An edible garden can conjure up visions of overflowing vines of summer tomatoes, oodles of green beans, fresh basil—and lots of work. If your goal is to be eating from the land that you tend without turning the whole thing into a farm, then limit the space that you dedicate to these high-maintenance annual vegetables and, instead, focus on integrating perennial edibles into your landscape. Fruiting trees and shrubs are a great first step in making your landscape more productive. Chosen thoughtfully, they can be beautiful additions to your garden, and you’ll be amazed at the amount of food that you can grow. What’s more, these plants are easy to manage: Their soil-amendment and fertilizing needs are simple, and they don’t require daily care throughout the season.
As designers specializing in edible landscapes, we can’t imagine not including food-producing plants alongside ornamental favorites. Here are some of the trees and shrubs that we use to make our gardens more beautiful and productive.
Blueberry comes in shapes and sizes for any situation
Name: Vaccinium spp. and cvs.
Size: 1 to 5 feet tall and wide
Blueberry is one of our favorite edible plants to use in the landscape. This beautiful, compact shrub has small green leaves and pretty white-and-pink spring flowers. It is a great choice for low hedging, border plantings, back-of-bed plantings, and—if you choose an evergreen variety, like ‘Sunshine Blue’ (pictured)—evergreen anchors and low screening. Plant blueberry in large drifts wherever you might normally think to plant rhododendron or azalea (Rhododendron spp. and cvs., Zones 5–9). And plant multiple varieties because, even though it is self-fruitful, blueberry sets better crops when multiple varieties are planted near each other for cross-pollination. Select early-, midseason-, and late-bearing varieties so that you can eat blueberries throughout the season. Because there are so many different types, it is likely you will find one that grows well in your climate as it is hardy in Zones 2 and warmer.
Care: Because it has shallow roots, can take full sun to partial shade, and appreciates acidic soil conditions, blueberry is a great problem solver for difficult garden spaces. Blueberry is native from Canada down to Alabama. It grows best in areas that receive winter chill, mild summers, and ample natural rainfall. Regardless of type, heavy clay soils do not suit the plant, so amend clay soils heavily with organic material before planting.
Chinotto sour orange makes a dense, attractive small tree
Name: Citrus myrtifolia
Size: Up to 8 feet tall and 6 feet wide
The attractive compact form and delicate myrtle-like leaves of chinotto sour orange make it a great choice for an evergreen hedge or an accent planting because its leaves remind people of more traditional plants. Its growth is slow and its stature small compared to other oranges, so it can be added to mixed plantings or used on its own in more formal layouts. The flowers bloom in spring, and medium-size orange fruit ripen on the tree through fall and winter, providing a punch of strong color through the colder months. The fruit are often candied or turned into marmalades as they have a sour and bitter taste if eaten fresh off the tree.
Care: One of the hardier citrus varieties, chinotto sour orange can be grown in areas up to Zone 9. The plant can be used for bonsai, and it adapts well to container plantings. Culture requirements are the same as those for ‘Pink Lemonade’ lemon.
Fuyu persimmon dresses up the winter landscape
Name: Diospyros kaki
Size: Up to 30 feet tall and wide
Fuyu persimmon is a favorite home garden tree for good reason. The fruit is sweet and crisp, and the tree is attractive. It will grow up to 30 feet tall and wide, but with pruning, it can be kept to 10 feet tall and wide, perfect for placement as a focal point or front-yard tree. The new foliage that emerges in spring is a lovely chartreuse, and the leaves, deepening to darker green as the season progresses, provide shade and lush greenery. The tree is deciduous, and it drops leaves with spectacular and vibrant fall color. Best of all, after the leaves drop, the fruit hang on the tree through late fall and early winter, like modern holiday-tree ornaments. We love to use the fruit in our winter salads: a little arugula, sliced persimmon, walnuts, pomegranate seeds, and some good olive oil and salt are all it takes to bring the joys of your persimmon tree to the table.
