I love all things gardening. I love flowers, annuals, perennials, and trees. But my biggest passion of all is growing my own food. There is something incredibly satisfying about plucking your own fresh vegetables from the garden. You have planted it, watered it, fed it, and harvested it yourself. You know that it hasn't been doused in chemicals or sat in a crate for a week. You truly start to appreciate the beauty in the expression "farm-to-table" because it is so close to home. There's just nothing comparable.
So what happens if you are not in farm country but a urban or suburban neighbourhood? In a complex with a homeowners' association or strata bylaws? You might have your own little patch of dirt by you have to play by someone else's rules. Or, simply, you might just not want to commit to converting your garden to raised or bermed vegetable beds. That's OK!
There is a lot the you can do and grow in a regular old garden bed or border. There are sneaky ways of incorporating fruits and vegetables in your front yard plantings. With a bit of planning, you can interplant edibles with shrubs, perennials, and annuals without sacrificing the beauty of a traditional bed.
I recently created another post with some examples of excellent choices of fruits and vegetables to incorporate into an edible border. I would like to take it a step further to talk about how to design such a space. Keep in mind, at the end of the day, it is YOUR garden. Your taste, aesthetic, climate, and neighbourhood are all different than mine. And, again, that's OK!
Edible bed and border design is at the front of my mind these days as we are started our front yard from scratch (see the photo above from early 2020). Our lawn and beds were exclusively compacted clay dating back to the construction of our house nearly three decades ago. It was so hard, we couldn't get anything in or out with a shovel. We hired a small excavator to scrape away the surface for a fresh start. We are starting with a blank slate which is both exhilarating and overwhelming!
Here are some things that you might want to take into consideration while designing your edible beds and borders:
1) Light and Growing Conditions.
I suppose this is first and foremost. You aren't going to be able to grow much (if any) in an edible garden if you don't have sufficient light and other growing conditions. Pay close attention to how much light that you get in a day in the areas you plan to grow vegetables. Some perennials and shrubs may be more forgiving of lower light, but vegetables usually need a great deal of sunshine for optimum growth. You may be able to let in more light by trimming adjacent trees, but there is only so much that this will achieve. If you are putting a lot of effort into incorporating vegetables in part-sun or shady garden, you will likely be very disappointed. Other conditions you will want to pay attention to are waterlogged areas or cold pockets, though you may be able to work around these problems more easily. You can create wind-blocks and crop protection for cold pockets, and you can raise beds (berms or planters) for wet spots.
First and foremost, you are going to want a general idea of the shape of the borders. It will be helpful to ask yourself questions regarding what you want to achieve with your design. Do you want a free-flowing curvy border or a contemporary straight-line? Where are you viewing the garden from? Do you need footpath access to different areas (i.e. bench, garbage cans, car, shed, etc.)? Are there views that you want to obstruct (i.e. garbage cans, nosy neighbours, unsightly utilities)? Do you need to work around immovable structures? How do you plan on accessing the areas in which you are growing your edibles?
The elements of your garden that are man-made are your hardscaping: think pathways, ponds, fountains, waterfalls, boulders, walls, borders, fencing, edging, etc. You will want to consider placing these in your garden after your initial plan for shape has been determined. You may want to think about any hardscaping required for accessing your edibles. Also, ask yourself if you want any spaces for containing or defining the vegetables you are growing.
Do you plan on hiding your edibles from plain view? Perhaps you have HOA restrictions regarding growing food in your front yard. Perhaps you don't want people helping themselves to your dinner ingredients. Either way, you can plan rows or patches for growing behind barriers of shrubs, annuals, perennials, or raised borders. You will need to consider your need to conceal your veggies from prying eyes in your plan from the outset.
5) Colour palate.
Strictly speaking, this has nothing to do with growing fruits and vegetables, so this is an aesthetic consideration. You may want to consult a colour wheel while planning which colour combinations that work best for your yard, your neighbourhood, and your own taste. Head over to Pinterest for inspiration on garden colour combinations.
You will want to consider balancing the garden design for your yard. You will want to consider weighing the elements of your design on either side of a yard, window, door, and driveway. A combination of hardscaping and vegetation can help you achieve balance. This is not necessarily required for growing fruits and vegetables, but it can be accomplished by incorporating them.
7) Lawn or no lawn?
This is a tough one. North Americans are still attached to their lawns. We put a great deal of effort, water, and chemicals into achieving the perfect patch of green in front of (and usually behind) our houses, even though they give us nothing in return. Growing a lawn is an environmentally unfriendly practice. Have you considered alternatives? There are many options now available as alternatives to traditional grass lawns that require less maintenance and effort. West Coast Seeds has recently developed a lawn alternative called Bee Turf! How amazing is that?! You can feed the bees and still have a lawn-like carpet of vegetation. We have removed our lawn and we are excited to try out this new turf blend!
8) All -Season Interest.
In open beds and borders, in many zones you are not able to achieve vegetable grow year-round. This means that you are going to have empty patches in your garden for part (or most!) of the year. You want to plan to have things growing or providing interest all year. Evergreen trees and shrubs can help you to accomplish this. People usually think of conifers when you talk about evergreens, but there are also a variety of broadleaf evergreen shrubs which can help add year-round interest. My favourite evergreen plants are:
Add vegetation to your garden by growing vertically! You can add dimension to your garden by including trellises and climbing plants. I have already created a post on climbing edibles and ways to maximize your space by growing upward. You can apply this knowledge to front yard landscaping as well. Pole beans, climbing peas, and scarlet runner beans are all particularly attractive annual vegetables. Perennial climbing fruit you might want to consider are grapes and kiwis. These varieties are not evergreen, but you can choose a beautiful trellis which can serve as year-round interest itself.
Fruit trees are another way to add height in a front yard garden. I have another post which explains a bit more about root stock and height which are worth considering when choosing a tree for your front yard; you probably want to know how big it will ultimately grow.
One of the frequently overlooked elements in garden design is scent. There are countless varieties of scented annuals, perennials, and shrubs though far too often they can be an afterthought. Scented plants are, of course, not essential for an edible garden, but they do offer additional enjoyment of the space. I like to plant scented vegetation by windows, doors, and pathways so that the fragrance is easily carried to passersby. Grasses are another way to incorporate the senses of touch and sound; the fluffy seed heads and soft rustling sounds in the wind enrich the experience in your garden.
You are going to maximize the productivity of your garden by encouraging the presence of beneficial insects. You can do this by ensuring that you have blooms which span as much of the year as possible. A true wildflower bed is a bee magnet but it is hard to pull off in the front yard. There are lots of beautiful flowers which feed the bees and look great in borders. My current favourites are:
12) Garden Decor and Visual Interest.
This is the icing on the cake. You can incorporate decorative trellises or planters into the vegetable-growing areas of your garden quite easily, though you may choose to highlight your non-edibles. Either way, you might put your decor forefront in your garden or you might tuck it away like a hidden gem, only visible from certain angles within your yard. You can get creative with your decor and use it to express your personal taste and aesthetic. Make it your own! Your garden is for your own enjoyment.
Now that we've covered all the bases, it's time for the real leg work. Grab some paper and pencils and start sketching. Measure the dimensions of your yard. Research the edible and non-edible plants that you would like to include in your landscape. Some edibles are attractive or functional enough to serve both purposes.