Build An Edible Living Laboratory To Inspire & Educate

An edible living laboratory is an invaluable took for educating about edible ecosystems. Here are some basics about these cool garden environments.

by Zach Loeks
PHOTO: JoannaTkaczuk/Adobe Stock

A living laboratory is an important tool for edible ecological education. Not only can it demonstrate good food-plant design, possibilities for diversified landscape management and site-suitable plants for your region, a living laboratory can also provide unique education opportunities to suit the sites where they are installed.

What Is an Edible Living Laboratory?

Edible living laboratories are basically well-organized plantings using a diversity of edible plants arranged into guilds and focusing on education of key topics. They could be planted using native edible plants or orchard-type varieties, like pears. They should employ an ecosystem design with multiple layers of plants (herbs, bushes, trees, etc.). And they should be linear or in plots and fit into the landscape around them seamlessly to make mowing and other larger landscape maintenance possible.

The topics for education can include important Why? information like, “Why is edible biodiversity important?” and What? information such as, “What is an edible ecosystem?”  But of upmost importance should be Interactive information like “How to plant your own edible landscape!”

They often include specialized designs that suit the goals of the stewardship group (those responsible for its maintenance). Examples include “Management of Diversity on Campus for Climate Change Mitigation” or “Native Prairie Restoration for Pollinator Habitat and Medicinal Tea Plants.”

No matter how you slice it, the Edible Living Laboratories that I develop have one overarching goal: catalyzing people in communities to plant more landscape by showcasing great plants, designed for success, that work well in an area!

Who Should Include These in the Landscaping?

Many sites are suited for these types of landscapes and many groups (or stewards) would benefit from their installation in landscapes.

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This can include businesses that want to create a beautiful entrance with an ethical solution to land management and schools that want to create education opportunities and custom outdoor education curriculum. They also work great for government buildings that need climate-friendly landscaping and homes that feature low-work, high-yielding landscaping.

Key Ingredients for a Great Edible Living Laboratory

The details of a great living laboratory may require a more fine-tuned design. But the basic ingredients (as I see them) are as follows.

  • A piece of land, 5 feet by 5 feet, 5 feet by 5 feet or larger linear areas (like 15 feet by 75 feet) or large full plots (like 50 feet  by 100 feet)
  • Proper soil improvement with raising of the land to improve soil structure in a raised bed (about 6 to 12 inches), loosening of soil, adding compost and improving with micronutrients
  • An arrangement of edible and useful plants to form multiple guilds (three or more plants) that fulfill the layers of native ecosystems as mimicry (herbs, ground covers, bushes, trees).
  • All plants are site-suitable to the environment: climate, soil, sun exposure, etc.
  • At least three to six varieties for every 25 to 75 square foot
  • Metal plant name tags for each plant showing name, Latin nomenclature, what part of the plant is edible or useful and when it is ready
  • ID tags with a number linked to a spreadsheet for identification, notes and record keeping.
  • Information signage teaching key topics—it’s best to have quality signs that will last a long time.
  • Proper support for trees and rodent guards for trees
  • Proper planting
  • Mulch (weed-free)
  • Selective weeding in first two years
  • Watering in first two years when needed
  • Core steward or stewardship group to take care of site
  • Interaction with community through workshops, studies, casual bypassing and enjoyment
  • Long-term conservation of genetic diversity for education, use for more sites and posterity

If you are interested in the development of a Living Laboratory, feel free to reach out to me at

That’s it. Go on and plant!

Grow On,


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