SOME OF US are horticultural segregationists, designating one area as the “flower garden” and another as the “vegetable garden” or the “herb garden,” and never the twain shall meet. Brie Arthur is not your average gardener, and instead integrates edibles and ornamentals with a bold hand, achieving landscapes that are both beautiful and productive. She calls them foodscapes, and that’s the subject of her recent book, “The Foodscape Revolution.” That’s grain and larkspur commingling in her front yard, for instance (above).
Brie Arthur, a Michigan native who studied horticulture and landscape design at Purdue, is now based in North Carolina, where she has worked as a plant propagator and grower at top nurseries like Plant Delights and Camellia Forest.
In recent years Brie has transitioned to a garden-communicator role–writing, lecturing and also working as a correspondent for the popular public television program “Growing a Greener World.” Oh, and lest I forget: She is totally mad about tomatoes, growing 100-plus varieties a season…and besides a 101 in foodscaping, I got some tomato recommendations from Brie, too.
Read along as you listen to the May 29, 2107 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).
foodscaping q&a, with brie arthur
Q. I’m so glad our mutual friend Ken Druse was kind enough to introduce us. I want to jump right in and help people visualize a foodscape. Paint us a picture of your yard as we pull up to the curb or enter the driveway, as compared to one across the street or down the street?
A. The whole goal here is to make the most of the square footage you’re cultivating, so that is really examining the open mulch space you have between trees and shrubs and perennials, and tucking in some food crops.
It’s always amazing; you can always determine which house is mine in the neighborhood. [Laughter.] We’re the one that has the flowers bursting at the seams. The goal is really to seamlessly incorporate food with all of your favorite ornamentals, so that no one is offended by the fact that you’re growing food, and also acknowledging that when you live in a suburban setting, you’re not a farmer. You don’t have to keep your vegetable crops in the back corner, in a straight line, because you’re not using mechanization to plant or harvest. You can be more creative in the way you use your landscape to actually be the foothold for growing all your favorite things that you would bring in for your dinner.
Q. I guess one of the other benefits is that if there are any restrictions or guidelines in your neighborhood or town or county or whatever about not having a vegetable garden in your front yard, it doesn’t look like a vegetable garden, does it? Even though there might be some vegetables in it, or herbs.
A. That’s the real power behind this, and that was originally my motivation for learning to do this. I of course had those amazing books of Rosiland Creasy, with her edible-landscaping efforts, and I studied what she said and converted that to meet the needs of the homeowners’ association that I was living in.
Q. I see.
A. It was a real triumph for me that not only did I not get fined, but I actually got Yard of the Year. What that really showed me was that the people in my homeowners’ association didn’t really know what vegetables looked like. [Laughter.]
Q. [Laughter.] Oh, dear, they were UFOs.
A. Right. For the last decade I’ve worked to help other people that had the desire to grow plants—to grow food—and provide them with landscape plans that are drawn to scale that really show their intentions, so that when they are presenting this to their homeowners’ association they have some guidance.
They’re showing that they are not trying to tear out all of their grass, and put in 50 box beds that inevitably will fall into disrepair, and yes, likely cause some concern for the neighborhood in how it looks. This is really meant to make it so that your landscape looks beautiful and also provides you some bounty.
Q. And whether or not you have those restrictions, it’s a good idea for a lot of reasons. I was kind of wondering: How does this kind of landscape approach impact maintenance you’d have to perform, compared to the traditional segregated version I mentioned in the introduction? Is this lower maintenance?
A. I find that it’s lower maintenance, and part of that does come from pairing these plants appropriately. You want to pair something like a pepper or a peanut with a perennial like an Asclepias, because they all have the same cultural requirements. Instead of having to do that same watering practice in three parts of your garden, you can do it all in one.
This encourages you to have less open space, so your weeding goes down significantly. The Number 1 question I get asked is how do I manage my garden, since I am traveling a lot. I don’t have a weed issues, because I don’t have any open mulch space. I let things like cucumbers and melons and pumpkins take over as groundcovers. When you don’t have open space, with sun and water, you’re not going to have the same kind of weed pressure.
Q. I’m a bird person, and birds love the edge, which scientifically is called ecotone, where one habitat meets another—that layered transition zones in the garden and in nature. So I love that action-filled area.
