Blending edible plants into the ornamental garden is a trend that is growing by the season. There are several things driving this trend.
One is space. It does not take long after we start growing fruits and vegetables that space becomes an issue. We fill all of our bed space, every container we can get our hands on, and then what to do?
Another is style. The traditional hill and furrow vegetable garden seems out of place in a modern garden where outdoor living space is as stylish as indoor garden space.
And so the concept of Ornamedibles comes to the rescue. It’s pretty easy to blend Ornamedibles into the garden. But there is one group that requires a bit of creativity – the climbers.
What are Ornamedible Climbers?
Any vining, climbing or sprawling fruit or vegetable that is both edible and attractive to you can be considered an Ornamedible Climber.
There are several qualities that can make an edible plant an Ornamedible:
• Color – leaf, flower, fruit
• Structure – branch or leaf arrangement, architectural interest
• Texture – feathery, fuzzy, glossy
Pole beans (Scarlet Runner and Purple Pod)
Sweet potatoes (for greens and tubers)
The Space Hogs
Some Ornamedibles are at their best when grown as climbers. These are the space hogs – cucumbers, melons, squash, pumpkins, gourds, sweet potatoes. These plants are pretty and productive, but they require so much space that growing them without support is simply not practical in most gardens. We would normally have to forego growing them, but when we treat them as Ornamedible climbers, they find themselves welcome even in small gardens.
The Upward Advantage
There are some other advantages to growing vertically. One of the most important is air flow around and through the plant. Good air circulation is one of the most effective techniques for disease prevention. Foliage dries faster, leaving less opportunity for fungal diseases such as powdery mildew.
The key to success with Ornamedible climbers is the support. You can use something existing, like a fence or wall by adding fasteners and wires or cable. You can also use a variety of stand-alone supports such as trellises, arbors, tuteurs, stakes, or cages.
Whatever you choose, make sure it is sturdy enough to support both the plant that you will be growing, and the pressure of the wind against the plant. This pressure is called the “sail effect”¸where the mass of leaves and stems form a wall that resists the wind. The sail affect can topple a large plant and its support in a storm.
Support Heavy Fruits
Some Ornamedibles produce large, heavy fruits – melons, large squashes and pumpkins. These plants normally sprawl across the ground, and the fruit is supported on top of the soil. When we move these onto a vertical support, we have to plan for the weight of the fruit. The plants cannot provide the support, and the fruit will pull loose before it matures, perhaps taking part of the plant with it.
You should consider this when choosing your variety. There are varieties that produce smaller fruits, such as icebox melons and sugar pumpkins. You can grow all the pumpkin that a family needs without having to grow a 750 pound blue ribbon winner.
You can also make slings out of old sheeting or burlap. These slings should be tied to the support and cradle the maturing fruits.
Don’t Overlook Your Containers
Climbing Ornamedibles can also be used in containers. Consider the color and size of the container and match the climber you wish to grow to achieve the effect you are working toward. Choose a support that will fit into the container or can sit in the ground behind the container. Check to make sure the support is secured well.
Use the proper planting media and pay attention to fertilization and water. Plants in containers will often require more than the same plant in the landscape.
Bed Prep & Planning
Soil health is the key to producing nutritious edible plants. When you are ready to plant, work in several inches of compost and the suggested amount of slow release organic fertilizer (SROF) such as Arbor Gate Organic Blend. I like to use dried molasses in my veggie and fruit beds. Arbor Gate Organic Blend includes DM. If you use another brand, you may need to add it. After you plant your Ornamedibles, water them in well with a root stimulator. Apply additional compost or pine straw as a mulch to preserve moisture, moderate temperature swings, and suppress weeds.
Care & Maintenance
Once you start growing Ornamedibles in your landscape, suspend all use of synthetic fertilizers and chemicals to control pests and diseases. You will need to treat the landscape as your personal grocery store, and none of us want chemicals in our food. Using SROFs that contain all of the trace minerals required for healthy plants is a great first step in breaking the synthetic cycle.
I am an advocate of foliar feeding. It just makes the entire garden healthier and more resistant to pest and disease pressure. Foliar feeding is one of the best ways to deliver trace minerals. It stimulates the development of leaf micro-organisms that are a first line of defense. There are several good foliar feeds available and they should be used on a regular basis throughout the growing season.
Many annual Ornamedibles will only require the initial application of fertilizer at planting. Longer season varieties may need additional side dressing or broadcasting, but don’t overdo it. Healthy soils that are prepared with high quality compost and fed consistently with balanced SROF will return consistently nutritious crops.
And The Bonus Is…
We have covered many rewarding aspects of gardening with Ornamedibles. But there is one more. You may be surprised to find that you have fewer pest problems on your edible plants right from the start. There are several things that contribute to this, but the main reason is that pests are opportunistic. Nothing pleases them more than to fly over that hill and furrow vegetable garden with long straight rows of dozens and dozens of their favorite foods.
When Ornamedibles are blended into a diverse landscape, the target plants are often camouflaged, and not as readily located by the pest. Diverse gardens also attract populations of beneficial insects, many of whom are predators of pest species that do find their way in.
This is not to say that your garden will always be pest free. Keep an eye on things, and take care of any pest you spot quickly to prevent further infestation. Use products that are non-toxic to you and your family and go gently on the bees and beneficials.