Growing food side-by-side with ornamental plants yields both beautiful and tasty results. Edible landscaping provides gardeners with the opportunity to maximize their productive space and build a truly unique garden. While a handful of garden veggies are easy to sneak into beds and borders, incorporating fruit-bearing shrubs into the landscape might prove more challenging. Replacing ornamental shrubs with edible ones is certainly a possibility, but adding fruit-bearing shrubs to your landscape doesn't have to be so complicated. Simply add a few varieties into existing shrub islands and foundation plantings, and enjoy the tasty results. Here are a few of our favorite fruit-bearing shrubs.
Currants are a wonderful addition to the edible landscape and their flowers are attractive to hummingbirds. They require full sun to partial shade and thrive in most soil conditions, as long as proper drainage is present. Most currant varieties are self-fertile, meaning a single specimen will produce fruits without a pollination partner. The fruits ripen in mid- to late-summer, and the shrubs are hardy to minus 40 degrees F. They come in many beautiful colors, including red, white, pink and black.
Traditional black currants are rich in cancer-fighting antioxidants and make terrific jelly and jam, though their planting is restricted in some states because the plants serve as a vector to white pine blister rust; this introduced pathogen infects white pines and is a concern to the logging industry. Contact your local cooperative extension service before planting currants to check for restrictions.
My favorite black currant varieties include Black September and Slitsa for their disease resistance and productivity. Other current varieties include Gloire des Sablons (pink), Red Lake and Cherry Red, and white selections Blanka and White Pearly. All currant varieties have the traditional sweet-tart flavor, though many gardeners develop a taste preference after growing a few different varieties. Unlike many tree fruits, currants begin to bear heavy crops within one to two years of planting.
Get a recipe for Currant Chutney!
Gooseberries are another beautiful and delicious fruit-bearing shrub. For the best flavor, plant one of the many sweet gooseberry selections on today's market. Older gooseberry varieties are very tart and aren't necessarily suitable for fresh eating, while some of the sweeter introductions are excellent straight out of the garden. Hardy in USDA zones 3 through 8, gooseberries reach 2 to 4 feet tall and are very productive. Also be on the look out for thornless varieties, as those that aren’t bear sharp spines that can make harvesting and pruning a challenge.
Gooseberries thrive in average garden soil with little to no extra care required. Pruning involves removing a few of the oldest canes every year or two in order to keep the plant open and easy to harvest.
You can find both European and American gooseberries, with the former bearing larger, tastier fruits and the latter being more productive and resistant to fungal diseases. Some excellent European varieties include Achilles, Early Sulfur and Invicta. Among the best American varieties are Poorman and Pixwell.
Honeyberries, also known as blue honeysuckle, are lovely shrubs closely related to ornamental flowering honeysuckle. The small, white, fringed tubular flowers arrive early in the spring and are soon followed by oblong, plump, blue fruits. Honeyberries are among the earliest fruits to ripen, providing gardeners with a fruit harvest even before early bearing strawberries begin to ripen. With a flavor reminiscent of cherries and grapes, honeyberries reach between 3 and 8 feet tall, depending on the variety. They can bear fruit for a half-century or longer without decreased production.
With a great tolerance for poor soils, honeyberries are an excellent selection for gardeners with lean, nutrient-poor soils. For best production, however, it's imperative that two or more compatible varieties are planted in close proximity to each other to increase pollination. Plants should be lightly pruned each spring to remove a few of the older branches and prevent overcrowding. Plants are extremely hardy—down to USDA zone 2—but they can be grown as far south as zone 8.
Choice honeyberry varieties include Borealis, Aurora, Svetlana and Indigo Gem.
are probably among the most common edible shrubs. These North American natives are tough as nails yet so very beautiful. Their white, bell-shaped flowers fill the spring air with sweet fragrance, and their brilliant red foliage adds interest to the autumn landscape. Blueberries are extremely hardy, with some varieties surviving down to minus 35 degrees F. They thrive in acidic soils with a pH range of 4.0 to 5.0 and will tolerate partial shade to full sun.
There are many different types of blueberries, including high-bush, low-bush, rabbit-eye and lots of assorted hybrids. While half-high varieties—the result of the hybridization of high-bush and low-bush types—are excellent for smaller backyards, all will perform just fine as long as the right soil and weather conditions are present. Southern growers might want to stick with heat tolerant rabbit-eye types.
Do keep in mind, though, that two different varieties are needed to maximize pollination and berry set. Every three or four years, prune out a few of the oldest, woodiest branches all the way down to the ground. This encourages new growth and keeps the blueberry plant productive.
Get a recipe for Lavender Blueberry Muffins!
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About the Author: Horticulturalist Jessica Walliser is the author of Good Bug, Bad Bug: Who's Who, What They Do and How to Manage Them Organically (St. Lynn's Press, 2008) and co-host of Pittsburgh's top-rated gardening radio program, The Organic Gardeners, on KDKA Radio. Read about her gardening adventures in Dirt on Gardening.