But you have another take on edges altogether. You say in “The Foodscape Revolution” that, “Hands-down, the easiest way to incorporate edibles into your foundation landscape is along the edges.” So let’s talk about that. Again: Paint us some pictures. Tell us about what the edges of a foodscape are and how they work. [Above, from Brie: a wine-bottle-embellished edge along a foodscape path is planted in lettuces, delphinium and more.]
A. Typically edges are an area that’s not planted; it’s an area where you are having to do a lot of maintenance, whether grass is growing in or you have weeds that are seeding in. By covering those edges with some form of vegetation, you ultimately reduce that weed pressure.
They are also a great place where you are not disturbing the root zone of any of your permanent plants, and it’s easy access. I think one of the main things with the segregated idea of gardening and having your vegetables in the back corner, is that they are not easy to get to, and you don’t notice them. Whereas along your bed edges, you’re likely going to walk past it every day, and it’s easy to get a hose to it if things are dry. You notice when it’s time to harvest, so that you don’t waste as much food.
Every landscape offers bed edges. I always encourage people to walk around and count your steps, and you’ll be amazed at how much bed edge space you actually have. In my case I have 6,000 square feet of bed edge; I’m gardening the equivalent of a quarter-acre.
Q. Right, but there’s edge at the edge of the property, edge of paths, edges of every bed—there are edges in a lot of places.
A. Edges are everywhere. I have a major mole and vole issue, and I think many gardeners suffer from this.
Q. Oh no, I’ve never seen one ever. [Laughter.]
A. Right. And my joke is that the more expensive a plant is, the faster they will eat it.
Q. Or pull it underground.
A. There is some correlation between your emotional attachment to a plant, and their decision to get to it first. After watching about 250 tulips get eaten right in front of our eyes—it was like a cartoon; the tulips shook, and then they got sucked down…
Q. Voles at work.
A. Yes, and my cats seem to have a friendly relationship with all these in-ground mammals. So we started planting garlic and onions and chives as our bed edges, so literally just putting those in in the autumn, letting them grow through the winter, and because those bulbs are smelly, that helps to deter those in-ground mammals.
Q, From wanting to dig into that bed and go even farther in.
A. Exactly. So that’s like a great way of creating armor, and then at the end of the season, it’s really easy to harvest—you don’t even have to step inside the bed. You can just go right along the edge and yank all of these great vegetables out. You’d be amazed at how much garlic you can grow—garlic is one of those crops that is pretty easy, and you can have success with it. I want people to have success when they grow these plants.
Q. So that’s one that works there—this garlic and onion thing—and it has this deterrent thing also. What are some of the other edge things that we can incorporate?
And instead of having a full front lawn from the curb to the house, might we sort of make a bed and there would be this undulating edge that breaks up that former lawn? I’m trying to visualize—does it look kike a mini-meadow? What happens to the bed when I have planted the garlic and onions along the edge; does it look more loose?
A. It can look as loose as you want it. That’s one of the great things about an edge. I had a professor in design school who said as long as you have an organized edge, you can have chaos in the middle and it all makes sense. I love that aspect with any edging, because you can then do a very traditional landscape inside, with box hedges and clumps of your favorite perennials, or let it be more meadow-like. Having that edge makes it all visually come together.
I do both: I incorporate garlic and onions in beds that are mixes of seeds and everything is rambling together, and I do the same edging on my more formal beds, that do have ‘Compacta’ hollies and hydrangeas that are clipped. I think this lends itself to really any kind of design aesthetic.
Q. I’ve seen you use this hashtag on social media #CrazyGrainLady. In some of the pictures I’ve seen in the book and on social media that I think are maybe your yard, there sort of looks like grassy, grain-like things at the edges. Is that another possibility for edging?
A. It is, and I think grains are the great under-explored option for this big local edibles movement. It was Rosiland Creasy, again, who introduced me to the idea of growing grains instead of ornamental grasses. I thought, oh my gosh, I’ve never considered growing wheat before. Now I have close to 4,000 square feet devoted to different varieties of grains—warm-season and cool-season.
