The idea of creating an edible garden may not necessarily be an obvious one to most people. However there are numerous benefits to making one and they are more diverse than you ever could imagine. The first thoughts many people have when they think of edible gardens is vegetable plots.
Vegetable plots can be a great way to produce fresh produce but it is not the only way. Many more decorative garden plants are actually edible. Some have edible seeds, flowers, fruits and leaves. It is simply a case of knowing what you are doing and planting the correct plants.
It is indeed possible to put together a beautiful planting scheme completely made up of edible plants. There are actually many to choose from if you live in a temperate climate. In this article I will explain how to make an edible garden and what options are available to you to make this possible.
What is an edible garden?
An edible garden is a garden which either allows for intensive food production or implements edible plants into its planting schemes. Edible gardens can consist of allotments, orchards, raised growing beds, polytunnels, herb gardens and edible planting schemes.
Typically edible gardens are not just confined to traditional vegetable gardening techniques and varieties. An edible will make use of more permanent types of edible plants such as perennial vegetables and decorative, edible shrubs. Edible gardens can be as simple as a herb growing bed or a food forest full of unusual edibles. These gardens can become several canopies of plantings which harvest the suns light on many levels.
Such edible systems are typical of permaculture design and agro-forestry. These can produce diverse habitats full of fruiting trees, shrubs, perennial vegetables as well as fish ponds, bee keeping and mushroom production. Edible gardens can come in many shapes and sizes and can be extremely productive.
Why make an edible garden?
In recent years there has been an increased interest in where our food comes from. A series of supermarket scandals and the questionable long term safety of commercial herbicides has concerned consumers.
We also live in an era of climate change and ecological destruction. The food industry has directly facilitated the cutting down of rainforests with products such as palm oil. Palm oil plantations are slowing replacing rainforests at an alarming rate. This is altering weather cycles and contributing to the extinction of thousands of species.
People are becoming more ecologically conscious and desire to have a much more local food supply. There is also recognition that home grown food tastes much better than supermarket produce. Many famous chefs and restaurants now aim to grow much of their ingredients locally. All of these facts have led to the idea of edible gardens gaining in popularity.
Vegetable gardens are the most common system for creating an edible garden. These are typically allotment type spaces consisting of rows of vegetables in well weeded beds. Most of the time these are simply large square areas cut out of lawn and ameliorated with well rotted manure.
Vegetable gardens are a great way to exercise with vegetable gardening being capable of burning up to 400 calories per hour. Produce grown in vegetable gardens is far superior in taste to shop bought. Generally this is because supermarkets priority is to stock vegetable strains that give good shelf life but not necessarily taste.
Vegetable gardeners usually pick a few of their favourite vegetables and grow them on mass. Vegetable gardens can bring you a steady supply of great tasting fruit and vegetables throughout the summer.
Raised growing beds
Raised growing beds are a popular choice when creating an edible vegetable garden. Plants respond very well to large volumes of soil. This provides a stable moisture content and generous medium for roots to spread far and wide.
Raised growing beds allow you to control the quality of your soil by having to initially add it yourself. Raised beds allow you to raise the growing area up and closer to you meaning less bending and strain on your lower back. This is particularly beneficial to elderly gardeners and people with disabilities.
Raised beds can be created with pretty much any robust material including large plastic pipes, concrete and brick. The most common method of building raised growing beds is with timber sleepers. These are large and robust sections of timber typically with a width of 100mm. traditionally used to support railway lines sleepers enable you to build raised beds quickly and to pretty much any shape or size.
Orchards are great to incorporate into an edible garden but do require some space. These are really only possible on larger plots but dwarf fruit and nut trees can be purchased for smaller garden. Fruit can also be pruned against fences and south facing walls to utilise all available garden space.
This kind of pruning is perfect for soft fruit like peaches and pears. Nuts can be a reliable crop which are easy to store which are high in calories and omega 3. Orchards are also great for wildlife providing nesting for birds and pollen for insects. Whether you are planning a large scale orchard or just one apple tree fruit trees are perfect for any edible garden.
Perennial plants die back in the winter and grow up new shoots in the spring and summer. With perennial vegetables therefore you get the advantage of more food every year for little effort. Perennial vegetables usually have a storage facility such as a crown or bulb to store energy so they can burst into life every year.
