Designing a small, mostly edible garden to also be beautiful?
April 13, 2022 10:42 PM   Subscribe

If all goes according to plan I will be moving to a new house soon. There is no landscaping in the front yard so I'm dreaming about what I want to do. I would like to take the idea of landscaping near the front door and use it to build an edible garden that also has aesthetic value the way landscaping by the door is supposed to. I am a total novice and have killed lucky bamboo before so I need something easy. We are in zone 9a.

My dream would be to have landscaping by the front door that is beautiful and mostly edible. Kale, other lettuces, snap peas, potatoes, carrots, cabbages, rhubarb, rosemary, mint, basil, sage, bay leaf, thyme, lavender, berries would all be well received.

Jasmine, hyacinth, lavender and wild bergamot are enjoyable. Gardenias and dogwoods can GTFO. Most strongly floral scented plants would be a no but earthy/fruity/delicate is ok.

The area in reference faces west. The area is not shaded by tall trees but may not get many hours of direct sunlight.

So where do I begin in determining what plants like or including the above will grow well together in this zone and be low maintenance? Is it dumb to try to turn an edible garden into a source of curb appeal? If not, are there easy more "classic" landscaping plants that would pair well with what I've listed above? Hostas, leopard plants, coleus, or ajuga? Is there a free garden planner website that can smartly suggest what other plants go with a potential design to promote [a cohesive? Homeostatic?] state of the soil? Or warn against the opposite, e.g. don't plant y and z together because they both want the same resources.
posted by crunchy potato to Home & Garden (18 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
I can’t help you with specifics because I have a black thumb, but the term that I bet you find most helpful in searching for inspiration and talking to gardening enthusiasts will be “potager garden”. I think they are gorgeous; functional, connected to the land, and a joy to be in.
posted by Mizu at 11:06 PM on April 13, 2022 [5 favorites]

Vegetable gardening is hard. Planning a garden is very hard! I have two recommendations.

First, start small. And maybe not in the front yard, at least in containers so you can move things around. It’s very easy to have eyes too big for your stomach, and plant way too much stuff that doesn’t work together and it all goes to crap. Focusing on one thing lets you build experience of what works in your particular microclimate as well as building the skills and experience of gardening.

If you are determined to go whole hog right away, find the hipster local plant landscaper in your area, and tell them what you want, and theyll set it for you. I have seen a couple neighbors hire a particularly crunchy landscape company and set up a garden like you recommend.
posted by Geckwoistmeinauto at 4:07 AM on April 14, 2022 [3 favorites]

What area do you live in? You may want to keep in mind that many of the things you mentioned will only be visually pleasing for a portion of the year. However, shrubs like rosemary will be aesthetically pleasing for the entire year (and edible!).
posted by raccoon409 at 4:41 AM on April 14, 2022 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: @raccoon409 I am in zone 9a.

Sounds like I need to find out what is perennial and not, and how to structure a garden so the perennials maintain an aesthetic value when plants next to them aren't so pretty.

The closest city definitely has hipster permaculture folx that I can tap into but I was trying to see if I can learn this for myself before I throw money at the problem.

Thanks for the suggestions so far. Please keep them coming!
posted by crunchy potato at 6:34 AM on April 14, 2022 [1 favorite]

This is possible! Can you tell us a little more about your climate and the soil?

For example, are you in a Mediterranean type climate where it’s dry in the warm season and wet in the cool season? Or do you have hot and humid summers?

Can you check your soil drainage?

Different plants have pretty different requirements and it’s best to put plants together that like the same sorts of things. For example, sage, lavender, and rosemary all like it relatively dry in summer and prefer well drained soils. Lettuce and brassicas need regular water and like a bit of shade when the sun is hot. You can create different microclimates in your garden to allow you to grow more types of things. For example, this year I put the lettuce “behind” my tomatoes - by the time it gets hot this summer, my tomatoes will be tall enough to shade the lettuce in the hottest part of the day.

