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Transform Your Garden, Transform Your Life: Designing an Edible Garden in Suburbia

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If you are going to put lots of hard work, sweat and money into your backyard garden, why not get delicious healthy food in return? Nothing tastes better than fresh produce that you have grown yourself, but how to start?

Inspiring Edible Landscaping Tours

In our area we are fortunate to have the annual Edible Landscaping Tour, put on by Common Ground Garden Supply and Education Center in Palo Alto, California. Now in its fifth year, this popular tour of ten home gardens, plus the Common Ground demonstration garden, will be held on Saturday July 23. Visiting different suburban vegetable and fruit gardens is a fantastic way to get inspired with great ideas; it is also a wonderful opportunity to see a variety of gardens, from no budget DIY to those that have been professionally designed.

Gardening with Edibles is a Lifestyle

But beware, growing your own vegetables is the “gateway drug” to a more sustainable lifestyle. Households that grow food usually do so organically, to better protect the health of their families and the environment. They begin composting in order to feed their gardening habit, then go on to add efficient watering systems, (recycling gray water, drip irrigation, collecting rainwater). Next come worm bins, chickens and perhaps a backyard beehive. Soon a suburban micro farm is thriving where you would not have expected it, as rows of leafy lettuce and succulent fava beans replace what was formerly a perfectly manicured front lawn.

Chickens have become almost as common as cats and dogs in some suburban neighborhoods

You can search for edible landscaping tours in your area for garden ideas, but here are a few starter tips and questions to consider from our own experience, as well as things that we’ve learned from others:

1) Is your style formal or informal? Do you like a natural look or a more designed approach to your yard? The use of brick, stone or wooden planting beds will give you more control over the quality of the soil, keep weeds to a minimum, and can be used as part of the design plan. One downside of planting beds is that they tend to dry out faster.

2) An easy way to get the design process rolling is to think about features you’d like in your garden, then build gradually around those. For example, we built a pergola to create an outdoor dining space, and planted two kinds of grapevines to shade it (photo below and at top). We left a couple of rose bushes in place, put in flagstone with creeping thyme and drought tolerant flowering bushes nearby. The result is a lush green room in the summer with flowers and lots of yummy green and red grapes (Thompson Seedless and Red Flame).

Put in structures first, then design around them

When we added a large raised bed structure built from a kit from Gardens to Gro (above and below) to keep our vegetables safe from our greyhounds, we planted various hardy perennial herbs around it (oregano, thyme, sage, mint). It quickly became a productive kitchen garden that first season.

Our raised bed kit with herbs growing around the outside

3) Including flowering plants for their beauty and to attract beneficial insects is a win-win. Companion planting with certain herbs and flowers is known to have beneficial effects on the garden overall. Take advantage of colorful companion plants such as calendula, nasturtium, marigolds and borage for a healthy garden ecosystem. Some plants attract predatory insects that feed on pests, in addition to also bringing pollinating insects to your tomatoes and squash. Flowering herbs such as basil, oregano, and thyme are easy to grow and are great companion plants (great companions for cooking too!).

Flowers enhance the front yard vegetable bed

4) Mixing perennials (plants that survive over multiple seasons) among your vegetables is an easy way to provide some structure to your landscaping, so that when the veggies are at a low point, your garden isn’t barren. If you do some research you can find plants that will provide blooms at different times of the year, such as those native to your area.

When choosing plants make sure you choose those with flowers that produce pollen- very important if you want to feed bees! I found out the hard way that some hybrid sunflowers are bred to not make pollen so that the cut flowers are less messy when you put a bouquet on the table! Growing heirloom plants is a good solution.

5) Start small. Gardening teaches us patience. Mother Nature goes at her own pace, so enjoy learning as you expand your garden and have fun gathering ideas about what you’d like to plant, eat, and how much time and effort you want to put into your garden. Alternatively, for those who have money but no time, check out the urban farming services in your area. That’s right, they will plant, maintain and harvest your veggies for you!

Transforming Suburbia into an Organic Food Oasis

If you live in suburbia you have a golden opportunity to utilize your garden spaces and lawn to grow delicious organic food and create a thriving natural habitat for many creatures. You may discover that your new garden might even begin to slowly transform your local neighborhood, as well as your own life.

Photos by Urban Artichoke
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