American plum in the background, peach tree in the middle, comfrey and elecampane in the understory, seaberry at either end form an edible landscape in Maine. Credit: Courtesy of Jesse Watson

Imagine a world in which instead of mowing your yard, you harvested dinner.

That’s the idea behind edible landscaping, a practice that creates spaces devoted to small-scale food production with a variety of plantings.

The idea was popularized in 1982 with the book “Edible Landscaping” by Rosalind Creasy. In it, Creasy describes yards and gardens that multitask by appealing to all five senses of sight, sound, smell, touch and taste.

“It’s a lot like just what it sounds like,” said Jesse Watson, principal designer at Midcoast Permaculture in Maine. “Different plants yield different crops [and] the landscaping piece is about expanding the traditional forms of color and texture to include edibility, medicinal value and ecological functions.”

Edible landscaping is considered a form of permaculture, a design system that uses natural patterns to build up a garden that’s self-sustaining and less dependent on external additives such as chemical fertilizers or outside water supplies. If you’re transforming your lawn into an edible landscape, now is a great time to start preparing what that will look like.

“Edible landscaping is not just gardening with annuals or flowers and stuff,” he said. “It’s about incorporating [edible] perennials in general, whether they are herbaceous, a shrub or a tree.”

It’s also about playing the long game.

“Establishing your edible landscape can take a number of years,” Watson said. “It’s going to require irrigation, weed management and standard gardening practices like pruning.”

What you choose to grow and how you landscape is limited only by your growing season, preferences, space and how much time you want to devote to it.

Planting trees such as maples, birch, beech or oaks can provide shady patches in your yard in addition to sap and nuts. Pine trees produce needles that can be made into teas. When it comes to fruit trees like apple, peach, pear or cherries, fall harvests can be plentiful but these trees require regular pruning and irrigation.

Lower to the ground, shrubs such as blueberries, elderberries or gooseberries can also serve as ornamental borders around the yard.

Establishing edible perennials such as rhubarb or asparagus provides spring crops and after you have harvested the last of them for the season, their foliage continues to grow ornamentally.

Vegetables that grow on vines, such as peas, beans or cucumbers, can be planted next to walls or fences to climb up instead of spreading out to make the best use of limited space.

At the same time, Watson said plants occurring naturally in your yard should not be ignored.

“As you get to know your plants you get to know what you can harvest,” he said. “As I get to know more plants I realize we are already living on an edible landscape with native dandelions, birches, maples and beeches.”

With so many edible landscaping options, Watson said it is easy to get overwhelmed. That’s why he encourages people to plan their yard before putting anything in the ground.

“I help people focus on the planning and design aspects,” he said. “I show them how to draw a map and document their vision because it’s not only about arranging these elements of trees, shrubs, plants and water tanks, it’s about making sure they are going to have enough space.”

The most common mistake people make when not planning, Watson said, is planting things way too close together. It may look fine at first, but as things start to grow and spread, they become overcrowded and stunted.

“People want their space to look full right away,” he said. “But that young, small tree you get is going to grow and spread 30 feet, so you want to plan your landscaping according to the mature size of what you are putting in.”

Lastly, don’t be fooled that an edible landscape with a variety of trees, shrubs and plants is somehow less work than a large yard of lawn grass.

“You might not have to mow it,” Watson said. “But when the crops are ready you have to harvest, process and store it.”

At the same time, he said if you enjoy what you’re doing, it’s more play than work.

“Am I doing something that is physically active, healthy and getting to know my landscape?” he said. “You may call that work, where to me it is play and mowing a lawn is total drudgery.”

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Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.