Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Growing a Beautiful Edible Landscape in an Urban Neighborhood

by Robert Waldrop

When people think about growing food in urban areas, the first idea is generally to hide the vegetable garden somewhere in the backyard, and all too often, that means "out of sight, out of mind". At my house Oklahoma City, this isn't an option, as the property has no back yard, so I had to figure out something else.

There are four major influences on my garden philosophy.

1. The Japanese farmer Masanobu Fukuoka, author of the One Straw Revolution, who first began to spread the word about "no till farming" in the 1970s. More information about the Fukuoka farming movement can be found on line at FukuokaFarmingol.net.

2. Permaculture, as presented by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, about which more will be said presently. For further information about permaculture, there are a number of links in the forest gardening section of my website page, www.bettertimes.info.org.

3. My belief in the importance of living lightly on the land comes from my religious faith which teaches me that it is my moral duty to be a responsible steward of earth's resources. The average urban landscape wastes a tremendous amount of water and uses incredible amounts of chemical fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides, and fossil fuels, and destroying the land is not a way to be a responsible steward. There has to be a better way, and that is what I am looking for.

4. I am a fourth generation Oklahoman who grew up on a farm, and from my earliest years I learned to appreciate the goodness of food that is grown close to home. The wisdom of our Oklahoma ancestors remains as important and relevant today as it was during the Depression. Growing food is a way to both create wealth and conserve resources, while at the same time adding greatly to the quality of one's life.

I began my project with a standard American city lot in the Gatewood neighborhood of Oklahoma City, an area that was developed in the 1920s. When I bought the property, there were 2 large mature elm trees (on either side of the driveway), a mature pecan tree, and patches of daylilies, mints, lemon balm, and garlic chives. The rest of the property not occupied by buildings, sidewalks, or driveway was bermuda grass lawn. Over the last 3 going on 4 years, I have gradually changed the landscaping to the point that last summer I had over 100 different varieties of useful or edible plants growing, 2/3rds of them perennials.


I am not a trained landscaper nor do I have long experience with designing edible landscapes. I am basically making this up as I go along, and I am always learning new things, by studying available materials, by applying basic principles, and also by making mistakes and successes. There is nothing quite like putting plants and seeds into the ground to teach a person important lessons.

Remember the old story about the way to boil a frog is to simply increase the heat very slowly so that he doesn't notice he's about to become soup? This is the way our food system has deteriorated, one little step at a time our sensibilities have become so degraded that we actually will pay money for a tasteless, watery supermarket tomato that was picked green, shipped thousands of miles and than gassed to turn red. Unfortunately, the gas doesn't do anything for the taste.

To get away from this, one solution is for me to grow more food myself, to create wealth from my labor, the soil, and plants.

So I think about a forest. We can easily find 7 different layers: (1) mature canopy trees, (2) under story trees, (3) shrubs and bushes, (4) ground covers, (5) climbing vines, (6) roots, and (7) herbs and smaller plants. There is also a much less visible "layer" (or perhaps population would be a better word) of micro flora and fauna, busily at work, as well as insects, worms, and other wildlife, all of which contributes to the greater whole around them.

My lot, which measures about 220' by 85' and has a house, duplex, and detached garage on it, is not big enough for a lot of mature canopy trees. The two mature elms I started with were taken down by ice storms over the last 3 years. I do have one mature pecan tree in back, but my neighbors across the street have mature trees. The closest thing in nature that I can think of to describe my situation is "forest edge", the place where the trees thin out and become prairie. Lots of light, yet some dappled shade here and there.

For under story trees I am planting semi dwarf fruit trees. I expect to add another 4 trees or so (I have been having failures 2 years in a row in getting apricot trees to start, I would like 2 apricot trees and 2 sour cherry trees).

I have a number of shrubs and bushes and plans to add more. Currently I have Oregon grape, blackberries, bush cherries, elderberries, clove currants, high bush cranberry, and aronia. As you can see from the map and key I have passed around, I have lots of different kinds of smaller plants and herbs, many perennial, some annual. Ground covers include the chocolate and lemon mints, plus I have planted clover and vetch everywhere as cover crops. Climbing vines include grapes and luffas, dewberries, boysenberries, and I plan to add passion flower. Roots include onions, shallots, day lilies, potatoes, and sweet potatoes.

