Edible groundcovers

Grass is an expensive groundcover. Many homeowners love the calming look of a broad green carpet welcoming them home from work, but to keep their lawns looking their best, they turn to cartloads of chemical fertilizers, herbicides to control weeds, and pesticides to control the grubs and insects that try to coexist in the landscape.

This level of consumption comes with serious costs, both financial and environmental. Turf lawns individually consume 10,000 gallons of water each year, on average, on top of the rainfall they receive.  Unprecedented droughts and the water restrictions that often accompany them make maintaining a large turf lawn impractical and irresponsible. Expensive chemical herbicides and pesticides, whether applied by the homeowner or by a contracted landscape service, are thought to contribute to honeybee colony collapse disorder, which will have huge impacts on food availability and food prices if it isn’t curbed.

Why not try a more sustainable and innovative approach to landscaping this summer? Replace a portion of your lawn with attractive edible groundcovers and shrubs. You’ll have less mowing, more leisure time, and home-grown herbs and berries to enjoy.

Blueberries

Blueberries can be grown throughout much of the United States. In the South or on the west coast, try rabbiteye blueberries (Vaccinium ashei) like ‘Climax’ or ‘Premier’ or Southern highbush varieties like ‘Blue Ridge’ and ‘Legacy.’ In the northeast, lowbush blueberries (Vaccinium angustifolium) perform best, and in the Midwest and Pacific northwest, northern highbush blueberries (V. corymbosum; try ‘Bluegold,’ ‘Duke,’ and ‘Elizabeth’) can provide attractive groundcover and fresh fruit for summertime desserts. Blueberries need acidic soil (contact your county extension service to test your soil’s pH and get advice on correct soil amendments), regular water, and sun to produce the best fruit, although they will produce fruit in partial shade. The leaves turn beautiful shades of scarlet and crimson in the fall.

blueberry leaves

Blueberry leaves covered in frost

Lingonberries

What will grow in the acid soil beneath blueberries? Lingonberries. Hardy in Zones 2-8, lingonberries are a low-growing evergreen shrub related to blueberries and cranberries. They require the same acidic soil as their blueberry brethren, and lingonberries benefit from some shade in hot weather. Plant these low-growing shrubs at the same time as your blueberries, taking care to be gentle with both plants’ brittle roots. Depending on the variety, lingonberries may provide one or two crops per year, typically once in late summer and again in winter. They’re delicious in pancakes, or made into jam or sauces.

Lingonberry 'Koralle'

Lingonberry ‘Koralle’

Thyme

If your climate tends more to the hot, dry, sunny side, replace part of your lawn with low-growing thyme (Thymus sp.). This Mediterranean herb likes full sun, excellent drainage, and low water. Bees and other pollinators love the nectar from thyme flowers, and thymol, a natural compound extracted from thyme, has antimicrobial properties and helps control parasitic mites that stress honeybee populations. Thymus serphyllum, creeping thyme, grows 6 to 12 inches tall and will spread to 1 to 3 feet wide (depending on the cultivar), providing a tough, low-maintenance groundcover. Thymus serphyllum ‘Annie Hall’ is covered by tiny pinkish-lavender flowers. ‘Pink Ripple’ also has pale pink flowers and a lemon scent to the foliage. Culinary thyme (Thymus vulgaris), has a more upright habit, but you can keep it compact by shearing off handfuls to use in soups, sauces, salads, marinades, and to flavor meats and seafood on the grill. Variety ‘Silver Queen’ has attractive white edges to the petals. Lemon thyme (T. x citriodorus) is also edible, and has (not surprisingly) a bright lemony taste.

Savory

Slightly larger than thyme, but similar in appearance, winter savory (Satureja montana) is another herb that provides great groundcover and requires little input from the gardener. It grows 15 inches tall and wide, but harvesting the stems and leaves keeps the plant compact and thick. Like thyme, it appreciates full sun and well drained soil. It is hardy to Zone 6.