One of the ways to make an edible garden look more like front of house landscaping is to use a formal design - one with lots of symmetry, structure, and repetition. Raised beds can help add structure and repetition as can hedged herbs And you can arrange them to prove symmetry.
posted by congen at 6:47 AM on April 14, 2022 [3 favorites]

You might like reading the Tenth Acre Farm (tagline: Permaculture for the Suburbs). She grows a ton of food on a small suburban lot and focuses on both food and aesthetics.
posted by SeedStitch at 6:50 AM on April 14, 2022 [2 favorites]

(I ask more about your climate because all plant hardiness zones tell us is how cold it gets - which is important for perennial plant survival, but not the only thing that factors in to plant choice)
posted by congen at 6:51 AM on April 14, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I live in a suburban area and have a front yard perennial herb garden, stocked with sage, thyme, rosemary, and lavender, with a section kept open for annual herbs like basil. I also grow tomatillos and peppers, and more herbs in pots on my front porch.

Some key tricks to convincing your neighbors this is a good idea:

Use decorative garden infrastructure. For my herb garden, I am using a raised cedar garden bed (mine is from Greene's Fencing) that looks refined enough to be a flower bed and decorative garden fencing. I also use large, fancy slate labels for the plants so people walking by can tell what they are looking at. (I have gotten many specific complements about the garden labels! Turns out people like to learn about plants while walking their dogs; who knew?) My tomatillos are in decorative wrought iron cages that look a bit fancier than the regular old tomato cages I use for the tomatoes in my back yard vegetable garden.

Mulch your garden bed and keep re-mulching it yearly. This makes everything look tidier. I use pine bark mulch but you can use any natural mulch that breaks down to nourish your plants, and looks nice. I do not recommend using rock mulch. It sinks into the dirt over time and becomes a major PITA to dig back up, plus it doesn't add any nutrients.

Sneak flowers in between the edible plants. I put petunias or pansies in between the herbs in my garden to fill in space. This makes it look more like a decorative garden. If you want everything to be edible, keep in mind that many "decorative" flowers, like pansies, violas, and nasturtiums, are edible!

Share the food you grow. People tend to like your garden a lot more when they get free food out of it.

Also, consider planting fruiting shrubs and trees that are adapted for your climate. Wild, locally native types of these are better for the environment and may have less of a floral scent. I have planted wild plum and nannyberry viburnum in my front yard.
posted by BlueJae at 6:58 AM on April 14, 2022 [10 favorites]

Take a year to study not just plants and gardening, but your yard itself. Over the course of the year, the sun is going to cross at different angles and you'll need to know which parts get four hours of sun most of the year versus six or eight or more. Study what happens when it rains. Walk your neighborhood and see what others have done.

In that year, figure out what you'll need to do to put in irrigation. I would argue even if you're in the PNW or other notably rainy climate, you will want something in place for increasingly unpredictable climate, and the number one reason most gardens fail is watering inconsistency. Hand watering is hard, when you live a life, even if you love your garden. In all likelihood you'll want a drip system - spend at least a few months watching youtube videos to get a feel for what your options are and what other people do.

It is not possible to just read enough books and hit the ground an experienced gardener, so understand that you will always be iterating, always be learning, always be getting learned by the garden/environment, and always improving. Things will fail to thrive, pests will interfere, you will get better ideas as you get more experience. You can't just go poof and make a potager garden be 20 years old and as established as any garden ever is, and that's part of the joy and sorrow and adventure of a garden.

There are lots of amazing gardeners on youtube, which I largely find more educational than most gardening books, at least in the information-sponge stage.
posted by Lyn Never at 7:25 AM on April 14, 2022 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Small tip: only plant mint in pots or planters without holes in the bottom. And maybe on gravel or stone. Mint spreads extremely fast, and once it's in you'll never be able to get it out. If you have a big planter or something that will be plenty of mint, but if you put it in the ground you will now and forever more have a mint garden.
posted by true at 7:32 AM on April 14, 2022 [7 favorites]

Best answer: I forgot the other useful thing to study: zone is just a measurement of average temperature, and the other big deal information is Average First Frost Date and Average Last Frost Date. "Perennial" can be - in some plants, if they're not hard-coded to die after flowering or similar behaviors - dependent on weather. Here in Los Angeles, a lot of annuals or what we think of as seasonal edible plants will actually just keep truckin' because they don't freeze - we just cut peppers down to nubs like roses and then they grow back in the spring, and tomato plants will send up secondary (though not as robust as the first) stems when the weather warms up.