Some well known perennial vegetables include; Rhubarb, Asparagus, Artichokes and Jerusalem artichokes. However there are also many not so known ones such as Chinese yam, Oca, Mashua, Fiddle head ferns, various mushrooms, Chives, Good King Henry and Babington leeks.
When planting perennial vegetables it is important to realise they will be in the ground a long time. It is important therefore to work the ground deeply with plenty of organic matter and fertiliser. Try to plant things that you like to eat and will make use of throughout the growing season. Try to learn everything about the crops physical attributes before planting them.
For example Jerusalem artichokes are tall and bamboo like. Hence these can be used at the back of a border. Rhubarb is a good looking plant with large leaves which can shade out the weeds. There for it can be used effectively in flower borders and decorative areas.
Edible planting schemes
Many who wish to create an edible garden still want a decorative garden with interesting foliage and flowers. Most of the time selecting edible plants is the easy part the challenge is changing your pallet to widen the scope of what you will eat.
For instance many wild plants such as Nettles and Dandelions are edible but few think of them as being appetising. There are many common flowering plants which are edible such as nasturtiums. Numerous attractive shrubs have edible fruits however they are usually so small and clustered few commercial growers would consider them a worthwhile crop.
If you are interested in learning what options you have in terms of edible plants for a temperate climate I would recommend Martin Crawford’s book. 'Creating a forest garden' has pretty much every unusual edible crop you could imagine including some familiar edibles.
With the correct literature and some in-depth research extensive planting schemes can be created solely with edible planting. You may need to take some time sourcing unusual plants or even growing some from seed to get everything you need. Without a doubt edible planting can be just as beautiful and diverse as inedible.
Just be absolutely 100% sure you know what you are putting in your mouth. Some similar looking non edibles are poisonous.
Growing an edible garden will require some ground preparation for your plants to reach their full potential. You will need to prepare your soil especially if you are turning lawn into growing areas. Edible plants do need some extra soil amelioration including adding drainage and fertility.
Planting areas should be dug down deeply and turned over to alleviate compaction and add oxygen. If your garden is in a low lying, boggy area adding sand and organic matter can improve drainage. Soil should be worked to a fine fluffy texture and will benefit from adding a natural fertiliser like manure.
If you want your edible garden to thrive year after year it will be necessary to have a system for maintaining fertility within the ground. Fertility can be greatly underestimated in the effectiveness of increasing productivity in your growing areas. Commonly people rely on adding large amounts of synthetic fertilisers to plants to give them the nutrition they need.
In nature soil fertility is kept in balance by the continuous recycling of nutrients caused by natural processes. The death of animals, plant matter, animal droppings, nitrogen fixing plants, and fungi all help to keep fertility stable. In gardens this process is not typically present but it is beneficial to encourage as much natural recycling as possible.
This can be achieved by composting as much as possible and diversifying you’re growing areas. Adding continuous organic layers to the soil such as mulching can help invigorate soil life help to keep nutrients in balance.
When planning an edible garden managing fertility in as a natural way as possible is extremely beneficial. For self sufficient crop production year after year the closer to a natural ecosystem your garden is the better.
Permaculture & agro-forestry
Permaculture and Agro-forestry is not the same thing but generally work on the same principles. Both disciplines include creating self reliant edible ecosystems relying on the concept of ecological balance. They work on a low energy input approach to managing the landscape and one that replicates nature.
Acknowledging forests are nature’s way of obtaining ecological, energy equilibrium these systems attempt to replicate what happens in nature. Permaculture and agro-forestry systems attempt to capture the Suns energy on multiple levels like a forest.
Using a combination of annuals, perennials, shrubs, climbers and tree crops bountiful food forests can be created. Some living examples of these edible landscapes can be extremely productive and low maintenance. These systems can also be extremely rich for wildlife.
Not everyone can establish a large food forest in their back garden. However calling on the principles of these disciplines small parts of the garden can become bountiful food forests. Flowerbeds can be structured with low lying edibles at the front and taller fruit trees at the back.
You could grow mushrooms on dead logs in shady damp parts of the garden or train fruit up the sunny side of the home.
Self sufficiency is a lifestyle and series of practices which allow you to live ‘off grid’ or on what you produce locally. The best way to observe self sufficient practices would be in peasant farmer villages across the world. Also comparable to medieval villages in Europe self sufficient communities rely on a combination of crop growing, animal husbandry and preserving.
This practice makes use of ancient wisdoms such as crop rotation to keep the ground productive. To implement self sufficiency into your edible garden project you could combine keeping chickens with vegetable gardens as well as drying and pickling excess produce. There are many books on the subject of self sufficiency to give you ideas and inspiration.