Purslane

Purslane (Portulaca oleracea) is an underused annual herb that tastes faintly of citrus. Its fleshy leaves are rich in Vitamin C and omega 3 fatty acids. Popular in Asian and Middle Eastern cooking, it spreads rapidly by seed, which can be good or bad depending on your landscape goals. You may wish to grow it in a container for a year to see how you like it, before planting it out in the landscape. Be careful not to confuse purslane with spurge (Euphorbia chamaesyce, prostrate spurge, or Euphorbia maculata, syn. Chamaesyce maculata, spotted spurge), which can irritate skin and eyes and can be poisonous. Buy purslane seeds or plants from a reputable nursery and try the fresh new growth in salads–there are lots of recipes online. If you keep backyard chickens, you can share it with them; you’ll have plenty.

Purslane (Portulaca oleracea)

Photo of purslane (Portulaca oleracea) by ZooFari (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:ZooFari) via Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Try replacing a portion of your resource-hungry lawn with these easy edible ground covers. Your wallet and your wildlife neighbors (not to mention your dinner plate) will be glad you did.

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Growing unusual fruit: Cornelian cherries

The third unusual fruit I ordered some weeks ago is a cornelian cherry tree.

Not a real cherry, but a dogwood relative, cornelian cherry (Cornus mas), offers appeal year-round. In the winter, enjoy its beautiful, patchy bark.

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ABark_of_Cornelian_cherry_Cornus_mas.jpg

Bark of Cornus mas by Downtowngal (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons.

In late winter or early spring, before it leafs out, bright yellow flowers cover the plant. These beautiful flowers often precede forsythia bloom.

flowers of Cornus max

Cornus mas, Paris, France, 13 march 2005. Source: Bouba, (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Bouba), via Creative Commons {{cc-by-sa}}

In summer, Cornus mas produces olive-sized fruits. Astringent until fully ripe, their flavor has been compared to sour cherries, cranberries, and interestingly, carnations. Cornus mas is native to the southern and eastern Mediterranean, and its fruits are frequently used in Persian and Eastern European cooking. Often made into liqueurs, jams, and sauces, the fruits contain high amounts of vitamin C.

Fruits of cornelian cherry (Cornus mas)

Fruits of cornelian cherry (Cornus mas) by CarTick at English Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:CarTick) via Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

The plants grow well in full sun or partial shade, reaching 20 feet tall in 25 years, and are hardy to USDA Zone 4. For best fruit production, site the plants in full sun and improve the soil with mulches of compost, and plant another variety close by to improve pollination (the plants are self-fertile). Unlike many fruiting plants, cornelian cherries are largely free of pest and disease problems, and do not suffer with anthracnose or powdery mildew like their cousin Cornus florida. And in autumn, their foliage turns a stunning scarlet.

When it arrived at my home, it did not look like much:

The mighty Cornus mas, fresh from its wrappings.

The mighty Cornus mas, fresh from its wrappings.

It came wrapped in plastic, its root ball embedded in damp shredded paper to keep it moist. I immediately gave it a soak in a pail of water to which I’d added a tablespoon or so of liquid seaweed.

Soaking bare-root plants overnight before planting helps to refresh the roots and get the plants ready for installation.

Soaking bare-root plants overnight helps to refresh the roots and get the plant ready for installation.

I planted it promptly the next day, spreading out the roots over a small hill of compost mixed with the native soil in the planting hole. I firmed it in, watered it with the brew in which it had soaked the night before, and mulched well with old wood chips.

All planted up amongst some pale yellow daffodils. Can you even see it?

All planted up amongst some pale yellow daffodils. Can you even see it?

It will probably be two years before I see any fruit at all, but perhaps I can enjoy my lingonberries and honeyberries in the meanwhile.

Read more about cornelian cherries and their culture:

Dear Friend and Gardener: 30 May, 2014

Dear Friend and Gardener,

Memorial Day, the traditional if unofficial beginning of summer, was last Monday, and it definitely feels like summer. After a surprisingly long spring–for here, anyway–temperatures are beginning to hover around the 90s, humidity has returned, and the nights are warm as well. I wonder what the months of July and August will look like–more of the same, or substantially hotter and muggier?