How do you put something like this together? One plant at a time, of course, but there are some basic principles to keep in mind. I'll list 15 of them here. Most of them are derived from lists that can be found in most texts on permaculture and natural farming, plus my own personal experiences.

1. Observation

"Gardener, know thy land," would be the gardening equivalent of "Physician, heal thyself." You can learn a lot by simply looking at your land, whether it be great or small. Consider my little place, 225' by 85'. You wouldn't think a little patch like that would have many microclimates but it does. I have cold spots and warm spots, some places are dry and others wet. I'm still learning, and I'm also still impacting this land so things change. If I plant a tree in a spot, it will change that place. Sometimes the change is good, sometimes not. I've already decided I need to move some things around. And when I do that, I am liable to have to change some others. Eventually I'll get it right, but in the meantime, before you start, you have to spend some time simply observing the land.

Observation also includes yourself as the garden designer, the others who live on the land, and the community in which the land is located. All of this impacts your design. If you think about the whole field of landscape design, it's easy to see there are many schools and many possible ideas for design principles. For example, a formal garden would be absolutely symmetrical, balanced, lots of straight edges and if there are curves, they are perfect. A more natural garden would not be so symmetrical, there wouldn't be many straight edges and curves might take many shapes. Between these two poles there are many options. So spend some time also observing yourself and your community.

2. Multiple uses

Black-eyed peas, besides providing food, also fix nitrogen in the soil and provide mulch. Logs used as landscape elements provide (1) habitat and food for worms and other little critters, (2) places for humans to sit, (3) cat petting perches, (4) are aesthetically pleasing to look at, and (5) potentially could grow mushrooms. Not a bad deal for something that a lot of people would just throw away. Edible flowers provide (1) beauty, (2) are very tasty to eat, and (3) they attract bees and beneficial insects. The vines on the trellis (1) yield grapes (wine & jam), (2) leaves (mulch and stuffed grape leaves), (3) provide shade. Mulch (1) moderates the temperatures of the ground, (2) helps control weeds, (3) encourages earthworms, and (4) composts in place, thus feeding soil flora and fauna and the plants Also not bad for something that many people put in plastic bags and bury in holes in the ground. There's lots that has to be done even in a small garden ecosystem, and it's better for the plants to do their job than for the gardener to rush around doing backbreaking labor and spending piles of cash to make up for the lack of a functioning ecosystem in the garden.

3. Relative location

Everything has its place, and everything is in its space, so to speak, but everything in the garden is also related and if you ignore the way plants interact with each other and the environment, you're just making extra work for yourself. If you look at nature, nothing grows in isolation, and generally also not in monocultures. Rather, plants exist in communities. You have mature trees, under story trees, climbing vines, herbs, and etc all growing together, mutually supporting each other.

Permaculturists talk about plant guilds in the same way that vegetable gardeners talk about companion planting. For example, a plant guild centered on a fruit tree would want plants that are nutrient accumulators, nitrogen fixers, mulch producers, bee plants, pest repellants and ground covers, while at the same time producing useful products. Everything has places in the garden where it will do well, and where it will do not so well. The trick is to find good places for everything so they are able to do their work as plants, thus taking a load off the gardener's back.

4. Each important function is supported by many elements

If it's important, one cannot afford a failure. So rather than planting one kind of lettuce, I planted 8. Nitrogen fixing is important, as this is an all organic process, so I have planted 2 kinds of clover (a white clover and crimson clover), vetch, black-eyed peas, and a redbud tree.

Diversity is critical, and if you don't believe that is true, look what happened in Ireland due to the potato blight. How many millions starved or immigrated because one plant failed? Natural systems are characterized by a diversity of species of flora and fauna, and so must be the edible landscape. If you come to my house for a salad in summer, it will have maybe 15 different items. Imagine what an upscale restaurant would charge for such a plate. I think that ultimately we will have more than 200 different varieties of useful or edible plants growing on our little land, but it will take a few more years to get there.

5. Planning for energy efficiency

This is less about "miles per gallon" and more about "work for the gardener", although this does have implications for fossil fuel consumption. Food grown close to home does not embody much in the way of fossil fuel, but every calorie of agribizness food you buy has at least 7 and sometimes as many as 12 calories of fossil fuels.

