If you’ve ever stopped admiring an okra flower or admiring the lush foliage of a papaya tree, you’ve noticed that edible plants can be just as beautiful as ornamental plants. One area where beauty and utility in the landscape blend perfectly is the shrub layer. Edible shrubs with flowers, fruits and sometimes colorful foliage make it interesting all year round.
Use shapes and textures to guide the placement
Edible shrubs can be easily integrated into the ornamental landscape so that they do not have to be relegated to an isolated corner of the courtyard. I like to be guided by plant shapes when choosing where to place the plants. Just as ornamental shrubs play different roles in the garden, some edible plants are more eye-catching, while others can play a supportive role. Figs, for example, are a distinctive specimen with strong foliage and multi-branched growth. Blackberries, on the other hand, look beautiful in a mixed bed, where their arched stems add structure and movement.
Selection of shrubs by climate
As with any landscape shrub, plant selection is the first step to success. With our combination of intense summer heat and cold winters in the Southern Plains, it is important to pay close attention to the subtle differences between the varieties when choosing edible shrubs. Some varieties have greater tolerance to cold, which makes them thrive in the more northern parts of our region, while others are better suited to heat. The following shrubs are some of my picks that have great value in decorative designs as well as delicious fruits for you to harvest.
Punica granatum, Zones 6-10
With lively, tropical-looking orange blossoms, pomegranates are planted for their blossoms alone and are a nice accent or eye-catcher in the garden. ‘Salavatski’ is considered to be the coldest toughest variety available and can successfully produce fruit in Zone 6 if planted on the south wall of a house. Protect pomegranates from cold winter winds. The ideal planting place in colder parts of our region is a west or south wall in full to partial sun. Pomegranates are naturally drought tolerant and require well-drained soil. The plants are self-fertile and ripen in late autumn.
Amelanchier alnifolia, Zones 2-7
Serviceberry may be the tastiest fruit that you haven’t tried yet. The taste is a cross between blueberry and grape. When designing an edible garden a few years ago, I was thrilled to discover ‘Regent’ Serviceberry, a compact variety that grows only 3 to 6 feet tall and wide. Raisins grow well in full sun to partial shade. If you are growing on the southern limits of this plant’s range, a little afternoon shade will help.
‘Regent’ tolerates a wide variety of soil types, including heavy loam, and will grow in wet or dry locations. In the hotter parts of our region, gardeners may want to try a western variety, Utah Serviceberry (A. utahensis, Zones 5–9), which is drier and more heat tolerant. Although drought tolerant, the serviceberry needs watering to produce plumper, juicier fruit. Serviceberry attracts a wide variety of pollinators, and you may have to compete with birds for fruit that ripens in late May through June.
Ficus carica, Zones 6-10
For much of the Southern Plains, winter is the major restriction on fig growing. Plant breeders have worked to select increasingly resilient varieties as well as more compact varieties. Although there are newer varieties, I’ve had success with ‘Brown Turkey’, also known as ‘Texas Overstanding’. This variety produces a reliable harvest of brown to maroon fruits from June in Texas (later further north) through frost.
I recommend planting figs in full sun to partial shade on the west or south side of the house, where the plants can benefit from the radiant heat in winter. Protect plants from harsh winter winds and cover them when temperatures drop below 10 ° F. Although the roots can survive at these temperatures, stem death can delay fruit production. Give ‘Brown Turkey’ plenty of room to spread out, especially in warm climates where plants can easily reach a mature size of 3 meters in height and width. If space is an issue, look for one of the newer compact strains like ‘Little Miss Figgy’. Figs can withstand heat and almost any soil, as long as it is not too acidic.
Rubus fruticosus, Zones 5–9
You don’t need a trellis to grow blackberries, and with the newer upright, thornless varieties specially bred for home horticulture, blackberries are easier than ever to care for. One of the tastiest thornless blackberries is ‘Ouachita’ (named after my favorite hiking spot in Oklahoma). Plants produce large, sweet berries on very upright stems. Plant it under anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum, Zones 4-8) and other edible flowers and ground cover in a mixed bed.
For more stable stems and higher yields, tilt the sticks when they reach chest height. Canes can bend when loaded with fruit, which creates a nice arched effect. ‘Ouachita’ has a low cooling requirement and is therefore also suitable in the warmer areas of our region. Plant on berms to improve drainage in heavy soils. Although blackberries are hardy plants, regular watering promotes better yields. Grow them in full sun.
To love more
Plant breeders have embraced the edible landscaping trend and are producing more and more ornamental varieties of our favorite fruits. Many of these strains drive fruit production to places that have never been possible before. When choosing fruits for the landscape, pay attention to cold hardness as well as heat tolerance and plan for access to water. Even drought-tolerant varieties produce better yields with regular watering. Finally, consider adding stepping stones or a narrow path in beds to access shrubs for care and harvest.
—Kim Toscano is a gardener, entomologist, garden designer, writer and graphic designer. She was previously a hostess Oklahoma gardening, a weekly PBS television program produced by the Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service.