edible-landscaping ideas, with lisa hilgenberg of chicago botanic garden

20140528_1228EDIBLE LANDSCAPING. That appealing phrase sounds just like what it is: an approach meant to be not just delicious but also delicious-looking. So where do we start integrating plants we grow to eat into our ornamental gardens? Or, to come at it the other way: How do we make our edible areas more like gardens, not production areas? I asked Lisa Hilgenberg, the Fruit and Vegetable Garden Horticulturist at Chicago Botanic Garden.

Lisa is a native Minnesotan, whose family has been farming their land since the 1880s. She embraces her agricultural heritage in her role at Chicago Botanic managing nearly 4 acres of edibles in the Fruit and Vegetable Garden (below), following USDA standards for organic growing.

poi_434ff1f6366cca49.60249773_highWith a crew of three plus 30 volunteers, Lisa curates and interprets a collection of more than 600 edible plants and two orchards. Last year the team grew 55,000 vegetables, producing 3 tons of fresh produce.

In time to shop the new year’s catalogs with an eye to some edible landscaping innovations in our own backyards, Lisa and I talked about what edibles would work to create living fencing and screening, and others that make portable edible moments, in containers—including new dwarf fruit selections and more.

12002229_10153601621470699_1253141949334297583_nRead along as you listen to the Dec. 28, 2015 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

my edible-landscaping q&a with lisa hilgenberg



Q. The CBG Fruit and Vegetable Garden is distinctive not just for its diverse collection of edibles, but for its geography—it has a distinctive location in the garden, doesn’t it? [Laughter.]

A. It does. We’re an island [map, below], which really helps me out as far as critters go and other problems. There are no deer, and very few raccoons.

CBG veg garden mapQ. Oh, really? Even the raccoons are kept away? That’s wonderful.

A. It’s very helpful, indeed. It’s a 4-acre island, and it’s a really diverse edible landscape. We have at times over 600 types of plants growing, and as you said, we’re following the USDA protocol for organic practice. We plant a lot of annual vegetables in addition to our collections plants.

Q. Collections like your orchard trees and so forth?

A. That’s right. I tend orchards of pear and apple, and we have an espaliered collection of fruit trees. We have grapes and nuts and bramble fruits, and we produce about 3 tons of produce each year. That eventually trickles down into the Chicago food system, and makes healthy, organic produce available in food-desert neighborhoods. We also have our very important pollinators with an eight-hive apiary that we tend.

12039728_10153601621535699_8186101313036106472_nQ. It’s very diverse then.

Edible landscaping continues to surge in popularity, and also has strong historical context in the American landscape. Let’s talk from your perspective about why now, and also what it was about back then.

A. Historically, growing fruits and vegetables on a family’s property was seen as a status symbol. You can look at Early American paintings that depict women with bowls of fruit—apples, pears, peaches—and children are often seen eating strawberries in those pictures. Anything they could grow at home became sort of the pride of the household. They consumed what they could grow out of necessity, and that history really epitomizes the garden-to-table movement of today. Homegrown produce is trending again, and with some planning, I think in every size garden we can incorporate a little bit of edible landscaping.

i-tzMdGPr-X3Q. So speaking of “a little bit,” then, some of the ideas can be as small as a container, yes?

A. Absolutely. A great way to start in the early season would be to plant a cool-season lettuce basket [hanging, above]. It’s a way to combine frost-tolerant salad greens with herbs and edible flowers, and boost some spirits and shake off the winter blues, if you look at it outside on your patio table, for instance.

Q. How would I do that—how big a pot, what’s in it? Do I seed it or put transplants in?

A. I think you could do it both ways. It’s easy, depending on when you start. If you start in the very cold of March you would probably want to transplant some little lettuce starts out into the garden—ones you seeded in your kitchen under grow lights, and then you transplant those into a basket maybe 18 inches across. It can be very shallow; it could be an interesting container, as long as it has drainage holes in the bottom, I think you are just fine.