Care: Fuyu persimmon is generally easy to grow and is not often attacked by pests or diseases. It will grow in heavy soils just fine, and while it likes full sun, it will tolerate some shade, especially in hot climates. Add compost to the base of the tree in late winter. It can benefit, as well, from the addition of a 10–10–10 fertilizer in late winter or early spring. Deep watering on a regular basis (once every two weeks) is best for optimal tree growth and fruit production.
Black currant is making a welcome comeback
Name: Ribes nigrum and cvs.
Size: Up to 6 feet tall and wide
Black currant is a popular fruiting plant in temperate regions outside of the United States, and we are happy to report that it is making a comeback in this country. It is a perfect addition to a woodland-style planting or mixed planting bed, and can also be used as loose hedging along a fence. The plant bears attractive palmately lobed foliage. The fruit of black currant are high in vitamins and nutrients. Because they are extremely tart when eaten straight off the bush, it’s usually necessary to sweeten them to enjoy them. They are often made into syrups and jellies, and are used to flavor many kinds of desserts and drinks. All parts of the plant are aromatic.
Care: This shrub appreciates full sun to partial shade and slightly acidic soil. Cultivation of black currant was largely banned in the United States in the early 1900s because it is a known host of white pine blister rust. It is still banned in some areas of the Northeast, so be mindful of this if you live in this region. There are cultivars now being bred that offer disease resistance—‘Blackcomb’ and ‘Tahsis’ are notable varieties for this—better flavor, and more fruit production.
Medlar is a sweet treat of a tree
Name: Mespilus germanica and cvs.
Size: Up to 20 feet tall and 25 feet wide
Medlar is an attractive and—until recently—relatively unknown fruit tree. Reminiscent of magnolia, its leaves are large and elliptical, and the tree has a pretty rounded shape and spring-blooming white flowers. The plant grows to about 20 feet tall, so summer pruning for size and shape is important. The fruit of medlar can be a bit confusing to most gardeners who do not know how to harvest them. Picked right off the tree, medlars can be hard and acidic. For the fruit to become edible, it must go through the process of bletting (leaving the fruit on the tree and allowing them to be exposed to cold early-winter temperatures or frost). Once the fruit become soft, the skin will turn dark brown and take on a wrinkled texture. The insides will turn to a soft consistency, much like that of applesauce. The flavor of the fruit is exceptionally sweet and delicious; many consider it to be similar to an exotic tropical fruit. If you do not wish to leave the fruit on the tree, harvest them while they are still hard and place them in a cool storage space, stem side up, and simply wait for them to soften.
Care: Although the plant grows naturally along forest margins in partially shaded locations, it produces more fruit—and better-quality fruit—in full sun. It likes somewhat dry, well-drained soil that is slightly on the acidic side, but other than that, it is not picky. Recommended cultivars include ‘Hollandia’, ‘Nottingham’, and ‘Russian’.
‘Whitney’ crabapple doesn’t just look pretty
Name: Malus ‘Whitney’
Size: Up to 20 feet tall and wide
The highly decorative, nonedible crabapple is a well-known landscape tree, but why choose a crabapple that will only give you flowers and inedible fruit when the edible-fruiting variety is just as pretty? It’s time for the edible crabapple to take its place again in the garden. Edible crabapples are valued for pickling, for making jellies and jams, and as ingredients for sauces and ciders. Crabapple is a medium-size fruit tree whose dramatic display of spring flowers is a beautiful addition to any landscape. We like ‘Whitney’ crabapple, in particular, as the fruit is great for eating right off the tree. They are large, with yellow skin overlaid with a red blush and red striping. The fruit are juicy and crisp, with a slight acidity mixed with sweetness. Although harvest begins in July or August, fruit drop is gradual, and some fruit are often still on the tree into December.
Care: Crabapple is one of the hardiest fruit trees around, making it a great choice for gardens in Zones 3 and warmer. Crabapple likes evenly moist, well-drained soil and appreciates full sun. When the tree is young, apply a fertilizer high in phosphorus for strong root growth.