It is better to frontload some work at the beginning, as you are setting things up, so you have less to do later. And the best kind of frontloaded work of course is intelligent design so you don't waste time, money, effort, or resources, while at the same time achieving a sustainable yield that can be harvested for the benefit of you and your family.

Once you plant an apple tree, you don't have to plant it again next year. I don't till any of my garden beds once I have them made, and I make them without tilling or even removing the sod. Every bit of soil is mulched. I recently made a detailed inspection of the garden, and found that every single bed was loaded with earthworms and night crawlers. The first year I bought a 5 gallon bucket of worms and released them onto the first beds I made, they have obviously multiplied. (I have also released some night crawlers that my various roommates have bought for use as fishing bait. Whenever I find such a container in the fridge, I release them in the garden.)

One application of energy efficiency in the garden is the use of zones to plan the garden. Zone 0 is the habitation of the human persons who live on the land, zone 1 being high maintenance plants that are visited often, zone 2 is perennial but cultivated plants like berry bushes and fruit trees that aren't visited so often. Zone 3 is orchards, pasture, animal areas, zone 4 is semi managed, semi wild areas for gathering, and zone 5 is wild unmanaged area. In an urban setting, all that most people will have room to implement is generally zones 0 through 2. My kitchen is at the back of the duplex (which is no longer a duplex, I have converted it to single family use), so the herbs, greens, and salads are within a few steps of the back door or across the driveway. Berries and fruit trees are further out. They require less maintenance, but the greens and herbs are visited virtually every day, so it makes sense to put them close at hand.

6. Use biological resources, minimize inputs

I use no commercial fertilizers, pesticides, or herbicides, although the bermuda problem has sorely tempted me. I make a lot of compost and use it, and also have encouraged worms and other beneficial insects. This last year there were lots of lace wings, lady bugs, and praying manti in the garden. I am not self sufficient in terms of avoiding all inputs from outside of my garden, I bring home bags of grass clippings, leaves, and wilted flowers from my church for the compost pile, but I think that eventually I will be able to close that cycle. To border the beds, I used logs from the elm trees on my property. Some of the mulch and compost was made from the shredded small limbs of the trees taken down by the ice storm.

One thing I have failed at for three years is growing squash and pumpkins, due to problems with squash bugs and cucumber beetles. This year I am planting buffalo gourds among the squash, as there are anecdotes that it will repel squash bugs and cucumber beetles. This is a potential biological solution that will not require the use of poisonous pesticides.

There is no necessity that requires the use of pesticides, herbicides, and chemical fertilizers. Pesticides, herbicides, and chemical fertilizers come into play when humans have failed by destroying an ecosystem or by not creating an effectively working ecosystem (or by failing in adapting or evolving an existing system). It makes simply no sense to destroy the soil that is designed to nourish plants, but that's the basis of much gardening these days.

7. Energy cycling

The way we live is filled with energy sinks. We spend piles of money to heat water and then throw all that heat away by draining the hot water into a cold sewer in the ground, without even trying to at least recover the useful heat, not to mention reuse the water. Many such examples of flagrant waste and energy gluttony could be cited. We should remember what our grandparents told us: WASTE NOT, WANT NOT.

One way to waste not want not in gardening is to make your own compost. Food scraps, garden waste, newspaper and etc are recycled into useful compost via natural processes. If not composted, they are typically thrown in the trash and buried in a landfill or washed down a sewer via a "disposal". Kitchen disposal's should be renamed as "money shredders" or "wealth wasters" because that's what they are.

Natural forests and prairies do not waste energy in this matter. Everything is recycled. The more your garden does this, the less work you have to do, the healthier the garden will be, and the more bountiful will be the harvest.

We are also investing in super insulation for the house, as we do not use air conditioning. In the summer we open doors and windows and use fans to pull air in and out of the house. We also put a trellis along the western wall so that now the west windows are shaded in the summer with grapevines and mulberry bushes. We have made window quilts to use during the winter inside to help hold heat in at night.

8. Work with natural forces, not against them

In nature, if a piece of earth is laid bare, plants rush in to heal the breach. First come what we generally call weeds, then bushes and then trees. This is the principle of natural succession. In an edible gardening landscape, you help this process along by substituting useful or edible plants for volunteers.

Much gardening and landscaping these days is a matter of working against, not with, nature. From this attitude of opposition and dominance comes our heavy reliance on commercial fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides. We kill the natural fertility with poisons and chemicals, and then we try to grow plants in a dead growing medium by substituting artificial fertilizers for the complex natural system that has worked pretty well for several hundred million years.