If you combine heirloom lettuces with an edible pansy, for instance, and add a triple-curled parsley to spill over the edge of the pot—which are available from garden centers, since they’re tricky to grow from seed, so you might want to pick one of those up. One note: Buttercrunch lettuces tend to be the most frost-tolerant of all lettuces, so if you decide that you want to plant while there is still a chance of frost, like March or April, you’re going to think about the frost-tolerance of the plants that you combine.

A couple of selections we love are the green oakleaf lettuces…

Q. Oh, yes.

i-2xkFNtc-X2A. So pretty. There is an excellent French heirloom lettuce from the 1800s called ‘Rouge d’Hiver,’ which means “red of the winter.” It’s a Romaine. It’s productive in only 28 days, so that’s a wonderful, colorful addition to a lettuce basket. Another nice plant would be alyssum, a flower that’s a good cool-season companion. It’s said to deter aphids from lettuce, which is nice.

Q. I didn’t know that.

A. Have you heard of ‘Frosty Knight?’ It’s a newer alyssum variety with variegated foliage. Typically alyssums kind of die back when the weather changes and it gets warm. But this ‘Frosty Knight’ is a really good performer with temperature fluctuations.

Q. This basket’s getting more beautiful all the time. [Laughter.]

A. Can you see it? Also, ‘Merlot’ is a beautiful lettuce.

Q. I love it. I love all of Wild Garden Seeds’—Frank Morton’s—lettuces. I think he’s the champion of all lettuce breeders. What great stuff.

A. It’s a knockout in the garden; we just love it, with ‘Black Seeded Simpson,’ or ‘Speckled Trout Back,’ [also called ‘Forellenschluss’ or ‘Speckles’ or ‘Flashy Trout Back’] would be a really striking combination. You know the beauty of lettuce containers is that you can harvest the leaves from the outside of the plants, and then you don’t lose the integrity of your design.

Q. So we can eat judiciously from it.

A. Right, absolutely.

10517317_10152618627485699_7741250559559748477_oQ. I mentioned in the introduction about my sorry tomato patch—which really isn’t sorry, because it’s very productive.  I use a couple of my raised beds every year and line out my tomatoes. But of course it could be something more wonderful, and I suspect yours is, Lisa. [Laughter.]

A. We grow typically 40 to 50 different heirloom tomato varieties each year. It’s fun to experiment with those. I have found that from a production standpoint we can grow them on big, flat cattle panels—we paint them green, and trellis them up with Velcro tape. Then we prune them pretty hard through the season, and extend that production.

There are more beautiful ways to grow tomatoes than on a cattle panel, though.

Q. Now I just have to interrupt and say you’re a farmgirl, and you’re talking “cattle panels,” but I was a city girl at first and I’m thinking, “What the heck is a cattle panel?”

A. [Laughter.] It’s just a piece of fence, really. They come in 16 x 4 lengths, and you can attach them with a T-post. We used them when we want to grow lots and lots of different tomatoes. It kind of splays the plant out in the sunlight, and air can circulate around each tomato plant.

But I think there are more ornamental ways to grow tomatoes. There are such beautiful metal tuteurs available in garden centers now.  Then selecting a couple of plants that have similar cultural needs [to the tomatoes], plants like basil and marigolds—they would be a nice companion. Basil is said to improve the flavor of tomatoes, and protect them from disease, and basil flowers also attract honeybees [below], so they’re great companions in the garden as well being companions in the kitchen.

10556962_10152552594215699_7902261293432240430_oQ. And there are so many ornamental basils—the leaves can be large, or small; the plants themselves be almost like topiary, beautiful shapes. Or they can have purple foliage—really a lot to choose from.

A. That’s true. ‘Dark Opal’ is one that’s exceptionally beautiful. We certainly could grow ‘Perpetual’ basil [‘Pesto Perpetuo’], which is a variegated-foliaged basil. I also like if you’re thinking of growing tomatoes in containers, it might be interesting to add a ‘Boxwood’ basil or ‘Fino Verde’ or globe basil to a tomato planting. They’re a little stronger and spicier than the sweet basil you might grow in the ground. You’d pinch them back the same way to keep the plant productive.

Q. I love them, and even something as common as ‘Spicy Globe’—they just kind of shape themselves, but it looks like a master topiary artist did it. [Laughter.]

