When I was researching traditional French garden design (for this post), I was struck by just how impressive some of the kitchen gardens could look. The combination of leafy crops and tufty root vegetables created stunning foliage, especially against a backdrop of tall fruit trees or pruned berry bushes. Eventually, I came across the term ‘foodscaping’, and ended up down a research rabbit hole of these beautiful and practical spaces. If you’re torn between using your garden for ornamental flowers and growing your own food, hopefully some of these foodscaping ideas that I’ve found will prove you can have both!
To begin with, we’ll take a quick look at what the term foodscaping actually means. We can also also look briefly at the ways foodscaping fits with living sustainably, and give you some examples of plants and crops that work really well in a modern foodscape. Of course, throughout today’s article I’ll show you some interesting and practical foodscaping ideas that I’ve found along the way!
What is foodscaping?
Foodscaping is about creating ornamental landscapes with edible plants, resulting in a kind of hybrid between decorative gardening and farming. The idea is to celebrate the aesthetic qualities of plants that are usually thought of as crops, while still being able to produce food and live sustainably.
This is what makes foodscaping different from regular vegetable patches or kitchen gardens. It’s explicitly about growing food in ways that are aesthetically appealing and subverting the idea that you can have either a pretty garden or a practical one, by proving that crops are gorgeous in their own right.
While the term ‘foodscaping’ is fairly modern, it’s not a new practice. People have been deliberately following the principles of beautiful, edible gardening since the late 1900s, and the existence of multi-purpose gardens goes all the way back to ancient times.
The history of edible gardens
Okay, I know you didn’t come here for a history lesson, but understanding the journey of foodscaping can help inspire your own space.
For example, the villa gardens of Ancient Rome were primarily for food cultivation, but often incorporated aesthetic layouts and ornamental elements. If you’re growing food on a larger scale, looking to historic Italian homes and gardens is a great way to find foodscaping ideas including vineyards, orchards and herb gardens.
In fact, during the Renaissance, you could find villas and chateaus all over Europe that utilised what we would consider foodscaping by today’s standards. These extravagant houses relied on home-grown food to sustain their inhabitants (and often to sell locally for income), but they were developed in such a way that they were still visually beautiful. Plants with attractive fruits were popular, like figs, pears and strawberries, as well as vegetables with interesting shapes, like leeks, peas and cabbages.
In Mesoamerican culture, it was considered the height of luxury to have a garden overflowing with edible, medicinal and fragrant plants. Being able to walk through a landscape of fruit trees, flower beds and vegetable vines was a marker of the wealthy and elite in Aztec society. Surrounding your patio with overflowing planters and hanging baskets of vegetables (and maybe even a water feature) can bring a sense of decadence to your garden.
Finally, English cottage gardens are a wonderful example of historic foodscaping. Cottage gardens are known to be overflowing with unruly native flowers, but traditionally you could also find fruit and vegetables growing amongst the ornamental plants.
Foodscaping & sustainability
Modern life comes with lots of challenges, but cultivating a foodscape can relieve some of the pressure points.
Countering the cost of fresh produce
We all notice the cost of the weekly shop creeping up and, unfortunately, fresh fruit and veg can often be the culprit – especially when you’re tempted to buy things that are out of season in the UK. There is a little bit of an initial investment when you’re growing your own food but, with a bit of patience, you’ll reap the rewards come harvest time.
Providing food security and accessibility
Depending on where you live and your circumstances, fresh fruit can be difficult to find and a stretch to afford (particularly in comparison to convenience food). By growing your own crops, you can reclaim control of your access to varied and nutritious fresh food at an affordable cost. Any degree of self-sufficiency is a good insurance in unpredictable situations.
There are also environmental factors – the carbon footprint of imported and non-local produce is massive – especially in contrast to the food you can grow right outside your home. Even if you can only grow a few veggies in your garden, it’s a positive offset to the energy demanded by industrial farming. Plus, there’s no need for agricultural pesticides, additional packaging, excessive processing or mass refrigeration.
Healthy for the mind and body
As we live increasingly urbanised, technology-driven lives, it’s comforting to reconnect with nature – even if it’s just on a balcony or patio. Besides, did you know that vegetables start to lose nutrients right after they’re harvested? So you’ll actually be getting better quality food compared to the same produce bought at the supermarket (which has usually spent several days in transit or storage). On top of that, it’s been shown that people who are motivated to grow and cook with fresh produce are more likely to consume more nutritious meals. Sounds like a win-win-win to me!
