One of the great joys of growing food yourself is nibbling on plants as you work in the garden. But even if you don’t want a full-on kitchen garden, you can tuck plants into your ornamental design that let you snack as you stroll. Plant a grazing garden!
The plants we suggest for a grazing garden are those that let you eat right off the plant. They tend to be both tasty and low-maintenance. Our list is tailored to gardeners in Indiana, so if you’re in another zone, your plant list will likely differ.
If you’ll be sharing your grazing garden with a non-gardener (especially a child) do not plant anything dangerous (like Euphorbia spp., which can cause a rash) or poisonous (like foxglove). Children might think anything in the grazing garden is fair game! So stick to plants that are either edible or harmless, and always know exactly what you’re eating.
1. Go organic.
You are going to be eating fruit straight off of the plants in your garden, so avoid using synthetic herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers. Instead, focus on putting the right plant in the right place, feeding the soil with compost and mulch, and inviting in beneficial insects by planting a diverse range of plants.
2. Plan the hardscape.
Hardscape gives the garden its form and is especially important if you’re going to incorporate edibles. Plot out elements like paths, trellises, walls, and raised beds before you even think about putting plants in the ground.
3. Use beautiful (and edible) anchor plants.
Pick a couple of spectacular, edible trees or shrubs to build your garden around. A few to consider are:
- Serviceberries (Amelanchier spp.; e.g. A. x grandiflora ‘Autumn Brilliance’). This native shrub has lovely white flowers in spring followed by delicious purple berries in early summer. Use them as you would blueberries (if you can beat the birds to them).
- Cornelian cherry (Cornus mas spp. and cvs.) This dogwood shrub is a cloud of golden blossoms in spring, followed by tart red “cherries” in summer. It has great fall color, too.
- Kousa dogwood (Cornus kousa). The four-pointed white flower of the Kousa dogwood turns into a bumpy, rosy fruit. Pick the fruit, then squeeze the pulp out of the skin right into your mouth (but spit out the tough seed).
- Roses (Rosa spp.) Not only are the petals of your organic roses edible, but the red hips that form in fall are loaded with vitamin C.
4. Add some berries.
Berries offer maximum grazing for minimum work! Much easier than tree fruit, berries deserve a place in every garden.
- Raspberries. These cane fruits can be aggressive spreaders, so we like to use them at the boundary of the garden. Our favorite is autumn-bearing ‘Heritage.’ Or choose one of the new dwarf, thornless raspberries, like ‘Raspberry Shortcake.’
- Currants. (Ribes spp.) These northern-European favorites can take a little shade, but most prefer full sun. For sweetest out-of-hand eating, choose the red, white, or pink ones.
- Honeyberry (Lonicera cerulean cvs.) An edible form of honeysuckle, the honeyberry is a well-behaved Siberian shrub that offers up pretty white bell-shaped flowers in spring and blueberry-like fruits in early summer. You’ll need two different cultivars for pollination. Don’t confuse it with the invasive Asian bush honeysuckles.
- Strawberries (Fragaria spp.) The tiny alpine strawberry is particularly suited to use as a group cover, but we’ve used June-bearers to edge beds and tuck into borders. Or grow them in a pot!
- Blueberries in a container (Vaccinum corymbosum et.al.) Blueberries are not suited to Indiana’s soil. If you want to grow them here, plant them in a raised bed or in a container filled with suitably acidic soil (pH of 4.5 to 5.5).
5. Vary the border with herbs and vegetables.
Herbs are beautiful in their own right, and both the leaves and flowers of culinary herbs are edible. Tidy vegetables can add color and form to the border.
- For height, tuck in a teepee with snap peas in spring or pole beans in summer. Both are tasty right off the vine.
- A cherry or pear tomato in the border adds a flash of color and a sweet snack.
- Leaf lettuce can be a stunning foliage plant. Harvest it by picking the outer leaves, and you won’t denude the border for your salad.
- Use herbs for additional color.
- Lavender and golden oregano look terrific together.
- Basil plays well with other flowers and comes in a wide range of color and forms.
- Sage is a soft-grey foil for colorful plants. Or try a variegated sage.
- Chives make for an onion-y mouthful and produce great flowers (but don’t let them go to seed, or you’ll have chives everywhere!
- Ferny dill is a cloud of texture, and the flat flowers lure in pollinators.