“Garden Of Eatin’: Ideas for your edibles
from landscape designers
Trace Iest Robinson and Thomas Cole”

By Rachel S. Thurston


Food and Home Magazine
Feature Article

            I was shocked when a girlfriend recently spotted a giant bed of blooming kale and parsley resting quietly amongst the vivid flowerbeds at Disneyland.

            “They planted lettuce with the daffodils? Has Disneyland at last gone mad?” I laughed.

            Until recently, planting an edible within an elegant landscape just seemed downright tacky and embarrassingly inappropriate. We’ve glorified roses in viewing beds of their own while we don’t think twice about banishing equally lovely fruits and vegetables to backyard gardens and orchards. We insist that beauty and usefulness are separate entities.

            The tides are shifting however, and a more progressive and creative approach to landscaping has taken hold. Long thought to be déclassé here in the U.s. but embrced for centuries throughout Europe, integrating edibles into landscapes has become a new gardening phenomenon.

            I recently met with Landscape Deisgner Trace Iest Robinson and Organic Gardener and Designer Thomas Cole to learn more about why and how a gardener like myself can incorporate fruits, vegetables, and herbs in to a landscape. One look at Robinson’s personal “Eden,” tucked into the Santa Ynez foothills and overlooking a staggering view of the ocean, and the pay-offs of diverse planting schemes are immediately obvious.

            “My ideal garden touches all my senses…giving me pleasure in fragrance, in usefulness, and in aesthetics,” the sparkling-eyed Robinson says dreamily. “Much of what you grow you should be able to use indoors.”

            Throughout her garden, beauty is transposed with purpose. Edible plants take on a splendor that rivals the elegance of their ornamental competitors. Frilly bouquets of lettuce create borders below recently pruned roses. Strawberries wind beneath drooping branches of citrus trees. The inventive designer has even planted clumps of minty pennyroyal and thyme between the stone steps to her Jacuzzi, the idea being that bare toes will crush the tiny leaves and permeate the evening air with their fragrances.

            By intermingling an array of plants together in one great landscape, a gardener also creates a healthy community of pollinators and beneficial insects. “When you mix flowers and vegetables together, flowers will attract beneficial insects which will eat pests attacking the vegetables and vice versa. The more activity that’s in the garden, the better.”

            This idea of mutual protection is found throughout Robinson’s garden. Gophers have been a particular torment to her over the years and she’s become creative in her approach to combating them. This year she’s streamlined her flowerbeds with a giant border of onion bulbs. Apparently the subterranean little guys aren’t too fond of the wild stench of raw onions and are often deterred from total destruction of her flower beds by this invisible and “stinky” fence.

            Robinson is quick to point out that novice gardners should do their research and be aware that a few edible and non-edible plants are better kept apart. Jerry Sortomme, head of the SBCC Environmental Horticulture Department and a respected expert in the field, recently taught her that sweet pea flower ‘seed pods’ are covered with tiny hairs coated with strychnine, a poison to humans. If a novice gardener were to plant ornamental sweet peas alongside edible garden peas, it would be easy to feast on one instead of the other and be left with a regrettable stomachache.

            Thomas cole, a Santa Barbara organic gardener and designer, is no stranger to the idea of incorporating edibles into landscapes. After spending several years of his life doing agricultural development aid work in Africa, Cole returned to the United States inspired to continue helping people grow their own food using sustainable methods.

            “Look creatively at what you already have planted and think about using edibles instead of pure ornamentals,” the soft-spoken green thumb advises,yro sweet, and it has a gray-green foliage that  “Putting in fruit trees is one of the main ways people can integrate edibles into their whole yard. You can grow a little lemon hedge in place of an ornamental because it takes pruning and it fills out well.” He brims with suggestions, “Pineapple guava is one of my favorite plants because I love the fruit, the flowers are edible and slightly sweet, and it has a gray-green foliage that provides some nice contrast within the garden. As a hedge it takes clipping well and it also grows well naturally on its own. It’s very adaptable.”

            Cole recommends that novice gardeners use low-chill varieties of fruit trees and plants that are suited to our warm climate. He also notes fruit trees are often pruned for shape and not for their fruiting potential. With just a little research, he explains, novice gardeners can up their yields by adapting their pruning techniques to each specific fruit tree.

            “I think people are becoming much more aware of where their food comes from,” he adds, “and people are adding a lot of creativity into their garden by putting [fewer] parameters around what a traditional herb garden should be.”

            We can have our paradise and eat it, too.

Trace Iest Robinson’s list of Favorite Edibles:

Chamomile: For tea, to attract beneficial insects, and in flower arrangements.

Any citrus: For dark green leaves, colorful fruit, and wonderful fragrance when in bloom.

Carrots: For fern-like foliage in sunny spots. If you leave it in for a second year, makes flowers like Queen Ann’s Lace.

Rhubarb: Red stalks and crinkled dark green leaves make a great contrast—and then you get pie.

Cabbages: Flowering kales, but also red and green cabbage make great border edgings.

Thornless blackberries: Great fence, can be trained along railings, and yields large, delicious fruit.

Avocado: Beautiful shade tree, great for hillsides.

Ginger: Best in shade, with a tropical look.

Thomas Cole’s list of Favorite Edibles:

            Artichoke: ‘Imperial Star’—blooms the first year from seed. Great accent plant with striking gray foliage that grows well in our climate. Can be used in any part of the garden. Blue-purple flowers.

            Pineapple guava: (Feijoa sellowiana) ‘Nazmetz’—sweet, edible flowers and tasty fruit. Plants can be pruned into a hedge or left to grow into a large shrub (15’+). Gray foliage contrasts well with other garden plants.

            ‘Mid-Pride’ Peach: A low chill (250 hours) yellow-fleshed variety that grows and bears reliably in our climate.

            Alpine strawberries: (fraises des bois) Delectable fruit on a diminutive plant. Good interplanted among low-growing herbs, along borders, or along a stone edging.

            Swiss chard: Beautiful form in the garden. Provides continuously throughout the year, especially in our mild winter, without sacrificing the plant. A good array of colors with ‘Bright Lights’ selections.

            Leeks: ‘King Richard’—strong vertical element and a long growing season provide a nice complement to low-growing plants or other colorful selections, such as ‘Ruby Red’ swiss chard.

            French parsley: Curly leaves and rich, green color make this biennial an excellent choice when used in edging plantings, along a path, or around a bed.

            Trace Iest Robinson, Landscape Designer, at 969-5714 can help you design your ideal landscape and to help you select the plants most suited to it.

            Thomas Cole, Organic Gardener and Designer, at 455-3559 can help you design and tend to your organic garden.




Copyright Rachel S. Thurston 2010. All rights reserved.
Email: rachel@rsthurston.com
Last Updated November 22, 2010.