A. Doesn’t it? They’re beautiful.

Q. I want to switch and talk about fruit—and fruit in containers. We’ve said we can do our cool-season lettuce pot, or tomatoes in pots in the warmer season, but are there some fruits you do in a container-type garden?

A. We do many different kinds of fruit in containers. I think it is something that is nice for a home gardener to do. They’re beautiful. There are a couple of new fruits in the marketplace, one called BrazelBerries out of Oregon that’s been bred for the home gardener. They’re easy to grow, has ornamental qualities—and produces fruit.

brazelberriesThese are plants that have three or four seasons of interest in the garden: showy blossoms in the spring, lush foliage, and we all know about blueberries’ fall foliage, which is gorgeous. So [in the BrazelBerries line] there are a couple of hardy dwarf blueberries, including one in particular called ‘Jelly Bean’ [above right] that’s great for containers, or it also could be incorporated into the landscape into a small, 1-to 2-foot hedge.

‘Blueberry Glaze’ is a really neat plant, with beautiful boxwood-like foliage, and it grows a little bit taller, to 2 to 3 feet high. We’re going to try some of these in the Fruit and Vegetable Garden.

‘Raspberry Shortcake’ [above left] is a way to get a thornless, dwarf raspberry. It’s a midsummer harvest and it’s prolific. How nice to have a shrub in a container that’s full of fruit.

Q. “Thornless, dwarf” you just said—and that would be about the opposite of all my brambles, which are thorny and rampant. [Laughter.]

A. A hedgerow of brambles, it sounds like.

Q. Speaking of brambles, mine want to march all over the place, which is one of the downfalls. But you have been looking into some better selections and have some favorite Rubus, don’t you—especially that might be good for planting a fence line?

A. We do. We grow many types of bramble fruit. I think by selecting an early, a mid- and a late-summer-bearing cultivar, and combining that with a fall-bearing raspberry, will really help home gardeners extend their harvest time. It is so nice to have fresh berries on your table for months.

We grow the purple raspberries ‘Estate’ and ‘Royalty,’ and we have them planted with ‘Jewel,’ which is a black raspberry, and we combine that with a yellow everbearing raspberry called ‘Anne.’ That ripens in the fall, which really rounds out the harvest season.

They’re such useful plants in the landscape. They can provide a boundary, kind of an enclosure around the perimeter of your garden. The most important thing is to select a variety that it based on your zone hardiness—to choose plants that are recommended for your area.

Q. Are those varieties you mentioned all from the same breeding program or different places?

A. From different places. The blackberries that we grow—and blackberry is also just a wonderful bramble fruit for the home garden—are from the latest University of Arkansas blackberry release program, including ‘Natchez,’ which is a large, early blackberry. We grow that with ‘Triple Crown,’ which is a very productive plant and easy to find in the marketplace, and it’s semi-erect in habit so you can do without the trellising—which is great for a home gardener.

Q. My list now, Lisa—and we haven’t even gotten to the end of the conversation—but my list of all the things I want to order is so long. [Laughter.]

A. Oh good. It’s nice to think about spring.

Q. You said I could enclose a garden with them, or do a fence line. How does that work—what spacing, and do I cut them down and other management tips to make a hedge or fence?

A. When you plant brambles, we should avoid planting them too deeply. We typically space the red, yellow and black raspberries about 2 feet apart, and we grow them on post and wire trellises. Or they can grow as a hedgerow.

We keep them within about 1 foot to 18 inches of that hedgerow, so anything that suckers out into the walkway, then, would be clipped at the soil line or dug out.

Q. We’re already in edible architecture over here, so let’s talk about privacy screens. Any ideas for that—people write to me about, “How can I hide this view?” to make a living vertical wall, but an edible one would be even better.

A. You could create a privacy screen of hops, which would be a fun and romantic screen, if you will. It has such a beautiful female flower, and the cones that are produced from that flower are great to look at in the fall. That’s what’s used in the beer-brewing industry. Those cones can be cut as flowers as well.

