As we discussed last week, homegrown fruits, vegetables, and herbs are becoming increasingly popular in the home landscape for many good reasons. Growing your own food can save money, allow you to control the inputs for your food, and encourage people to interact with nature, and much more.
Designated areas for edibles are common, but what if you don't have the space for a vegetable garden, or what if you don't like their stereotypical look? There's also the issue of time commitment, because some edible plants require more intensive monitoring, fertilizing, and soil preparation than others. If any of these objections apply to you, fear not, because there are ways to incorporate delicious plants into your garden and patio without sacrificing too much in the way of space, time, or aesthetics. All of the plants listed below are fairly low-maintenance, and they have enough ornamental value to be added into the garden without looking like a typical vegetable patch. In fact, some of these plants are better known for their aesthetics than their flavor, so you may be surprised to learn that you already have edible plants in your own yard. Plants marked with * are native to Indiana, and plants marked with a + are good for pollinators.
Adding herbs to the landscape is an excellent way to get started on growing your own food. Since you're usually just growing these for leaves, there are no concerns about fruit set and ripening, and you can harvest any time you want. Below are a list of herbs that grow well in central Indiana. Most of them are going to require consistent water without being waterlogged, so keep that in mind, but beyond that they should do fine in the garden. Herbs are excellent for containers as well, and that way you can bring them inside in the winter to enjoy fresh, homegrown tastes all year long. All of these plants prefer full sun. A good rule of thumb is that if you're growing plant for fruit or foliage, the more sun the better.
- Basil (several varieties)+ - annual; leaves for seasoning in Italian or Asian dishes
- Bee Balm*+ - perennial; flower heads for teas, sometimes called Mondarda
- Chamomile+ - perennial, flower heads for teas; spreads very aggressively by seed and roots, so it may be better for containers
- Chives+ - perennial bulb; leaves for seasoning many dishes and salads
- Cilantro - annual; leaves and seeds for seasoning Mexican, Asian, and Caribbean dishes
- Dill - annual; leaves and seeds for seasoning many dishes, especially fish
- Fennel+ - perennial; all parts edible; it's also a larval host for swallowtail butterflies!
- Lavender+ - perennial; leaves for seasoning drinks and syrups
- Lemongrass - perennial; leaves and stalks for Asian dishes; repels mosquitoes!
- Mint (several varieties)+ - perennial; leaves for teas and other drinks, jellies, salads, garnish, and Mediterranean dishes; grow in a container, as it is very aggressive and hard to kill
- Oregano - perennial; leaves for Greek and Italian dishes
- Parsley - biennial; leaves for garnish, salads, or seasoning
- Rosemary - perennial; leaves for seasoning many dishes, especially Italian and Mediterranean
- Sage (several varieties) - perennial; leaves for seasoning poultry and other dishes
- Stevia - tender perennial (bring inside for Indiana winters); leaves provide calorie-free sweetener for beverages
- Tarragon - perennial; leaves for seasoning savory dishes
- Thyme - perennial; leaves for seasoning many dishes
- Yarrow+ - perennial; flowers and leaves for tea
Fruit-Bearing Trees and Shrubs
You don't need an intensively managed orchard grove or berry patch to harvest some fruits from trees and shrubs. Many plants we already use as ornamentals have culinary value, and some familiar fruit trees and shrubs can be incorporated into the garden as ornamentals. Growing apple, pear, peach trees, and others is certainly an option as well, but they can take more effort and planning to get a good crop, so I left them off of this list.
- Blueberry+ - berries can be eaten straight, cooked in deserts, or preserved; may struggle in our alkaline soil, so you may need to amend your soil, but they do very well in containers
- Chokeberry*+ - this native shrub (sometimes better known by its scientific name, Aronia) has berries that can be used in juices and baked goods
- Crabapple+ - crabapples can be used to make jellies and preserves
- Flowering Quince+ - very bitter fruits can be used in jellies and preserves; thornless varieties are available
- Gooseberry+ - juicy berries can be eaten fresh or used in baked goods; don't grow near white pine; 'Pixwell' is an especially easy variety to grow
- Pawpaw*+ - fruits have a banana-like flavor (hence the nickname Indiana banana) and can be eaten straight from the tree
- Rose - if you leave spent flowers on your rose bushes, they will grow rose hips that can be used in teas and jellies; some varieties make better rose hips than others
- Serviceberry*+ - this extremely popular small native tree has edible fruit that can be eaten raw, cooked in baked goods, preserved as jam or jelly, or even turned into wine (you may know it by its scientific name, Amelanchier)
- Thornless Raspberry+ - typical raspberries are a little thorny for the ornamental landscape, but the plant breeder Monrovia has produced a dwarf thornless raspberry that can be grown in containers or a planting bed; you can even order one and have it delivered to a local garden center here
Beyond herbs and berries, there are many more edible plants that will do well in the garden. On this list you'll find old-fashioned favorites, edible natives, and plants that crossed from well-known edibles to beloved ornamentals and are now coming full circle to be valued as edibles once again.
- Cabbage/Kale - the brightly colored and fancifully textured ornamental kale sold in garden centers in the fall can be eaten just like their plainer cousins, but they're less tender
- Joe Pye Weed*+ - a native perennial with compact varieties available for smaller spaces; tea can be made from the flowers
- Nasturtium+ - annual plant with edible, brightly colored flowers that taste peppery; excellent for growing from seeds (especially with kids) because seeds are large and germinate quickly; good for salads
- Ornamental Pepper - annual plant with brightly colored fruits and attractive foliage; peppers are edible and often very spice
- Pansy/Viola - annual flowers whose petals have a peppery taste; good for colorful garnish
- Patio Tomato - patio tomatoes are more compact than the usual garden tomatoes, and they can look attractive in a nice pot
- Rhubarb - dramatic coarse foliage and red stalks are great in the garden; use stalks in pies and other baked goods
- Strawberry+ - strawberries can be grown as a groundcover or in containers; in containers it's easier to keep animals from eating them
- Sunflower+ - varieties come in a huge range of sizes and seed production capacity; enjoy seeds raw, roasted, in baked goods and salads; another great option for kids
- Swiss Chard - a cool season foliage plant added to containers for its neon-colored stems; great in salads and soups
Many of these plants are excellent options for containers, especially the herbs, annuals, and fruits that require more specific soil conditions. Containers can actually help encourage a larger crop of fruits or vegetables, since root zone restriction can put very mild stress on the plant to encourage more flowering and fruiting (this trick does have its limits - a totally root-bound plant usually will not perform well). Keep in mind that the less hardy perennials will need to be brought inside the home or stored in the garage during the winter if you want to be sure to continue enjoying them next year.
Do you grow edible plants in your home garden? Share your favorite plants (especially any I didn't list) and recipes in the comments! I'd love to hear your stories.