If you don't freeze super hard or get ice storms, you may find that your house or the shape of your property/neighborhood means you have microclimates that don't actually freeze at all. Over time you'll figure out some of this and you can move stuff to take advantage.

It doesn't look stunning, but it is okay to lay out your garden in nursery pots to start with, especially if there's large components - fruit trees, berry bushes - you're going to make the tentpole items in your garden. You may also decide to brick/pave/deck part of your yard to use for planters and pots, or something like a greenstalk where you can grow lettuces and strawberries up away from slugs and snails.

A good way to daydream garden design is to take photos of the area and then doodle on them with a drawing app. Paint or another simple app works fine for this, you don't NEED illustrator or procreate. This is the easiest way to think about where to put walking paths and edging without doing any staking or cardboard-templating until you're pretty close to a final design.
posted by Lyn Never at 7:40 AM on April 14, 2022 [5 favorites]

Don’t invest too much in a patch in a west-facing area until you learn how plants do in the late afternoon sun. Even in the PNW, it can be pretty fierce, especially in July and August.
posted by matildaben at 8:52 AM on April 14, 2022 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: We have hot, humid summers and generally mild, humid winters but we do get freezes (November 10-20 and April 1-10 frost dates). A regional landscaping company recommends the following, if that gives any indication of what kind of soil we have:
Dymondia, sheet moss, monkey grass, ajuga, ribbon grass, lilyturf, mondo grass, little bunny fountain grass, impatiens, petunias, buttercups, marigolds, tulips, begonias. I've heard marigolds deter mosquitoes which would be helpful if I could incorporate them.

I have grown mint, green onion and rosemary outside in containers and all did very well, although the mint seems to dry out in the colder weather and come back later. Rosemary grew to proper shrub height but I just looked and it seems dead now, but the mint next to it is thriving. It sounds like rosemary likes less humidity than mint, so that's an example of a pairing that won't work well long term, correct?
posted by crunchy potato at 9:29 AM on April 14, 2022 [1 favorite]

Please consider growing native plants whenever possible. They are more adapted to the location and are most beneficial to pollinators. It really makes a huge difference.

Also, contact your local Extension Agency if you are located in the US. They can provide locally expert advice.
posted by mightshould at 11:00 AM on April 14, 2022 [1 favorite]

The book Edible Landscaping by Rosalind Creasy was one of the first to explore this area, and is excellent.
posted by Lexica at 2:25 PM on April 14, 2022 [2 favorites]

Looking at that list but not knowing where you are, I'm suspicious about monkey grass and ajuga being overly aggressive, check out a local invasive plant list and maybe go to a good local nursery to avoid planting things that will take over.

+1 looking up your county extension, county master gardeners, and county soil and water conservation district if you have them. If you're in an agricultural county near a more urban one, also check out the urban county extension and SWCD for more home-grower info.

Rosemary might have just dried out over the winter or gotten hit by a hard freeze. If the container doesn't drain, it could also have gotten too wet. Mint is notorious for being able to grow back from tiny fragments of roots and being impossible to kill, I wouldn't read too much into climate from your experience.
posted by momus_window at 2:30 PM on April 14, 2022 [1 favorite]

I am not familiar with your zone but want to recommend Joy Larkcom's "Creative Vegetable Gardening" for inspiration about design patterns to use.
posted by pipstar at 3:04 PM on April 14, 2022 [1 favorite]

> It sounds like rosemary likes less humidity than mint, so that's an example of a pairing that won't work well long term, correct?

Correct. You want rosemary to be in very well draining soil that dries out in the summer. Mint will be hard to kill no matter where you put it, but if the rosemary is happy in the summer, the mint would be puny in the same spot.

Globe artichoke makes a tall and dramatic plant with stunning flowers if you don’t harvest all the buds to eat. They’re perennials that like well draining soil. Pretty much all the traditional Mediterranean herbs and veg are going to want well draining soil that are relatively dry in summer, so you want to put them in containers or raised beds where you can control the soil type if you’re on clay or a soggy spot.

Marigolds look very cheerful planted with tomatoes, but they aren’t very likely to deter the mosquitoes unfortunately.
posted by congen at 7:37 AM on April 15, 2022 [1 favorite]

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