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Perennial plants (Japanese Quince & Rhubarb) growing in a grassed area Perennial plants (Japanese Quince & Rhubarb) growing in a grassed area

Using perennial crops for an edible landscape

By Sara Venn

Seeing edible crops growing in public places is truly inspiring, but it can take hard work, so planting some well-chosen perennials in your growing spaces can reduce that hard work and provide a great community resource.

When we talk about edible landscaping, we often think of raised beds filled with annual crops like sweetcorn and lettuces, however these plants are high in their maintenance needs and so can be problematic in terms of time that your group needs to give them. This worry about ongoing maintenance can be off putting for groups who really want to grow food for their communities but are concerned about time. However, there is an answer to this and it lies in the joys of perennial crops and plants which are, once established, far easier to maintain and won’t need replacing year on year.

When we talk about edible landscaping of course we are talking about a complete change in the way we see the urban realm, and what is, or at least once was, public land. This has always been one of Incredible Edible’s biggest requests to local authorities, corporate bodies and other land owners such as the NHS.  The reasoning behind this is not just to have a public realm filled with food, but also to look at how we engage with public space, seeing it more as community space there for all rather than somewhere to merely pass through. If we filled our towns and cities with edibles, plants that are good for wildlife and focused on making the environment around us more beautiful, wouldn’t the world be a kinder pace to live in? And in turn the positive effects on health and well being would be huge, not merely down to the availability of fresh fruit and veg, but also because more connected communities would emerge to use the produce, share skills and the food.

So if all this is to happen, we need an understanding that good horticultural practice needs to be at the centre of the change.  Which in turn means we need a good understanding of plants that will withstand being in the public realm, cope with minimal watering and stand their ground in poor weather conditions, as well as an understanding that there are spaces where food is inappropriate and how to manage those spaces without going back to the horrors of poorly maintained amenity planting.

Of course, there are many shrub alternatives to the amenity plants we see in our towns and cities today. Hedging can be made from currant bushes, globe artichokes and cardoons are both excellent hedging and also beautiful statement plants. Hardy Mediterranean herbs such as rosemary and lavender are excellent as small hedging and as alternatives to shrub planting, plus both have the added advantage of being fabulous plants for pollinators. Perennial kales give fantastic foliage and when they flower are again loved by insects.

Herbs like the mints and thymes make excellent ground cover under trees, as do wild strawberries and their cultivated cousins. Rhubarb is excellent in a boggy area whilst figs will cope in very dry conditions and poor soil. In bright sunny conditions herbs such as angelica, the artemisias, oregano and marjoram will thrive with minimal maintenance and if a few edible flowers are added in will make a display that will go on for months. Add into that the beautiful dahlias whose tubers can be eaten just like potatoes, edible flowers such as nasturtiums and calendula that resow themselves each year and suddenly you have a public realm filled with food, colour and kindness. To that add the beauty of cherries, plums, apples and pears whose spring blossom adds that much needed early spring colour as well as nectar for early flying bees and pollinators, and suddenly your public space is a year round cornucopia for people and planet alike.

Added to the joy of colour and food is the opportunity for these types of landscapes to support skill sharing and community connectedness. With local authorities struggling and many apprentice schemes closing, the routes into horticulture as a career are falling by the wayside, but this level of landscaping could support good learning of both horticulture as a career and gardening as a hobby. These learning opportunities could be run by community led social enterprises and be integral to the education offering within a community.  With the recent upsurge of interest in allotment growing and food growing in general, this would ensure not only that public land supported the public but also that any land put aside for food growing is well used and productive, with ample opportunity for new entrants to learn what will become their craft.

Of course there are a million urban myths about why this shouldn’t happen from the fear of staining of paths from fruit drop to worries about fruit being used as missiles. But imagine a world where in autumn a child can pluck a fresh apple from a tree on their way to school and eat it as they wander along – isn’t that the world we want to see?

For more practical ideas about growing in public places, sign up to our website to access our Growing on your street resources.  And to find your local group, search our map here.  If there isn’t a group near you then have a look at our Ten steps to being Incredible guide to find out how to set up a new group in your area.