The connection between health and nature is increasingly being recognised. Using edibles in a landscape design encourages a deeper relationship with the garden or outdoor space. When there is something to be harvested or tended, our instinct is to nurture it. Imagine waiting for the first spears of asparagus to appear in spring or checking on the ripeness of the currants. This connection with a garden and the outdoors has been shown to increase health way beyond just the nutrition gained from the crop.
In fact, a four-year study undertaken by the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS), in collaboration with leading universities, showed that including a few plants in a bare front garden could reduce stress levels as much as eight weekly mindfulness sessions. The findings are particularly significant in the context of stress arising from the COVID-19 pandemic and recent lockdown conditions.
Other research shows that working with edible plants not only reduces stress and calms the mind but also builds connections and a sense of belonging.
Children, too, will benefit. The magic of growing their food teaches children responsibility and appreciation for their environment. An understanding of where food comes from also promotes healthy eating habits, while even the very young can benefit from the sensory aspects of an edible garden.
Restoring the balance
Edible landscaping is not a new concept. Many ancient cultures used mixed planting to decorative effect and as a food source. Having declined in popularity over the centuries, the practice is now enjoying a renaissance as more people seek to follow a greener lifestyle. Incorporating edibles into the whole design is not just about putting in a veg patch but using the edibles as an aesthetically-pleasing feature. In this way, a garden or outdoor space can be bountiful as well as beautiful.
As well as reducing food miles, packaging and transport, you could be enjoying high-nutrition, high-value organic food, with an emphasis on freshness and freedom from pesticides. Moving away from conventional landscaping also offers the chance to encourage wildlife back into the garden.
As sustainability is an essential aspect of gaining planning permission for new-build houses, committing to include, and having a proven plan for, an edible garden could help gain approval.
The aim is to create low-maintenance gardens that fulfil multiple functions, from the ornamental to the edible. Edible landscaping is adaptable to all sizes and scales of spaces of residential and even communal gardens.
Planning regulations are generally not an issue when it comes to planting, other than the requirement to keep bushes and trees trimmed to avoid ‘neighbour nuisance’. The regulations will only apply where structures are introduced into the scheme, e.g. sheds.
In particular, planning guidance may be a barrier when it comes to rooftop gardens and balconies, which require careful consideration in respect of loading and health and safety compliance, as well as privacy. Consulting a professional landscaper is recommended.
Edible landscaping does not have to be completely edible. At its most basic, the goal is to substitute unproductive planting with palatable alternatives. The majority of edible plants used are perennial, for example, fruiting bushes and trees. Once established, they will continue to produce every year, and, in many cases, the yield will increase year on year. Using lots of perennials also introduces new plants into diets as the majority of what we eat are annuals.
Appropriate food crops to incorporate will depend on several factors ranging from climate to seasonality and harvest times and considering the time available to tend them. In terms of upkeep, just as with conventional design schemes, you can minimise management by matching plants in their preferred habitats and growing conditions.
Potentially suitable additions to a scheme include fruit such as figs, kiwis, apples, pears or peaches, and soft fruit as well as currant bushes, gooseberries and vegetables – including peas, beans, tomatoes, peppers and aubergines. The addition, too, of vibrantly-coloured vegetables such as Swiss chard and new varieties of deep-coloured lettuces, carrots and oriental vegetables can be striking.
Flowers also provide a visual boost. Marigolds have medicinal and culinary uses, with edible petals and are great for attracting pollinators or discouraging predators. Care is minimal, with all-year-round flowering and self-seeding habits ensuring continuity of planting through multiplication. The addition of aromatic plants adds colour and variety to the diet while creating a sensory element to outdoor spaces.
Embracing our future
By incorporating edible planting into landscape choices, homeowners can make a positive contribution to urban sustainability, connecting homes and communities while helping to conserve natural resources. At the same time, ‘growing your own’ will save money and help you stay healthy.