Q. #CrazyGrainLady. [Laughter.]
A. I am the #CrazyGrainLady. [Laughter.]
Q. So wheat’s a possibility, and what are some of the other ones, again as sort of an alt- and edible version instead of ornamental grasses?
A. Right now my all-time favorite—and I call it the beauty queen—is barley [above]. With the interest in people wanting to brew their own beer, growing your own barley is a really great component to that. It’s absolutely gorgeous, and has long awns and a nodding head, and right now it’s about 3½ feet tall.
Even if you weren’t using it for its edible component, it makes beautiful dries for arrangements, and it can even be used for making your own birdseed. That to me is something I think more people will be interested in.
I noticed it on the barley and oats in particular, that I have attracted all of these new-to-my-garden bird species, including bluebirds and cardinals and finches. We have all of this activity happening because of the grains that are grown both in a meadow form and in clumps, just like you would buy an ornamental grass.
Q. So they are picking over them; you leave them standing in the offseason, into the fall? Is that when the birds are interested, when they have set the seed already?
A. Well, yes, you can do it two ways. You can leave the grains up and let the birds naturally get them. Or you can harvest them and make your own mixes and then add it to your bird feeders, so that you can keep your landscape moving forward.
For many people, you would actually grow your wheat and oats through the cool season and harvest midsummer, and you can replace those with amazing summer grains like rice, millet and sorghum. All of these are beautiful in the landscape, have a great ornamental component as a cut, and can be used for your own consumption or for creating a wildlife habitat.
Q. I’ve been so interested to see the beginning of the buzz about what I see referred to as upland rice—in other words, when you just said rice you’re not making a paddy, a watery environment for it. It’s an upland rice.
A. It is, and they are a fantastic option to be an alternative to the purple fountain grass. I did this last year with some landscape contractors, and we snuck rice into 15 country clubs.
A. At the end of the season they were so charmed by these beautiful grasses, and they had no idea that it was actually rice growing right alongside their coleus and impatiens and begonias.
Q. Do you start these like seedlings in small pots? What’s the process—how did you sneak them in there by going in under cover of darkness and just spread the seed around…
Q. …[laughter] or did you transplant them?
A. No, though I have been known to be that rogue person who throws seed out.
Q. Seed bombs!
A. We did these in communal trays. We would get a package of seeds, and sow them in communal trays [above]. They germinate in less that two weeks, and then you can just pluck out clumps, just like you would a Pennisetum or any other grass.
Q. Does this upland rice have this coloration like the Pennisetum?
A. There is a beautiful purple-leaf variety that is edible seed, and of course there are beautiful green varieties and chartreuse forms. Really the sky’s the limit with rice. I could see this being the next big movement, because growing your own rice at home is easy, and doesn’t take up a lot of space, and it’s one of the grains that is the easiest to thresh. Threshing is one of the components that can cause a challenge.
Q. [Laughter.] Yes.
A. With rice you are just putting those seedheads into a hot wok or a hot pan without any oil, and the heat will actually make the seed burst out of the chaff. Then you can store it, or cook it immediately.
There are a lot of different options with the way you can handle rice, versus the way you are dealing with wheat or sorghum or even oats. You can buy hullless oats, and those are much easier to process in the kitchen, versus the oats that I would grow for birdseed. The birds can pluck that seed out of the hull no problem.
Q. We talked about the edge, and taking advantage of it as the place of biggest opportunity in beginning to have this non-segregated garden; this fusion of materials with things like the garlic or onions, or these grains like wheat, millet, sorghum, barley, oats, the upland oats.
I felt validated at one point in the book when I was reading “The Foodscape Revolution.” Even though I am a relic of a different era, I felt like I was very in vogue—like I have a place that looks like a place in the book. [Laughter.] I had lost a tree let’s say five or six years ago, and it wasn’t a tree that could be left standing as a wildlife tree or snag; it had never achieved that heft. And there was this area underneath it, mulch, and I kept saying I was going to get some shrubs or another tree—and I never did anything.
And the first year I didn’t want to leave it bare because as we said, everything seeds in. Weeds, weeds, weeds. So I planted so pumpkins, some winter squash. And I kind of loved it, and now five or six years later, it’s my pumpkin place. It’s sort of in this weird spot, this big rectangle—and people wonder what it is when the pumpkins are not there, but I cherish it. So let’s talk about groundcovers—I was glad to see that in your book that is considered groundcovering.
