into your landscape. Have you seen a tomato plant bloom? There is no reason it can’t be worked into your larger garden design, offering a unique contrast to your other plant materials. If you are still not believing me, thinking that tomatoes and roses can’t touch or the world will end, look at it this way: all plants ‘fruit’ one way or another. We just don’t eat them all. Let go of the idea that it’s ‘weird’ to have your edible plants mixed in with your non-edible ones. Once you do, you’ll find you have lots more room to grow your own food than you thought you did!
True story: my first solo foray into gardening happened in about the third grade, when, unbeknownst to anyone else, I planted corn seeds outside my bedroom window, in the flower bed in front of our house, in the midst of my mom’s rose bushes. It was BIG corn, as it turned out, and the neighbors thought it a bit odd, but we left it there. It was a little funky in terms of plant combinations, admittedly, but it worked - we got lots of corn and the roses had friends. I suppose this experiment left quite an impact on me; now, if you visit my nursery, you’ll find a raised planter with delphiniums, Drosanthemum speciosum, tomatoes, sedums, poppies, lemon verbena and soy beans all growing happily together. Another bed features a massive, beautiful Green Globe artichoke, bright colored kale, rosemary and an assortment of mints happily mixed in with a lovely Iceberg rose, an out of control Black Eyed Susan vine and some plumbago. One of my favorites styles of garden design is what I call a ‘Frank Lloyd Wright prairie look’ - it goes great for clients with mid-century modern homes and features a lot of native and ornamental grasses, phormiums, a few specimen plants. And I always try to get them to add in my beloved corn in the back, with some sunflowers. Point is, you would never look at any of these gardens and think ‘vegetable garden’, yet in essence, they are, and they yield a ton of food.
So, the first step in starting to grow your own food is to be willing to ‘mix it up’. Some general tips on this front: be conscious of your placement of your food plants, you want to be able to get in there and harvest them. And you DO have to be aware of sun and water requirements, and grouping your edible and non-edible plants with that in mind. A lot of gardening is trial and error, but a garden designer can help you with this process as well.
What if you don’t have ANY space for planting directly in the ground? Containers! Yes, edible plants can grow in containers, and they can grow in just about any type of container. Be conscious though, of the materials that the containers are made of leaching into the soil your plants grow in - if possible, stay away from plastics. Yes, they are cheap, and they will work, so if that’s what you have, go for it. But plastic is thin, so it won’t retain moisture the way clay does, and it heats up pretty fast as well, something to consider if you are in a hot, inland area - the roots of your plants can get too hot and start to kill the plant. I am also a big fan of found objects - recycling at its finest! - old buckets are favorite, but, provided that there is adequate drainage and the above mentioned heating issue isn’t a factor, you can grow your plants in just about anything.
Getting back to the design issue, you can also plant non-edibles with your veggies in containers too - just make sure you aren’t overpacking the container itself. All sorts of cool annuals and perennials can be grown happily in a big pot with your edibles, giving you a patio or deck that is functional and looks good as well, maximizing your space.
Gardeners limited to containers usually also face an issue with light, as many are working on balconies, patios or deck spaces that might be limited. It is true that veggies aren’t going to fare too well in heavy shade, but keep in mind that ‘root plants’ like carrots and radishes are fairly forgiving in terms of light requirements, as are artichokes and lettuce. Eggplants and tomatoes and the like come in somewhere in the middle of light needs, while things like corn and beans need lots of it. Keep in mind too that you can create (and from reflections off of buildings around you, might already be getting) more light. It takes experimentation, but some cool decorating with mirrors, gazing balls and other reflective surfaces can in fact increase the amount of light an area gets.
Fruit trees, are of course awesome, but do take up space. Keep yourself open to dwarf varieties though, or check out vining berries that might fit into your landscape. Both could be grown in a pot as well. Herbs are perhaps the most versatile and forgiving of all edibles - great in pots, in the ground, mixed in with your other plants - with enough sun, they can grow just about anywhere. Personal favorites of mine are mints (my ‘mojito mint’ grows in a pot in my kitchen), lemon verbena, salvias and oregano. Veggies too, can be exotic and unusual - at Johnnye Merle’s, we stock unusual and heirloom tomatoes, edamame (soybean) plants, unusual squashes and cucumber, pumpkins and artichokes.
Growing your own food might not save you thousands, but it can in fact cut your grocery bill a bit. It can influence your cooking - you’ll find yourself searching out recipes for your harvest. Most importantly, perhaps, it will reconnect you to your land and yourself. You don’t need a farm to grow edibles - they can be integrated into the landscape of a large yard, or on the smallest of patios. Be creative and open minded, and the possibilities are endless.
Be sure to visit our nursery for some ideas, free advice and cool plants! We also offer garden design services if you feel you need a little extra help - our garden design style has an emphasis on the ‘DIY’ mentality, so we keep it affordable, and no project is too small. Check out our website for more information.