horticulture

The Foodscape Revolution

The Foodscape Revolution

November 17, 2016

“Garden to Table” is the best way to describe my passion for adding purpose to landscapes in suburban neighborhoods, office parks, school campuses and retirement communities.   With an education in design, an enthusiasm for ornamental horticulture, and a hunger for local, organically raised produce I see that there is the potential to grow food in cultivated spaces.  In fact, according to extension service data, there’s about 190 million acres that could be utilized to enhance food production in the US.

Cultivating food is more than a trend; it’s a tremendous opportunity for the greenhouse and landscape industry to meet a consumer desire that will not be going out of style.  Edibles enhance landscapes by providing a unique seasonal component with a multitude of health and economic benefits. Consumer interest in growing food is a unique opportunity for the green industry to lead the way through education, production of plant material, design, installation and maintenance services.

Foodscaping is simply the integration of edibles in a traditional ornamental landscape.  This design strategy is meant to empower the green industry for generations to come.   By connecting the expertise of growers and landscape professionals to the local, sustainable food movement, horticulture professionals are poised to play a critical part in the literal food chain.

Landscapes that present nutritional, ecological and aesthetic value meet the needs of the evolving market.  I am not only referring to the sometimes sluggish “millennial age consumer.”  Many baby boomers, like my parents, are retiring and downsizing.  They are approaching landscape services with a different sensibility and have a desire to make the most of less square footage.  They are steering away from large lawns, high maintenance hedges and spray regiments.  What they are looking for now is “garden-landscape fusion” with fresh tomatoes alongside the boxwood hedge with and a ground cover of fresh salad greens adjacent to the knock-out rose.

It’s important that as we nurture this emerging market we recognize that there are misconceptions revolving around how to grow food in modern landscapes.  Many homeowners believe property values will go down with a rogue farmer on the cul de sac, hence the many restrictive HOA covenants. It is important to communicate and recognize that landscapes are not meant to be farms.  Rather, the goal of a foodscape is to cultivate supplemental amounts of produce while meeting the aesthetic standards of the surrounding community.

Start by thinking “outside the box.”  Lumber encased beds are NOT the only way to grow food.  In fact, these infamous raised beds are generally the cause for the “no food in the front yard” mantra of suburbia.  Boxed beds can also cause decreased production due to over planting which invite insect and disease to wreak havoc.  Additionally this method of containing edibles creates mono-cultures, as our food crops lack bio-diversity. In fact four plant families make up the lions share of the edibles grown by Americans:

Amaranthaceae- beats, quinoa, spinach and Swiss chard

Brassicaeae- cool season crops such a broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower and kale

Fabaceae- beans, peas and peanuts

Solanaceae- warm season crops like eggplant, peppers, potatoes and tomatoes

Education will lead to opportunity and there are many perennial edibles that can be included in thelandscape.   Fruit and nut trees offer long term harvests while herbaceous perennials such as asparagus and strawberries provide seasonal bounty and textural contrast.  Herbs like oregano, rosemary and thyme are low maintenance plants that add high culinary impact.

The inclusion of flashy annual crops like tomatoes, peppers, kale and chard will add brilliant colors that blend beauty and abundant harvest. Growers and retailers can shape the Foodscaping movement by offering interesting edibles including heirloom varieties and AAS award winning selections.  Choose plants that thrive in your region and promote the unique qualities that make your area the perfect climate for a specific collection of edibles and ornamentals.  This will result in increased consumer confidence and success. With thousands of edibles to choose from growers have the ability to promote a diverse collection of annuals, perennials, trees and shrubs, making every landscape a profitable opportunity.

Traditional field crops may be the ultimate gateway for the foodscape revolution.  Seldom addressed in the local food movement, ancient grains are making waves, recently named “the next culinary obsession” according to the New York Times.  From edible meadows to sophisticated spaces using clumps of oats, quinoa, rice, sorghum and wheat grains offer low maintenance requirements with a big design impact.  They are essentially an ornamental grass with a nutritional benefit.  Grains provide seasonal interest and actively engage people who have likely never seen a wheat or rice plant growing. Engagement is a powerful component for successful design.

Sustainable management is the most critical component for a thriving foodscape.  Consumers have created the value of organic produce and the demand for a “greener” approach to landscape maintenance is particularly strong with edibles.   Successful plantings always start with healthy, living soil.  Transitioning from hard chemistries and salt based fertilizers in the landscape can seem overwhelming, but there are effective organic products and bio-control programs that can easily be applied to every landscape ensuring a safer world courtesy of the green industry services.

Foodscaping offers a solution to the food miles crisis while helping eliminate food deserts in communities that need it most.   A newly emerging market revolves around the harvesting, processing and distribution of the crops grown in professionally managed foodscapes.  Commonly designed like a CSA, produce can be handled in a number of ways including weekly crop shares distributed to paying members.  Another effective approach is partnering with local restaurants.  Programs such as Ample Harvest can be utilized to donate produce directly to food banks serving the community.