But even if we avoid chemical traps, there's still plenty of ways we can work against, rather than with nature. In the first year I planted currants I bought from an out of state nursery catalog, and they fried in the summer. The second year I bought clove currants, an Oklahoma native, from an Oklahoma nursery, and planted them so they got some shade in the hot afternoon sun and they have thrived. The first year I worked against the natural forces, the second I worked with them.

People often come by and want to help, and generally, the first thing they want to do is reach down and pluck up a dandelion (dandelions generally grow in just about every bed on my property). This is such a problem I am thinking about putting small signs here and there amongst my beds, "Please don't pluck the dandelions." Dandelions are incredibly useful. Their long taproot brings up trace nutrients from down deep, they contribute to mulch, and all parts of them are edible. Not to mention how pretty their yellow blossoms looks. Pulling them is working against nature. It is better to let them alone, and enjoy their beauty and usefulness, and let them do their job, thus working with nature.

Another way to work with nature is to create polycultures of annual and perennial plants. I have no garden beds devoted to just one plant, all of them have a variety. My garden will always require some "cultivation", but it will never require e.g. tilling, or excessive amounts of watering or poisons.

Perhaps the most important thing is to pay attention to the soil. Much of what we do in gardens, such as tilling, and using pesticides, herbicides, and chemical fertilizers, is harmful to the long term health of the soil. Herbicides and pesticides destroy the micro flora and fauna that are essential to healthy soil. With lots of earth worms, you won't need to till. It is better to let the worms do their job rather than a human try to do a worm's job with backbreaking labor.

9. Optimize edge

I think of my project as a "forest edge" garden, such as might be found at the point that a mature forest evolves into a prairie. In ecology, it is evident that such "edges" between ecosystems tend to be more productive and diverse than the systems that are merging. So edges are good, and that is true of both the garden as a whole and its various parts. One advantage of a curved line over a straight line in a garden is that more plants can grow along curve than a straight line.

10. Use natural patterns

Nature doesn't have a lot of straight lines and square edges, and neither does my garden. All of my beds are irregular shapes. One element I intend to add this year are spirals, which are small mounds with plants spiraling up them to the top. One thing that makes vegetable gardens not generally considered to be front yard material is that they are all straight rows. But my cabbages and broccoli and etc are scattered among everything else, so even though they are very useful and edible, they also look good.

11. Optimum size

Permaculturists generally speak of small systems, and that is the scale that most gardeners work at. We would like to have a farm some day, where we would grow food for distribution to the poor. In the meantime, I think it is important to learn what to do with what I have before me. If I can learn this 225' x 85' bit of land well, then later if I do get more land I might have some idea as to what to do with it.

Appropriate size is a consideration when you are putting things together in the garden. There are lots of details. A garden bed should be about twice the width the gardener can reach, that way the center can be reached from both sides. Pathways should be wide enough to get a wheelbarrow down them, but no wider than is necessary. Etc.

12. Start small

The first year I did only 3 beds, less than 100 square feet total. The second year I added more, the third year we got to the present place, and this year I will be adding more beds. It won't be until the fifth year that all of the lawn is disappeared. Actually, the very first thing I did was make a compost pile. "We start small or we don't start at all," is good advice for beginning edible landscapers. Be willing to accept small harvests at first, as an edible landscape will take time to develop its harvest.

13. Work smart and minimize backbreaking labor

It's important to think things through and pay attention to details. To illustrate this, let me describe one of my major mistakes. I made my garden beds by first putting down a layer of mulch, then two layers of brown cardboard, more mulch, and then some topsoil mined from elsewhere on my property. Then I planted into that surface and covered with more mulch.

The big mistake I made was to not at the same time mulch the paths. Who knows what I was thinking of, but that one mistake has caused me a lot of extra labor which is just now getting under control. So from the beginning, mulch the paths as well as the beds, assuming you are building your project on top of garden sod. This is called "sheet mulching." I do not remove the sod at first as that is the most biologically active layer of soil. It will compost in place and thus be very useful. Instead of mulching the paths, you could take the sod off of them, compost it, and return it to the tops of the beds, but that is more work the first year.