And consistent with the advent of summer, the vegetable garden is coming on strong. I have small tomatoes on ‘Sophie’s Choice,’ a short-season variety I’m trying for the first time this year. Tomatoes ‘Black Prince’ and ‘Principe Borghese’ seem to grow three inches a day, and I pinch suckers every morning. I must get to work on finding some taller stakes.

little tomatoes 'sophie's choice'I’ve also got tiny little pickling cucumbers coming along. I’m the only one in the house who loves pickles, so every fruit is for me. Now I need to find the perfect recipe to make those cukes taste like the pickles I used to get from the deli in Chicago. I wonder if the deli would share their recipe? Must remember to ask.

small cukes 2

I can’t believe I’m still picking peas in June! Around here, spring usually lasts a week, and a few days in April in the 90s spell the end of the seasonal snap pea attempt. I didn’t plant very many peas but I’ve harvested at least a quart already. That many not seem like much, but in the past, I’ve felt fortunate if I could pick enough in a spring to add to a pasta salad. I’m trying not to let the success to to my head.

Bush beans are looking rather vital and vigorous, and so far, no sign of flea beetles. There; I’ve tempted fate. I’ve got tiny Anaheim peppers on two plants and am waiting for the jalapeños to catch on. Nasturtiums planted in the corner of the bed are green and healthy–but I think the soil may be a bit rich for them to produce many flowers. Or maybe I’m suffering my typical lack of patience.

bush beans 1

Do you grow calendulas? I’m trying those for the first time this year as well. I can’t explain why it’s taken me so long to get around to trying these.

Lots of basil–I never have enough. The lettuce is hanging on since I covered it with shade cloth. The 4-year-old next door thinks it’s crazy that my lettuce can get a sunburn, so I showed him the leaves that got a little crispy in the sun one day. I don’t think it was quite what he had imagined.

Physalis 'Cossack Pineapple' plant growing rapidly.

Physalis ‘Cossack Pineapple’ plant growing rapidly.

The shiso seedlings died, so I’ve got to start some more. And this year I’m trying another new thing: ground cherries (Physalis pruinosa). This plant likes it hot, for sure. It seems to double in size for every day we have over 90 degrees. This pattern cannot be sustainable, or it will be The Plant That Ate Durham before the kids are out of school for the summer. Tiny flowers already appear beneath the giant leaves, but I think the fruits will take a while to form. I’ll let you know.

physalis flower 2

I got the fig tree transplanted earlier in the spring, and it seems to be settling in nicely. I’ve got lots of little figlets already; I hope it will fruit more productively now that it’s out of the container. I can’t wait to have my favorite fig and goat cheese sandwiches!

Hope your garden is doing well. What’s the veg you’re most excited about this year?

May your tomato plants live long and prosper,

Amy

Growing unusual fruit: Honeyberries

In addition to lingonberries, my recent purchase of unusual fruiting plants included honeyberries.

Honeyberries are an edible honeysuckle, Lonicera caerulea. These plants live for up to 50 years, producing elongated sweet blue berries on year-old wood. Hardy in USDA Zones 3-8, they flower in early spring. The flowers are hardy to 20F. Honeyberries grow to 4-5 feet tall and wide, adapt well to a range of soil pH, resist most pests and diseases, and require two varieties for cross-pollination. I am growing varieties ‘Blue Moon’ and ‘Blue Velvet,’ which are late-flowering varieties suited for the American South. I’m expecting harvest time to occur at or slightly before strawberry season next year.

As I try to increase the amount of food I grow for myself and my family, I must find ways to integrate the food crops attractively into the non-edible landscape. Because honeyberries grow in sun or shade, and prefer some shade in hot weather, I’ve sited these plants as the anchors on one end of a new bed on the north side of the house extension we completed last fall. They’ll receive morning sun, bright shade during the hottest part of the day, and some direct sun in early evening.  In the winter and early spring, daffodils will bloom around their bare branches. I hope they’ll find this site appealing.

I first heard about these unusual fruits in a book by Mark Diacono, who gardens and writes about food from his smallholding (a small farm), Otter Farm (also known as the “Climate Change Farm”). He also gardens at River Cottage, a beacon of sustainable food in the UK.

