Can you count the edibles?
In the past year or two there has been a lot of media, web and blogosphere attention generated about homeowners and their front yard gardens, and the neighbors and cities unhappy about them. While there’s nothing inherently unattractive about edibles or gardening, some of these gardens have certainly been undesirable from a modern urban/suburban aesthetic. Property rights issues aside, I don’t share that aesthetic and you may not either, but whether you just want to keep the neighbors happy or you have to deal with local ordinances or homeowner’s association restrictions, there are ways to use your front yard for edibles without raising the ire of others.
Front yards are great places for fruit and nut trees. They don’t need to be planted in a row or a grid just because it’s an orchard. You can also take cues from the permaculture movement and build layered beds of edibles, which is more natural appearing. While this makes maintenance more difficult for fruits that need it, it does reduce the need to keep the windfalls picked up in order to maintain a manicured appearance. Another option for “tall” shapes is building a nice trellis or arbor for vines like grapes, squash or gourds.
Numerous edible shrubs can do double-duty as foundation plantings. A few examples are roses, rosemary, blueberries, tea camellia and hazelnuts. Rosemary can be pruned into a formal hedge. Some herbaceous plants like cardoon and artichoke can be shrub sized. Jerusalem artichoke is a tall sunflower with good tasting tubers. And then, of course, there are regular sunflowers big or small.
Culinary herbs are other plants which straddle the arbitrary line between “edible” and “ornamental.” Your local nursery probably has dozens of “flowers” that are edible or medicinal herbs that have been selected for brighter colored blooms. They tend to be not as strong as their wild cousins, but provided you have the same species (beware mislabeling), they still share the same flavors. Yarrow, borage, chives, sage, chamomile and lavender are a few in this category.
“Ornamental” vegetables are often just regular vegetables which have been bred for other characteristics. Ornamental kale is still kale, and many of the varieties not sold as ornamental are still quite attractive. Same for many other greens such as swiss chard and beets. The bright leaves of rhubarb, the red blooms of scarlet runner bean and the bold foliage of hibicus plants (including okra) can used as ornamentals. Ornamental sweet potatoes don’t make good roots, but the appearance above ground is the same — a rambling ground-hugging vine. The non-ornamental versions just don’t have lime green or purple leaves.
Be more careful with ornamental peppers — not all are Capsicum annum and the ones that are tend to be brutally hot. I would buy seeds from a reputable seed company to ensure safe edibility.
Underneath it all are groundcovers. Think wintergreen, strawberries, thyme, purslane, and prostrate rosemary. The more groundcover you have, the less mulch you need to keep fresh.
In a nutshell: if you need to garden stealthily, avoid rectangular garden shapes, straight rows and uniform blocks of plants. Instead, think in terms of landscape design, where you choose the shapes and sizes you need, and then pick the appropriate plants. Plant things like greens closer together for a more lush and full appearance. This will reduce individual plant productivity and deplete your soil faster, but if the alternative is not using the space at all, you still come out ahead.
Finally, don’t be afraid to mix in plants that are purely ornamental or are not edible to us but feed beneficial insects and birds. If you attempt to build you edible landscaping with 100% edibles, you will probably drive yourself nuts trying to find solutions to every space. Yesteryear’s kitchen garden contained a mix of pretty and useful, and yours can, too.
There’s no reason your front yard “garden” needs to be unattractive — or even recognizable — to even those people who have a firm modern landscape/lawn aesthetic. Plan carefully, and you can have a stealth garden in plain view.