They grow so quickly. If you plant hops, they’ll grow 25 feet in one season. These vines are called bines, and they kind of twine around trellises and fences and arbors. They can create seasonal privacy for you. They’re prone to powder and downy mildew, so it’s important for them to be spread out pretty wide—planted between a foot and 2 feet apart so that they have good air circulation.

A variety we like is ‘Aureus,’ a great ornamental selection with yellow leaves.

humau (1)Q. Many years ago I grew the golden-leaf hops [left]; so beautiful.

A. The foliage is so interesting, and kind of crinkly. If you want to make beer, it would only take about four aromatic hops like ‘Cascade,’ or two bittering hops of a plant called ‘Nugget’ and you could make 100 gallons of beer.

Q. That would be a lot of beer for one girl over here. [Laughter.]

A. Well, I’ll come over.

Q. We can have a party after-hours. Now on another subject, what’s a cordon?

A. A cordon is a freestanding espaliered apple. So typically an espalier is standing against a wall, and the cordon is standing away from any kind of support, so it’s trained to perhaps a metal post in the ground and a wire system. They’re often grown as step-over apples, again delineating vegetable beds or garden areas.

Q. What about some other vines besides the hops? Like kiwis, for instance, because those seem to be of interest and I’m seeing more emphasis in the catalogs.

A. Kiwis are of interest. They’re heavy vines, and need to be managed with a prudent pruning process in the winter. Since there are male and female on separate plants, so you should combined those together for proper pollination.

They produce not necessarily a brown, fuzzy kiwi like we think of, but a smaller salad-like kiwi that’s edible. They’re delicious, and can be pickled or used in salads.

A couple of other vines that are interesting for the garden are even just the runner beans, and some of the vegetables that we can’t live without. ‘Marvel of Venice’ pole bean, which is such a great Italian heirloom wax bean. I love to grow that on a trellis, or you can create a living tunnel out of winter squash or gourds, and grow your own holiday decorations.

poi_434ff1f63aa33cb3.25331800_highQ. So with the living tunnel, what’s the support?

A. That would just be a metal structure like a pergola to pass through, or something you just look at. Or it could be metal inserted into containers and have plants planted in the containers grown overhead, like an arbor.

Q. Maybe I could even use a piece of concrete-reinforcing wire sort of bowed like an arch shape structure over one of my raised beds, and make a low tunnel. All these ideas, Lisa! Have you started ordering anything yet? Have you started to peek at the catalogs?

A. We’re installing the next phase of our stone-fruit orchard, so we have to pre-order a lot of those plants. Those will be my first orders made. Many nurserymen go South or on vacation, so we want to get those in as soon as possible. We want to try the BrazelBerries this year, and a couple of apples to source—there’s lots to look forward to.

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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its seventh year in March 2016. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the Dec. 28. 2015 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

(Photos from Chicago Botanic Garden except golden hops from Avant Gardens and BrazelBerries from Fall Creek Farm & Nursery.)

  1. Naseer says:

    We love ‘Forellenschluss’! It bolted the latest of the 3 varieties we grew this year, and then a few that overgrew self-seeded in place for a nice fall crop, with zero effort from us!

  2. We visited the Chicago Botanical Gardens this past summer. It’s a MUST SEE for all gardeners. Besides a feast for the eyes, there are lots of ideas to incorporate into our own yards. We spent most of our time among the fruits and vegetables, and native plantings. Next time, the Japanese garden and prairie. It’s a big place, so warrants many visits, in different seasons.

  3. Eleanor Dowling says:

    Your articles on the Botanic Gardens were FASCINATING to read.
    Thank you for sharing all that information! Eleanor Dowling

  4. Jan says:

    If potting a blueberry or raspberry, how do you overwinter? Does it stay in the pot? I am in central Illinois.

    1. margaret says:

      Assuming it’s a big pot (like whiskey barrel size or slightly smaller) and the pot is weatherproof, they can stay out if the plants are a bit hardier than your Zone. I wheel a lot of my potted trees and shrubs into my barn in winter, such as Japanese maples, just to prevent ice damage/wind damage, but not because they’d perish outside. Like this.

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