Making a beautiful garden edible

Bill Bampton explains how to create a food border by combining the ornamental potential of edibles with the edible potential of ornamentals

Dahlia, Tree Tomato, Loquat, Paw Paw and Macadamia create an edible display

A territorial war has long been waged in Australian suburbia; the antagonists are the practical veggie growers, versus the flower fanciers.

Once these wars pretty much ran along gender lines — Dad got the back of the backyard and Mum ran front of house with a barrage of Gladioli and Gerberas.

Times and roles have changed. Gardens are smaller and households have evolved. We must reach détente, and the small spaces we have should be both beautiful and useful.

At Heronswood we have long experimented with using edibles as ornamentals. Our vegetable parterre was the first stage of landscaping with ornamental edibles; it is beautiful, but still very much a beautiful vegetable garden.

The food border, on the other hand, is more evolved, and a little more complex. While at least 90% of the plants need to be edible, this should not be obvious at first glance. Here lies beauty as the primary function.

This type of edible landscaping takes you on a journey of discovery, looking for plants that combine beauty as well as flavour. From this approach, you learn that ornamentals, like Daylilies and Dahlias, are in fact edible; and that food crops, like Curry Leaf, are just as splendid as their purely decorative cousins.

This style of garden is not about maximising production or getting back to nature and self-sufficiency. That’s why plants like Dahlia and Pineapple Sage are able to play key roles, even if, from a food production point of view, they are mere bit players.

You will probably not grow all your beans and potatoes in this type of garden, but instead will try fruits and flavours that you would never have otherwise encountered.

Our food border is one of the great garden challenges at Heronswood. I encourage all food gardeners and flower fanciers to put aside their differences and instead form Jardiniers avec bords sans frontières … also known as “Gardeners with borders without borders”.

Food border design tips

♦ Plant in blocks or groups for visual impact. It becomes very tempting to turn this into a collector’s garden of individuals.

We have made this mistake as we tend to think “Oh that is a pretty edible, let’s stick it in the food border”. The result is a mishmash.

♦ Create form and structure. These gardens always veer towards the wild. By using plant supports and clipping shrubs like Guava, Citrus and Natal Plum, you can anchor their messy abundance.

♦ Think in terms of colour and seasonal interest. For us, summer is our peak season for visitors.

We need to be sure our edibles are doing their ‘thing’ at the same time. In a home garden, you may want to stretch this seasonal interest throughout the whole year with autumn colour, and spring blossom.

♦ Theme plants based on form or ecology. Keeping plants within a theme helps to ensure that they all work together.

For example, deciduous cool climate woodland plants like Apples, or even cool climate Brassicas would look out of place in Heronswood’s subtropical-themed garden… but they’re perfect for a cool climate food forest at St Erth.

♦ Restrict the use of annuals. Keep the use of annuals, the main stay of the veggie patch, to a minimum and use them as fillers only. We use Calendula and Nasturtium sparingly. Do not let them take control.

♦ Open up your plant palette. Explore the ornamental potential of edibles, but at the same time, explore the edible potential of ornamentals. The learning never ends.

♦ Be ruthless. If it doesn’t look good, pull it out. Likewise, if you are never going to eat it “off with its head!”

Edibles with ornamental value

With so many plants to choose from, here are a few suggestions to help get you started:

♦ Hedging/screening plants: Macadamia, Guava, Feijoa, Avocado, Natal Plum, True Curry Leaf, Citrus, Lemon Verbena, Loquat

♦ Climbers: Hops, Grape, Pepino, Choko, Kiwiberry, Mexican Sour Gherkin, Scarlet Runner Beans, Malabar Spinach

♦ Groundcovers: Alpine Strawberries, Golden Marjoram, Pepino, Rock Samphire, Sun Rose, Thyme, Apple Mint

♦ Tufting plants: Daylily, Lemongrass, Allium, Sugar Cane

♦ Bold foliage: Canna, Babaco, Rhubarb, Loquat, Tamarillo, Golden Fruit of the Andes, Taro, Abyssinian Banana

♦ Flower display: Dahlia, Canna, Nasturtium ‘Empress of India’, Strawberry ‘Tarpan’, Calendula, Daylily, Pineapple Sage, Jerusalem Artichoke

♦ Foliage colour: Amaranth, Perilla, Golden Pineapple Sage, Orache, Thai Basil, Bronze Fennel, Canna ‘Bengal Tiger’, Black Taro, Bloody Dock, Iresine, Golden Fruit of the Andes, Golden Hops


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Growing Your Own in the Edible City

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Heirloom Fruit

Marcus Ryan explains why fruit doesn't taste as good as it used to

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Clive Blazey explains how almost all the vegetables we eat today were available before 1900!


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Q&A - Citrus

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Q&A - Tomato Growing

Our experts Julie, Tim and Evette answer your questions about growing tomatoes

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Bill Bampton

Bill was the Director of the Diggers Trust Gardens and has spent time at Burnley College and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne. He grew up on a farm on the Yorke Peninsula which gave him a deep understanding of drought and drift sand.
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