I’ve never tasted honeyberries, but they’re said to taste like blueberries, raspberries, or saskatoons (another plant in my future). Whatever they resemble, I’ve never met an edible berry completely lacking in redeemable qualities. I do love the idea of growing fruits I can’t find at local markets, and experimenting with them in cooking.

I expect my only real challenge in growing honeyberries will be defending the harvest from the birds. My search for elegant netting solutions endures.

Growing unusual fruit: Lingonberries

My growing obsession with unusual fruit reached its tipping point a few weeks ago, when I placed an order for a few new edible landscaping items: A cornelian cherry, two honeyberries, and two lingonberries. Friends, this is just the beginning.

fruit plants arrived

They’re here!

I started with the lingonberries. Lingonberries (Vaccinium vitis-idaea) are native to the northern reaches of North America, Europe, and Asia. As such, I’m taking a bit of a risk with these plants, as I live at the very edge of their heat-tolerance zone. They’re extremely cold-hardy. If I’d planted them last fall, they’d have shrugged off our polar vortex as a mild winter. With luck, they will spread by rhizomes to form a nice, tidy mat.

Like most Vaccinium species (blueberries and cranberries share the genus) they require moist, acidic soil. They also appreciate a bit of shade. I hope they’ll become an edible groundcover beneath my Southern highbush blueberries, which perform very well here.

They arrived in good condition. Inside the larger container, the plants came shipped in tall cardboard sleeves to keep the foliage from being crushed.

The lingonberries came packaged in tall cardboard sleeves.

The lingonberries came packaged in tall cardboard sleeves.

The 4-inch pots came wrapped in plastic to keep the soil moist and inside the pot.

The pots, but not the foliage, were shipped in plastic to keep the soil moist.

The pots, but not the foliage, were shipped in plastic to keep the soil moist.

Interesting looking moss came along for the ride.

interesting moss in lingonberry pot

I prepared the planting holes by digging them about six inches deep (the height of the pot) and about eight inches wide (twice the pot’s diameter). This is tricky to do because blueberries’ roots are shallow and brittle, and they don’t appreciate having their roots jostled and broken. Into the holes, I mixed a little homemade compost and some soybean meal. Soybean meal, available at feed stores, acts as a slow-release fertilizer high in nitrogen. It will release its nutrients to the blueberries and loganberries over the course of the summer. I don’t expect to need to feed them again this year, particularly because my acid clay is already high in phosphorus and potassium, though I’ll monitor the soil using free soil tests from the county extension service.

Soybean meal is typically used as a feed stock for poultry or pigs, but it's an excellent slow-release source of nitrogen.

Soybean meal is typically used as a feed stock for poultry or pigs, but it’s an excellent slow-release source of nitrogen.

I slipped the plants out of their pots. The roots look healthy, although they”ll need to be loosened a bit.

Plant roots should be loosened before planting, especially if they begin to grow in circles around the pot like this. But I'll need to be careful with the brittle roots.

Plant roots should be loosened before planting, especially if they begin to grow in circles around the pot like this. But I’ll need to be careful with the brittle roots.

I placed the plant in the hole, gently spreading out the roots, and covered with more compost. I watered it in, and spread up some of the existing pine bark mulch. I later mulched the entire bed with three inches of shredded pine bark.

The blueberries and lingonberries grow in a raised bed composed of native acid red clay and decomposed pine bark. The lingonberries will enjoy the dappled shade of the blueberry foliage, and will receive some additional shade from the side of the deck. Between this and regular deep watering, I hope they’ll get the break from the summer heat that they need.

The lingonberries and blueberries grow in a raised bed of native clay and decomposed pine bark.

The lingonberries and blueberries grow in a raised bed of native clay and decomposed pine bark.

Lingonberries typically produce two crops of fruit per year, in late summer and again in late fall. I’d be surprised if they fruited this summer, but perhaps I’ll get a crop around Thanksgiving or Christmas. Once the fruits begin to form, I’ll shelter them in my blueberry fortress.

Here’s a guide from Cornell University on growing lingonberries.