A. You know those vines are so handy to cover up space where maybe you don’t want to add mulch, and they will help keep the moisture in the soil and really just help reduce that weed stress. I think the way Americans currently landscape is posing more challenges than they need, because we are not covering up enough of that ground. [Squash vines and larkspur covering ground at Brie’s, above.]
Q. We’re not letting the plants touch [laughter], or grow together, right? We have things like little dots, and then there is some mulch, and another dot. It’s not like a fusion—again that word that keeps coming up for me is fusion, or interweaving, which I love.
Any other groundcover ideas? We can use pumpkin vines, winter squash vines, cucumbers…what else?
A. One that I have fallen deeply in love with that is a little unusual—I have a few—is that I love to use peanuts. Even for people in Northern climates, as long as you plant those when your soil is warm, you actually will get a little bit of a harvest. For those of us living in a hot climate, like down in the Southeast, peanuts are a no-brainer. They are very drought-tolerant, they have a beautiful mounded habit, and they are a legume—so they can naturally fix Nitrogen. That’s a great way to be able to have a decreased input; you don’t have to put down as much fertilizer when you grow legumes in and amongst everything else.
I also love buckwheat; I love to sprinkle buckwheat seeds. And that’s such a great plant for attracting native pollinators.
Q. Indeed, yes.
A. If you’ve ever grown it, you will be instantly charmed, because it blooms within 30 days of sowing and it just kind of will regenerate itself. Once it’s gone to seed, that seed will fall, and you can really always have it. You can rely on that as a self-sower.
Q. Of course I promised everybody that we’d get a couple of tomato tips. So confess: How many tomatoes this year?
A. I just counted and I am at 115, and I wasn’t supposed to do that this year. [Laughter.]
Q. One-hundred fifteen?
A. But hands-down my favorite is a paste variety called ‘Cream Sausage.’ If you’ve not grown it you need to give it a try, because it will change your perspective on tomatoes.
Q. ‘Cream Sausage’—and why?
A. It’s a semi-determinate so it doesn’t grow so large, but it sets fruit all summer long. The fruit looks just like a ‘Roma,’ except it’s whitish to yellow, and has a higher sugar content, so for people who sometimes can’t stomach the really acid tomatoes, this is a great alternative. And it makes a sauce that looks like Alfredo.
Q. How wacky is that; that would be totally confusing to my eyes and my brain. My brain would be like, “What, what?”
A. It consistently wins the best-tasting tomato at our annual tomato tasting.
Q. What’s your favorite cherry tomato?
Q. ‘Blue Berries’?
A. Yes, this is a newer heirloom that has come out of Sonoma Valley. Brad Gates is the breeder, and he is breeding for high levels of anthocyanins. So you can help fight cancer and eat your favorite tomatoes at the same time.
Q. For just slicing?
A. I have to say I love ‘Dr. Wyche’s Yellow.’ This is one named in the late 30s for a USDA inspection agent, and the fruits are consistently 2 pounds each.
Q. Oh, my.
A. It’s a great big rambling variety; count on it getting 20 to 25 feet long, big vines. But you’ll get fruit all summer long and those fruit are the perfect size for a really meaningful BLT.
enter to win ‘the foodscape revolution’
I’LL BUY A COPY of “The Foodscape Revolution” by Brie Arthur for one lucky reader. All you have to do to enter is answer this question in the comments box at the very bottom of the page (keep scrolling below the last reader comment):
Are your edibles integrated into your ornamental landscape areas or segregated mostly? Any “foodscaping” going on at your place yet? (Ive mostly got my vegetables segregated…but I’m working on it.)
No answer, or feeling shy? Just say “count me in” and I will, but an answer’s even better. I’ll pick a random winner after entries close on Tuesday night at midnight, June 6, 2017. Good luck to all. U.S. and Canada only.
prefer the podcast version of the show?
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 May 29, 2017 show right here. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
(Photos courtesy of Brie Arthur. Disclosure: Purchases from Amazon affiliate links yield a small commission.)