‘Pink Lemonade’ lemon offers an exciting twist
Name: Citrus limon ‘Pink Lemonade’
Size: Up to 20 feet tall and 15 feet wide
‘Pink Lemonade’ lemon is one of our favorites for brightening a shady corner or adding drama to any garden. Its glossy, variegated evergreen leaves make this citrus one of the more beautiful fruit trees. Its new growth is an attractive fuchsia red, and the flower buds are deep pink. And we haven’t even mentioned the stunning fruit, with their green-and-yellow stripes; pink flesh; and strong, acidic, lemony flavor, typical of popular Eureka types. Use them as you would any lemon, taking note to showcase their unique appearance in cocktails or as garnishes.
Care: Citrus trees appreciate a sunny spot, but lemon can tolerate more shade and less heat than most varieties of oranges and grapefruits. Lemon does not require high summer heat to ripen, so it is a great candidate for cool-summer climates, like coastal California. Given good drainage, citrus can tolerate almost any soil—even clay. The tree likes infrequent, deep waterings once established. The Achilles’ heel of this plant is frost; the tree must be moved inside during the winter months for gardens in Zones 8 and colder.
‘Panache’ fig is fancier than the average fig
Name: Ficus carica ‘Panache’
Size: 6 to 12 feet tall and wide
Fig trees are a staple of the Mediterranean garden, but their broad leaves and sculptural branches make them a great addition to any style of landscape. In particular, the smaller growth habit and beautiful fruit of ‘Panache’ fig make it easy to tuck into any corner or border planting. With pruning, ‘Panache’ can easily be kept to about 6 feet tall and wide. Wherever you place it, you’ll find that its showy green-and-yellow-striped fruit is one of the most delicious and beautiful elements in your garden.
Care: Fig can be grown with no protection where winter minimums stay above 15°F; below that, you can have dieback. But the roots are hardy where temperatures don’t fall below 0°F, and the plants will generally regrow. Semi-regular, deep irrigation yields a good crop, although the tree is drought tolerant once established. To develop sweet, juicy fruit, the tree should be planted in the warmest, sunniest part of the garden. In areas where fig is not hardy, the plant can be overwintered indoors. Because it is dormant in winter, it will not require light; however, it will die if the roots dry out.
Too Cold for Citrus?
If you live in a climate that’s too cold for a citrus tree to overwinter outdoors, grow it in a container and move it indoors in fall.
Transition gradually in fall
Once nighttime temperatures approach 35°F to 40°F, move your tree into the shade for a week before taking it inside.
Choose a sunny spot
Citrus trees need at least six hours of direct sunlight a day while indoors. If you don’t get it, use grow lights to supplement the light.
Scale back on water
Your tree will need less water while indoors. But if it’s in a heated room, it will appreciate an occasional misting to help it deal with the lack of humidity.
We fertilize our potted citrus once a month because it is a heavy feeder. During winter, it is fine to skip a month; however, if your plant’s leaves start to yellow, give it an application of citrus fertilizer.
Take it easy in spring
Once the chance of freezing temperatures has passed, move your tree outdoors to a shady spot for the first week and then to its sunnier summer location.
Leslie Bennett and Stefani Bittner are founders of Star Apple Edible and Fine Gardening, a San Francisco Bay–area landscape-design firm focusing on aesthetic edible gardening, and authors of The Beautiful Edible Garden.
Photos: courtesy of Monrovia; Friedrich Strauss/gapphotos.com; Nadiatalent/courtesy of commons.wikimedia.org; KENPEI/courtesy of commons.wikimedia.org; Semnoz/courtesy of commons.wikimedia.org; Thue/courtesy of commons.wikimedia.org; Düsentrieb/courtesy of commons.wikimedia.org; Montilre/courtesy of commons.wikimedia.org; Jerzy Opiola/courtesy of commons.wikimedia.org; Ann E. Stratton; courtesy of Forestfarm; courtesy of Trees of Antiquity; courtesy of Stefani Bittner