No garden is complete without a yummy patch of edible, perennial shrubbery! Even a small garden can squeeze in a few brambles, berries or 'chokes. To create a low-maintenance food forest with a year-round harvest and multiple layers of plants, a mid-sized perennial understory is an essential piece of the design.
Shrubs connect the canopy to the ground and create habitats for birds and insects. The shrub layer also shelters smaller plants and creates boundaries and microclimates.
Here on the North Coast, we are lucky to have a wide selection of edible shrubs numbering in the hundreds. I picked a baker's dozen of my favorites that are easy to grow and disease-resistant while providing a reliable, perennial harvest. Plant them all and you'll be well on your way to the food forest of your dreams!
I have a particular fetish for artichokes grown either in a wide hedge or placed at random across a mowed grassy lawn. The spiny leaves look like something out of Jurassic Park and the flowers are a giant, delicious thistle. Artichokes are water-thirsty and gophers love to eat their roots, so plant them in a bent chicken wire "gopher basket" and irrigate during the dry season.
This seems like a no-brainer — who doesn't love blueberries? But they aren't for every site, nor for every gardener. Blueberries need sun, regular pruning and fertilizing, protection from birds, acidic mulch and other forms of special attention. So do your homework and consider whether blueberries are really your best choice.
Pretty much everything in the genera Rubus (blackberries, raspberries, etc.) is edible and easy to grow. I enjoy using cane fruit hedges to create "rooms" in a large garden area, sectioning off zones for napping or secret fountains. Prune canes annually, in the fall when fruit is done. Cut branches that fruited this year to ankle-height while retaining the young shoots, which will be the ones that set fruit in the spring. Like any plant, cane fruits love a top dressing of rich compost. Harvest ever-bearing varieties daily to provoke a sustained harvest of up to six months.
Not all types are edible but canna lilies are such a beautiful, stunning addition to any garden. Canna edulis is an edible species that can be used much like tapioca. Break apart the corms and plant a patch near the house so you can watch the show of insects and birds attracted to almost year-round blooms.
There are about 150 species of edible currants, but my favorite is the classic flavor of the red currant (Ribes rubrum). I design site-specific gardens to meet the needs of the client/homeowner/gardener, but pretty much always include currants. Regardless of which species you choose, currants grow well as an understory shrub in marginal areas with part shade and acid soil. The plants can be susceptible to rust and mildew, so weed and rake around them once in a while and give them some nice composted manure every year.
I discussed figs in last month's column and, yes, most fig varieties are tree-sized. Except 'Petite negra', which only grows 4 or 5 feet tall and does quite well in our temperate climate.
Because of their bittersweet flavor and super thorny stems, these aren't my favorite choice for small gardens. But as a hedge to deter animals or create privacy and security, gooseberries are an awesome edible alternative to barbed wire. You can "coppice" them by establishing the plant then cutting it all the way to the ground and training the forthcoming tall, straight shoots into a fence.
Pineapple guava seems to do best in our climate, but if you have a greenhouse or a hot, south slope, try strawberry guava too. The flowers and foliage of both species are visually stunning, making them an excellent choice for a low hedge across a front yard or in an intimate courtyard garden.
Filberts can be grown in a wide range of shapes and situations. Plant as part of a mixed-plant guild or in rows along a large boundary and coppice into tall, permeable hedges. Filbert makes the best bent-wood outdoor furniture — it lasts longer than wicker or even plastic!
Attractive to hummingbirds, bumblebees and a zillion other pollinators, rosemary is known in folklore to repel bad energies from the home and garden. There are two basic types: shrubby, upright rosemary, and prostrate types that will spill down slopes and terraces. I love the way rosemary looks in a front yard garden with other Mediterranean plants like figs, brussel sprouts and oregano. Once established, all types of rosemary are resistant to deer, drought, and disease. Too easy!
With shimmering, silvery foliage and tiny, abundant, bright-orange fruit that tastes like sour-patch candy, seaberries (Hippophae rhamnoides) add a yummy, nitrogen-fixing conversation piece to the garden. Fruit has seven times as much vitamin C as lemons, ripens in September and can go until mid-winter.
Sunchokes (aka Jerusalem artichoke)
These will grow in otherwise undesirable garden areas, such as the alley behind your house or that strip of land between the garage and the neighbor's fence. The more you dig them, the more they grow, so place them with intent and plan to leave them in that area forever. The starchy, edible tubers can cause gas but if you soak them in water overnight and rinse them before cooking, that really seems to help.
These lanky perennial brassicas will provide year-round nutritious greens, even in a foot or two of snow! Did you know that Brassica oleracea is one of the oldest cultivated species of plants? I love to imagine the rich, rocky banks of the Fertile Crescent, terraced and stacked with blooming collards!
Most of the plants in this list will do fine when grown together, as long as everyone has enough elbow room to mature. Use them as companions for larger trees, planted close together in a guild to support each other's needs. Or plant them in a line or long curve to create boundaries and microclimates. A well-placed hedge can also serve as a windbreak, privacy barrier, or conceal an ugly area. Make a raspberry spiral with a small lawn of clover in the center and it becomes a secret fort for naps and playtime. Do your own experiments and let me know how it works out!
Heather Jo Flores is a garden designer, organic farmer, permaculture teacher, and the author/founder of Food Not Lawns. If you would like to submit a question or topic request for her next installment of Down and Dirty, contact her directly firstname.lastname@example.org.