Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Edible Landscaping :: The Article

In the Garden
Backyard Buffet
Tracey Crehan Gerlach

Your landscaping can be both beautiful and edible.

It started with a hardy kiwi—more importantly, with the keen ability to propagate a hardy kiwi. And Michael McConkey, owner of the Edible Landscaping nursery and a lifelong gardener, was propelled into the world of harvest-able landscapes.

With a love of nurturing things going back to his childhood (he tended his own garden before the age of 10), McConkey found himself amidst the “grow your own” movement of the 1970s. He spent time traveling, learning, exploring.

And then he met Dr. Elwyn Meader, a rare-plant specialist and fruit breeder from the University of New Hampshire, who gave him his first cutting of the hardy kiwi. When an article about Meader and the kiwi variety came out a year later in a well-known gardening magazine, McConkey was listed as a go-to source for plant.

From Hobby to Vocation

Things took on a farm-to-table meaning when McConkey became a vegetarian and relied on his green thumb to supply him with his own food. That was when, he said, he realized what fun it all is.

And even on a late-winter visit to his 25-acre nursery, I too realized what fun it all is. Perched atop a foothill of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Afton, the backbones of the nursery’s orchards and the silhouettes of the fig trees showed the promise of spring as well as the potential for edible options in Virginia that weren’t even on my radar.

Starts of herbs like chocolate mint and fruit trees such as flowering apricot prepare for the upcoming season in the mist and the humidity of their respective greenhouses. Shiitake logs sit stacked at-the-ready for their first spring flush. Visiting the citrus greenhouse filled with Meyer lemons, Kaffir limes, and mangoes is like a mini-vacation. My mental wish list for my own garden kept growing.

But I quietly admit to Sonja Reid of the Edible Landscaping staff that I am intimidated by fruit trees and the more unusual offerings. I am primarily a vegetable gardener curious about branching out.

Contrary to what I originally thought about Edible Landscaping, it is not just for the wizened, weathered, know-it-all gardener. It is the perfect place to start learning, and many plants can be grown and tended by new gardeners. According to McConkey, juneberries, persimmons, mulberries, and pawpaw are “dummy proof”—yes!—in terms of planting and cultivation requirements once they are established.

Choosing native plants is also a good start for beginners. “Natives understand our [weather] swings,” McConkey explains. All of the beginner plants mentioned above are natives to our area, as are filberts (hazelnuts).

The Cornucopia

Open 7 days a week from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Edible Landscaping truly brings horticultural resources and confidence to the people. Customers are sent home with a succinct care sheet for each plant that they buy. The nursery’s online “Plant Talk” forums offer support from seasoned gardeners living across the country. Events like All About Fruit Days—offered in June and September—include tastings of some of the more unique plants, such as the pawpaw. And the nursery ships plants: in fact, a majority of their business is mail order.

For the more intrepid gardener, McConkey suggests Edible Landscaping’s Russian pomegranate trees, descendents of one of Dr. Gregory Levin’s labors-of-love. After the disbanding of his benefactor, the USSR, Levin lost funding for his project. A pomegranate breeder for 4 decades, Levin dispersed his best selections to various horticultural institutions across the globe. You can find trees from this same line in Afton.

You will find a hefty selection of plants that are closer to what you would expect in Virginia, like blueberry, blackberry, apple, fig, passionflower, rhubarb, strawberry, apricot, and raspberry plants. I also learned about a Virginia-hardy orange (meaning that it will live through our winters), the Flying Dragon. The fruit is not meant to be eaten as-is, but it is ideal for citrus-ades, marmalades, and jams.

And then, if you have the outfit to replicate the tropics, there are bananas, dragon fruit, coffee, guava, star fruit, pineapples, and mangoes to be had. And, of course, the hardy kiwi.

Edible Landscaping has another interesting plant, especially for an avid cook—saffron crocuses. Collect the center stigmas of these fall bloomers, and you will have this very expensive spice at your fingertips for your favorite sauces or risottos. Chefs will also appreciate herbs such as horseradish, sweet bay laurel, lemongrass, Thai ginger, and garlic chives.

The pawpaw appears up on several of McConkey’s recommendation lists (see sidebar). Having never tasted one, I am told it is like a very ripe banana. And in the Edible Landscaping catalog, I learn that “George Washington’s favorite dessert was chilled pawpaw.” Well, then.

The shiitake logs, Reid tells me, are very popular and hard to keep in stock. White oak logs, about 40 inches long, have holes drilled into them and are then plugged with shiitake spores. To maintain this super-low maintenance, just place the log in dappled shade and water regularly. It can produce shiitakes for 4 years.

The nursery’s choices are delightfully dizzying and my own wish list starts to flesh out. Mulberries for cobblers, a shiitake log, supersweet Caroline Everbearing raspberries, and a fig tree. Phew.

Well Within Reach

I am a gardening coach and more and more, I am hearing requests for edible backyards from clients and friends. Function over form. No matter the size of their plot, property, or deck. They want fresh vegetables and fruits within fuzzy slipper distance—as one of my favorite horticulture teachers used to say.

It’s a good time of year to rethink the garden and swap out some of those fussy ornamentals for something that’ll show up on your plate that evening without burning fossil fuels, without questionable pesticides, without the middleman. With Edible Landscaping right here in the Piedmont, getting involved in your own “grow your own” movement doesn’t need to involve a daunting initiation.

For McConkey, a sense of accomplishment is bringing home a bushel of Russian pomegranates. For me, this season, it will be a handful of shiitakes and maybe a bowl of mulberries.

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