As professional horticulturist I strive to meet the needs of a growing population and focus on ways to extend horticultural relevance in the American society.   I am proud to see plants being recognized for all of the attributes they represent: beauty, ecology, health, wellness, nutrition and lifestyle.  Foodscaping is a design technique that embraces the heritage of home gardening while developing a new level of sophistication for modern day living.  Green industry professionals are poised to become more essential than ever by designing, installing and maintaining foodscapes that will feed our communities in a sustainable way.

Join the Foodscape Revolution and harness the sun, soil and irrigation systems of the everyday landscape and start using your skills to nourish community while setting a high standard for beauty and ethical land care. Consumer interest is there, let’s lead the way!

THE Foodscape

Professionally designed and maintained foodscapes are my hope for the future of American landscapes. As the global population rises locally cultivated food systems will be developed to help reduce the food miles crisis. The sun, soil and irrigation systems of common landscaped spaces such as the suburban developments, corporate campuses, retirement homes and public schools can be harnessed to produce supplemental affordable food for communities. Raising awareness, appreciation and understanding of landscaped food systems will help facilitate a change in the design and management of public green spaces. Someday the landscape industry will be linked to diversified, sustainable, ecologically focused food production.

I began my first foodscape ten years ago when I purchased a home in the suburbs of Raleigh, NC. The truth is I couldn’t afford lumber to build raised beds and fill them with yards of purchased compost. I was a single woman earning my living as a plant propagator and money was really tight! Determined to grow food, I used the foundation landscape that already existed to cultivate seasonal, edible plants. What I discovered was a harmonious marriage of aesthetic and practical qualities. I was hooked on growing food within finely designed spaces and ambitious to meet the criteria of HOA landscape committees. Now, a decade later, every landscape represents the possibility of food production.

Foodscaping isn’t about living off the grid: rather it is the practical integration of edibles in an existing ornamental landscape. It is the opposite of a farm, utilizing tiny spaces within each landscape to produce percentages of food. Organic growing techniques are combined with traditional maintenance practices of mulching and edging to keep the space looking clean and tidy. Beds are designed in a way to best utilize the natural resources of water flow and light while seasonal crops are rotated to enhance the ornamentals. A bio-diverse range of plants are selected to increase populations of beneficial pollinators and wildlife. Foodscapes are living ecosystems that meet the aesthetic needs of the general population while serving a greater purpose for the environment and the kitchen.

The essence of a foodscape comes from the supplemental produce that engages people in a unique capacity: a ripe tomato hanging within a Limelight hydrangea, peppers woven within pink muhly grass, amber waves of grain sweeping as a purposeful groundcover. These unexpected combinations serve to enhance the experience of the passerby while raising awareness of how food grows. Food crops empower people on many levels. From plant recognition to raising awareness of health through consumption, foodscapes offer an opportunity to expand the role horticulture plays in society.
Public schools may be one of the best areas to develop this model. By combining the value of healthy eating and the science of horticulture we can inspire the next generation in a meaningful way. The Bullock Garden project in Glassboro, NJ is a great example of how a horticulture initiative can positively influence society by creating a foodscaped teaching garden.

Through a national collaboration known as #SustainableHeroes, headed up by celebrity landscaper and HGTV host Ahmed Hassan, we “school crashed” the property of Bullock Elementary. An unused courtyard was transformed into a bountiful classroom in one weekend. It was a career changing experience for me in many ways. The excitement of the teachers, administrators and other volunteers filled me with the sense that horticultural knowledge is valuable and necessary. Hearing 500 children chant “Garden! Garden! Garden!” during a pep rally brought tears to my eyes and a sense of meaning I had never experienced before.

Thanks to the generosity of donors like Peace Tree Farms and Organic Mechanics Soil this schoolyard garden is plentiful in its healthy production of fruits and vegetables. The school has partnered with the New Jersey Department of Agriculture’s Jersey Fresh program to raise and serve Jersey Fresh produce in the cafeteria. Chef Simon harvests from the garden for a weekly tasting menu to encourage students to eat more vegetables.
The NJ Agricultural Society trained teachers and provides free courses on how to incorporate garden lessons across the curriculum. Teachers use the garden as a space for instructing writing and reading in addition to teaching growing, harvesting and culinary skills. Under the supervision of teachers and FoodCorps representative Laura Pennington classes have a rotating schedule in the garden. The school plans to continue developing a garden classroom/STEM lab this year as an interactive, instructional learning hub.

Horticulture education belongs in every school system. Students will eat and learn from what they grow! Children relish time spent in a garden and edible classrooms are an excellent way to connect health, wellness and nutrition to horticulture. The green industry has an incredible opportunity to team up with programs like Growing Minds to help train individuals to design and establish school foodscapes by integrating gardening into state and national curriculum.

Growing food has empowered me to set my hopes high and envision a future where landscape maintenance professionals play a role in local organic food production. From public schools to the sprawling suburbs, the sun, soil and irrigation systems are waiting to be harnessed for the greater good of health, wellness, community and environment.