Hailed for their tasty contributions to the table, homegrown vegetables and fruits have typically been relegated to a plot way in the back of the yard. Which can be a stumbling block for gardeners who don’t have lots of square footage. That is, unless you think outside the back-forty box. In fact, many edible plants make great companions for perennials, bulbs, and shrubs and can easily be incorporated into ornamental beds. Plus, the wider the variety of plants in a garden, the better for pollinators (you can’t have fruits and veggies without them) and the fewer the pest problems.
To integrate edibles into a border, create or leave open spaces in the garden as you would for annuals and make sure the soil is amended so that it is rich and well drained. When plotting and planting, allow each edible plant ample room to reach maturity (this also makes for good air circulation, which helps to avoid disease issues). You can tailor the number of plants to your needs and, depending on the size of your household, sometimes just one or a few plants of certain edibles will be plenty.
To have fresh vegetables over the longest period, be ready to switch out crops as the seasons change. Warm-season edibles (tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, peppers, corn) are planted in the spring after danger of frost is past for summer production. Cool-season veggies (onions, lettuce, cabbage, kale) go in the ground in late summer or fall, or in very early spring and will fade as the weather gets hot.
Some edibles are permanent editions, particularly fruits. Even if you don’t have room for full-size specimens, many fruit trees can be trained to grow flat against a fence or wall in a practice called espalier. So even a small-space garden can have apples, pears, plums, and figs. Brambles like blackberries and raspberries can be placed at the back of a bed (and are even useful as deterrents to trespassing).
But the edibility of vegetables and fruits is not the only reason to include them in the landscape. Many are beautiful enough to hold their own as ornamental garden plants. After the season for picking tender new shoots has passed, asparagus grows on to create a feathery pale-green backdrop that turns golden yellow in autumn. The structural verticality of leeks can punctuate plantings of low-growers like sedum and thyme. And it only takes a few squash plants with their big bold leaves to give dimension to a bed of daylilies, salvias, and petunias.
Have a fence or arbor? Skip the wisteria and instead plant gourds, grapes, Malabar spinach, or climbing cherry tomatoes. Need some shrubs around the house? Blueberries have multi-season interest: creamy white flowers in spring, purple berries and handsome green leaves in summer, and brilliant foliage in fall. For containers, many edibles have dwarf or bush forms, including eggplants, peppers, beans, and even pumpkins.
If you don’t want to skimp on color, try ‘Bull’s Blood’ beets with their lustrous nearly-black leaves, the party-colored stems of ‘Rainbow’ chard, red okra, purple cabbage, and silvery cardoon, a relative of the artichoke. Maybe you’re someone with a penchant for beautiful flowers. Then look to edible ones like pansies, nasturtiums, calendula, and chives. And scarlet runner beans produce clusters of dainty red or red-and-white blooms before their pods take the scene.
Edibles in the border also bring an element of surprise. Who would expect to see carrot tops and celery stalks amidst daisies and dianthus, red lettuce or strawberries as edging, tomatoes in a hanging basket, or collard greens used as a foliage plant? They can take a garden from typical to amazing.