Modern foodscaping ideas
Although the popularity of home-grown veg is rising, the majority of gardeners prefer to keep their crops and flowers separate. If you want to start foodscaping, the trick is to bring your edible foods into your main garden, alongside (or even instead of) ornamental plants.
At first glance it might seem limiting, but there’s such a colourful and interesting variety of food-producing plants that can be grown in the UK that you’re really spoiled for choice! Mix together vine produce, bush varieties, fruit trees, root vegetables, climbing crops and so much more.
What are the best plants for foodscaping?
The best plants for foodscaping will depend on the size of your garden, how much sun/shade it gets (although there are vegetables you can grow in partial light), the kind of upkeep you’re prepared for and, of course, the fruits and vegetables your household is actually likely to eat. I’m not going to stop you from choosing crops that will struggle in your garden conditions, but if they’re not the sort of things you’re going to eat anyway, it’s all a bit pointless, isn’t it?
Rather than just giving you a long list of possible foodscaping plants, I’ve sorted them by category, as this will give you a (very) rough idea of what each kind of crop will look like and the kind of care it needs.
Chard, spinach, quinoa and beetroot are all part of the amaranth family. Spinach and quinoa offer tall, leafy greenery, and chard and beetroot deliver flashes of colour with their deep red stems.
Umbellifers are primarily identified by the shape of their flowers, which are nearly always in small clusters, shaped a bit like umbrellas, or fireworks. Carrots, celery and parsnips are all excellent choices for foodscaping, as are coriander, cumin, fennel, parsley and dill, if you want to add to your herb collection.
The Aster family, or Asteraceae, includes over 32,000 species of plant. Most gardens will choose daisies, sunflowers or – you guessed it – asters, but for a beautiful foodscape, try planting artichokes and lettuce, or edible flowers like dandelions, calendula, cornflowers or echinacea.
The brassica family includes lots of dinner plate staples, like broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale and brussel sprouts. These plants also happen to have beautiful, structural shapes and large leaves that make for fantastic decoration in foodscaping.
There are several varieties of mint, including peppermint and spearmint, but the family also includes lots of other popular herbs, like sage, rosemary, thyme, oregano and basil. These plants are not only very practical in the kitchen, they provide stunning texture and fragrance for a foodscape. They’re also great choices for sensory gardens.
Another plant family that’s usually associated with flowers, but also covers edible essentials like garlic, onions, leeks, asparagus and chives. One thing these delicious crops all have in common in their tall, elegant shape, which looks perfect if you want modern-looking foodscaping ideas.
Rosacea are often identified by their stunning, “showy” flowers (although they’re a separate family to roses, despite the similarity in name). When it comes to foodscaping, the best plants from this family also tend to feature beautiful, glossy berries – strawberries, raspberries and blackberries to name a few. Pears, cherries and apples are all in this family too, and provide gorgeous blossom in spring, then delicious fruit in autumn.
Last but not least, there are the plants that fall into the “nightshade” category. These include beautiful crops like tomatoes, aubergine and chilli peppers, but also practical plants like potatoes.
Looking after your foodscape
The one drawback of foodscaping is that you need to look after it in the same way you would a vegetable patch, but also as a decorative garden. The combination of agricultural labour and aesthetic pruning means that foodscaping typically needs a little bit more effort than a conventional kitchen garden or ornamental space.
Be prepared for watering, trimming, fertilising and pest control, but also plan for seasonal crop changes and challenges created by weather and exposure. Designing your foodscape to be in harmony with your garden’s microclimates and soil condition is essential for success without too much additional maintenance.
The other thing to be aware of is ripening crops. In many ways, foodscaping looks at its absolute best when your bushes are abundant with berries and your trees are heavy with fruit. However, if you let your crops sit for too long it will start to go rotten – and mouldy fruit will quickly take the shine off your abundant paradise!
I hope you liked these foodscaping ideas – they really made me wish like I had more outdoor space at the moment! Let me know your thoughts about edible landscaping, and enjoy growing a garden that’s literally good enough to eat!