Wednesday, December 29, 2010

A Profitable Use of The Urban Landscape Space

Since WW II, the mass migration from the country to the cities, suburbs and exurbs combined with cheap oil, technology, and subsidized farming have led us to believe that growing our own food is no longer necessary. The theories of leading landscape architects and developers led to profitable, repeatable procedures to provide the living spaces we take for granted. Whether the lot was an eighth of an acre, a quarter acre or a full acre the primary landscape plan was for a foundation planting and a couple of trees. Each subdivision was, and is still, usually comprised of similar style and sizes of homes. Combine the pressures of uniformity and developers’ dictates concerning landscaping and few families have been brave enough to express their personal tastes. To grow one’s own food almost seems evidence of economic hardship; as if that beautiful weed free lawn wards off poverty.

The modern American home is currently a purely cosmetic landscape. It simply will not do to defy convention! A clean weed free lawn and no messy piles or unsightly plants are prerequisites to being allowed to stay in many neighborhoods. Vegetables and vegetable gardens are prohibited in some HOA bylaws.

No matter where you live,
 enjoy the profits of good design and good stewardship
 from your landscape space.
However, even we Americans are still bound by laws of nature. Our food supply comes from the land. Land we are disconnected from. The very processes involved in growing food are unknown to most of us. As our digital world is shown to be far more vulnerable than the older technologies we have left behind, as we centralize processing plants and take the “local” out of food production, many families find themselves more food insecure than at any time in the last 60 years. The evidence for this fact is in the news far too often, with contamination recalls, etc. The need to grow our food has begun to dawn on more and more families. A measure of preparedness for whatever betides is simply part of good stewardship.

Recently, more and more families are enjoying the expression of their personal tastes as well as having fun with edibles. Few of us in the urban environment can be totally food ready, but we can lessen the impacts of the unknowable future. It is possible to have beauty and a functional landscape. How useful and productive depends on the size and specifics of each property, of course. Many edible landscapes are excellent examples of Good Stewardship.

Why not grow figs as small ornamental trees? Or peaches, Asian pears, apples, a new variety of persimmon? Why grow fruitless trees when one can at least have the potential of a harvest? Consider the fruits a bonus to complement the inherent beauty of the plant.

A mass of cabbages whether red or green is just as delightful to the eye as any inedible annual that we insist on planting for cosmetic purposes. Buttercrunch lettuces are simply gorgeous as they unfurl their foliage. Beets and their leaves can be a beautiful border to a shrub bed or even a sidewalk, and growing your own beets will save you serious money at the grocery store.

Do you like Hibiscus flowers? Plant okra, it is in the Hibiscus family. Would you like a fast growing vine to grow over your arbor or to trail across your porch railing? Consider Malabar spinach or Hyacinth bean vine.

No residential landscape is completely maintenance free. Edibles can and do require maintenance as well, however there is often a reward for your expenditure that goes far beyond the cosmetic contribution that a conventional landscape can offer. We spend incredible amounts of money and time in caring for our cosmetic landscapes, many of which are poorly designed and are wasteful of resources in their upkeep.

The well designed residential landscape should provide at a minimum
1) privacy from neighbors
2) keep mud and dirt out of the house
3) minimize soil erosion
4) provide utility and service areas for garbage cans, compost piles, cord wood, as well offer the opportunity to dry the wash.
5) perhaps there is enough outdoor area for a vegetable garden.
6) properly placed trees can block the western sun in summer and allow the sun to warm the house in the winter.

Many of the most pleasing elements of a landscape need not be lost simply because edibles are used. Flowing, curved beds and borders, living screens, and meditation areas can all be executed with edibles. Each of the goals listed above can be achieved using edible trees and shrubs, as well as annuals and perennials, plants that can fulfill a need, provide beauty and provide food.

Shrub and perennial borders can contain edibles; simply combine plants that have similar requirements such as soil pH, soil type, hours of sunlight, water needs. More often than not in the conventional landscape this critical cultural practice is poorly executed. From annuals, to border plantings to foundation plantings to small and large trees as well as vines, there are a number of choices for the designer and homeowner. For a return on your landscape investment add food to the design criterion, whether that is a Stealth garden with vegetables tucked into the shrubbery, edible foundation plantings, edible borders for beds, or framed raised beds. Where and how you choose to live will determine whether you plant a small dedicated space out of sight from the neighbors, or an elegant potager garden sweeping out to an orchard.

Lee McBride

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