Keeping chickens has been a human practice for thousands of years. These remarkable birds which originated from jungle fowl in Asia produce both eggs and meat for the table. Food production however is not the only benefit of these amazing birds. Being omnivorous they can eat garden pests and harvest food from the wider environment.
This reduces the need for supplementary feed and allows you recycle food scraps from the kitchen. Chickens can help scratch up the soil adding both oxygen and manure to the topsoil. This can make them very useful for creating new growing areas.
Chicken manure is extremely good fertiliser and adds much soil fertility. High in Potassium and nitrogen chicken manure is a real asset for the edible garden. Keeping chickens after a steady decline after the 1950’s is slowly becoming much more popular.
An ever growing interest in knowing where our food comes from and reducing our food miles could see their revival. Chickens are a particularly productive novelty for the edible garden and they are also a whole load of fun!
Raising fish in the garden usually comes in the form of keeping colourful koi carp and goldfish in a small pond. It is possible however to raise edible varieties of carp and catfish in your garden. These can be raised in sizable naturalistic ponds or in more intensive systems. The intensive methods are surprisingly obtainable even for relatively small gardens.
Baby fish can be raised in water butt sized barrels at varying sizes of development and harvested at about a pound in weight. These intensive systems will require some extra energy input in terms of filtration systems and regular feeding. If you are interested on adding fish to your edible garden there is much information on the subject online.
Bee keeping is a great way to produce large amounts of locally produced, energy rich honey. Usually the hobby of hard core enthusiasts as bee keeping requires a certain level of intensive commitment to the cause. It is becoming more and more popular in recent times even in more urban settings.
Honeys taste will always reflect the local pollen types of the area. From woodland honeys to urban railway lines there is always a flavour to match your local area. If you are interested in giving bee keeping a go it is best to start studying books on the subject.
If you are sure bee keeping is for you the next step will be to join a local group or association. These can now be easily found online or social media groups.
Growing mushrooms is not as difficult as you may think in a garden environment. One of the best ways to get starting is by inoculating logs with mycelium laden dowels.
These can be bought online and simply hammered into pre drilled holes into the logs. Certain species of mushrooms grow better on specific tree species. For best results find the types of mushrooms you wish to grow first.
Contact local tree surgeons and ask to help remove logs when a specific species project is coming up. When sourcing logs you need to obtain ones that have been freshly cut. They must then be retained for a few weeks off the ground. This is to let natural fungicides in the timber disappear. Logs can then be inoculated and you simply have to wait for the mushrooms to sprout.
Mushrooms will usually sprout in autumn or in moist, damp conditions. Some of the most reliable varieties for log growing are Shitake and Oyster mushrooms. There is plenty of information available both in books and online if you wish to add growing mushrooms to your edible garden.
As uninviting as it sounds there are many varieties of common weeds which are edible. Nettles, Dandelions, Sorrel and Plantain are just some common examples of wild edibles.
These may not seem very substantial to amount to much of a meal but are super foods in their own right. These wild plants typically contain phytochemicals which have been found to be extremely beneficial to health.
It is thought that these could have made up a large proportion of our foraging ancestors diets. There are some great books identifying edible wild plants and some useful recipes for cooking them.
It is important to understand that although there are many opportunities to eat wild plants you must always know what you are doing. Even in a planted edible garden always be 100 percent positive you know what you are eating. Some toxic wild plants look very similar to edible ones so if you are in any doubt do not eat it.
Edible gardens are an exciting way to make use of your outside plot. Not only can you make a great looking planting scheme you can also become more self sufficient. Edible gardens are the gateway to a more active and ecological existence. With so many ways they can be implemented into your plot what is stopping you? What edible elements from this article would you like to see in your garden?
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Paul Nicolaides has over 30 years of recreational gardening and 20 years of professional landscaping experience. He has worked for landscape contractors including design and build practices across London and the South East. In 2006 he qualified with a BA Hons degree and post graduate diploma in Landscape Architecture. In 2009 he founded Ecospaces an ecological landscaping practice which aims to improve social cohesion and reduce climate change through landscaping. In 2016 he founded Buckinghamshire Landscape Gardeners which designs and builds gardens across Buckinghamshire and the South East. This blog aims to provide easy problem solving information to its audience and encourage others to take up the joy of landscaping and gardening.