Monday, June 1, 2015

Achieving sustainability with edible landscaping

Picking blueberries right outside our front doors – making use of land immediately around us for food – sitting on the patio enjoying the varied textures, colors and scents of the edible landscape – No wonder edible landscaping is becoming increasingly popular!

Serviceberry at M R Gardens - May and June harvest

Like many others, these reasons first drew me to edible landscaping 15 years ago. But as I learned about sustainable agriculture and started transforming my and others’ landscapes, I realized its advantages have far deeper roots than these initial enticements. I’ll explore these benefits in the next few issues of WNC Woman, starting this month with sustainability. Edible landscaping enables us to know exactly how our food is grown and how the land was cared for.


The foundation of healthy plants and healthy food is healthy soil. And what is healthy soil but a healthy ecosystem? We hear a lot about the importance of earthworms in the garden. Equally so are the microbes that the earthworms feed on. Miniature organisms decompose organic matter and turn nutrients in soil into a form that plants can uptake. And that means we uptake these nutrients.

A rising concern is that, due to modern farming practices, food we buy from the grocery has fewer nutrients than in the past. For instance, in a 2004 University of Texas study, biochemists analyzed 43 fruits and vegetables and found that six out of 13 nutrients showed declines over a 50-year period. We can improve the condition of the soil and gain access to nutrients by adding beneficial bacteria and fungi to the soil.

This feat is fairly simple in the backyard with sufficient time. In a method I like to call “Microbe Rich” (M R) gardening, I layer piles of organic matter, mainly compost and leaves, on top of cardboard, which suppress and decompose grass. After three months, the soil is ready to plant in and already has the ability to produce high quality vegetables. In another two years, the tilth, i.e. structure, is so soft and fluffy that planting is a breeze.

Well-structured soil provides many ecosystem services. Water percolates under the surface without disrupting nutrient-rich topsoil. The soil web combats disease and keeps pathogens in check. Tilling, which lifts weed seed to the surface and adds to garden labor, is not needed. A garden becomes easier to manage when we work with our ecosystem rather than disrupt it.

While all gardening is good, no matter what method we use, I prefer to take advantage of the high quality soil right in our backyards – we just need to add organic matter and microscopic decomposers to unlock the abundant nutrients.


Another way to create sustainable food systems is to include plants that help other plants. In particular, beneficial flowers attract insects that keep our gardens healthy. Beneficial insects not only pollinate our food supply but also keep insect populations in balance. Some beneficial insects eat garden pests that cause us the most headaches; others are parasitic, using garden pests as hosts.

Caraway at M R Gardens - Photo by Vickie Burick

Flowers provide predatory insects nectar and pollen, which are side dishes to their main course of insects. The more beneficial flowers in our garden system, and hence the more predatory insects, the less likely we are to rely on pesticides, even natural sprays, to keep pests in check.

Plants can help each other in additional ways as well. For instance, comfrey has a long taproot that pulls up nutrients from far below the surface. The large fuzzy leaves can be harvested and spread along the orchard ground to increase nutrients for fruit trees. Horseradish can be planted near trees since its roots are said to prevent rots on apples, cherries and plums. The shrub layer of an orchard can include plants like the edible goumi, which fixes nitrogen in the soil so that it’s in a usable form for surrounding plants.


Perhaps one of the best ways we can be sustainable gardeners is to plan. This limits panicky last-minute planting crazes that can lead to unsustainable gardening practices. We’re less likely to waste plants, and the resources it took to grow them, if we take the time to examine our landscapes and make sure we have the proper space and growing conditions. I start working with my clients as far ahead as possible – sometimes a year or two in advance of planting. This allows for the landscape to evolve alongside the inevitable changes in the homeowner’s life.

Garden coaching also contributes to sustainability. If beginning gardeners have success, they are more likely to continue gardening. That’s why M R Gardens offers garden coaching services alongside edible/native landscape design. The goal of M R Gardens is to create a yard that is sustainable for both the landowner and the surrounding ecosystem.

This article was printed in the June 2015 issue of WNC Woman.