14. Use color effectively

We are talking about edible landscaping in an urban area here, so it's important to use color effectively. This is something I am still experimenting with, but useful and edible plants are also colorful and beautiful and the colors can be combined very effectively to create incredible displays. The first year that I used crimson clover as a cover crop brought a nice surprise, in early spring, my yard and garden beds were covered with beautiful crimson flowers. People driving by would stop and ask, "What is that growing there on your yard?" Many plants generally considered to be ornamentals are also edible, this is especially true of flowers. Every part of the day lily plant is edible - flowers, roots, and leaves. Rose petals are edible as are the hips (which are a major source of vitamin C), as are Rose of Sharon flowers and red bud flowers (also the seeds may be ground for flower). Rye can be as beautiful as ornamental grasses. Purple coneflowers besides being beautiful are also an important medicine plant.

Winter color can also be found among the edibles. Right now (January 2003) I have beautiful kale plants, purple, pink, and green. Every time I chop a head to eat, they grow back in pairs, so I have some plants with 4 heads on them. Arugula (a self seeding annual salad crop) is still green, as is salad burnet and french sorrel, and of course the sage. Oregon grapes, besides producing an edible berry, also have glorious copper colored foliage. Rue is a nice silver green that is still bright in the winter. For Thanksgiving I made a table decoration with branches of tarragon, rue, Oregon grape, horehound, and arugula, and sprinkled bright red rose hips. And of course, the vetch and clovers are growing all winter long. The lemon and chocolate mints are still green and thriving, even after snow. And even though I don't think we consider broccoli a winter crop, I have several broccoli plants that are still thriving, and producing heads even though I have cut them regularly. Silver beet is another colorful plant that survives into winter, and as an edible it is a "cut and come again" staple.

Fall and spring color are also found among the edibles. In spring there are blossoms on the fruit trees and berry plants, and I highly recommend the sand plums for beautiful orange and red fall foliage, as well as the interesting shapes in which they grow

Many wildflowers are also edible or medicinal or produce dyes, and many of them that are suitable for this area are also local natives. Another show stopper is the maximilian sunflower, which produces multi branched plants covered with yellow blossoms.

15. Plug the gaps and fill the layers

When I pulled the shallots, garlic, and multiplying onions in June, I filled in the gaps with black-eyed peas. If anything failed, I put something else in its place. Keep the mulch intact and add as necessary. Mulch is really important both for soil conditioning and weed control.

Don't hesitate to scatter some seeds at random and see what happens. I did several beds of a salad polyculture with 8 different kinds of lettuce, plus buckwheat, radishes, ground cherries, and tomatoes. Except for the tomatoes, all the others were sown by simply broadcasting and then raking/mulching. I let some of everything go to seed, and I have a nice little January crop of baby greens under the mulch.

"Fill the layers" refers to the seven niches of a forest garden (mature trees, under story trees, etc). Each niche, except perhaps for the first "mature canopy trees" (this depends on the size of the lot) should have several elements in it. I don't have room for more than one mature canopy tree, but my neighbors have them.

16. Use decorations appropriately and outline boundaries

Some folks like lawn decorations, others don't, I do. No, I don't have any pink flamingos, but we're making some miniature wooden "oil derricks" which will substitute for tomato cages, and also provide supports for both peas and hops. Other possibilities include gazebos, trellises, arches, and windmills.

When I made my first beds, I thought, "Hmmm, this looks a bit ugly." But then I outlined them with logs, and that made all the difference in the world. Proper treatment of boundaries is important for most neighborhood aesthetics.


So these are some of the facets of my garden design project. The important thing is to get started, if you wait until you know everything about gardening, you will harvest even one tomato. You can always build a compost pile, and once you get that going, you can try sheet mulching an area and making a couple of beds.

Don't think that you have to draw everything out on paper first. If you can do that, that's fine, but I'm not really talented or experienced with that so I haven't done it. I get a general idea in my head as to where I want to go, and then I do a little at a time, always looking at it to see if it looks different and adjusting as necessary. Zoning your garden space is one of the more important design principles, and the best place to start is literally on your doorstep.

One final point. Don't be in a hurry. Growing a healthy, attractive, and productive edible landscape doesn't happen overnight, even if you have a lot of money to throw at a situation. But patience, coupled with love, intelligent design, and good work can create for you, your family, and for those who will come after you, a beautiful and abundant garden.

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