When you think of growing your own food, chances are the first image that pops into your mind is of raised planting beds with neat rows of squishy little plants that need weeding, water and for you to talk nicely to them every time you pass by. While I can always spare a few words for an adorable Swiss chard, a newly crawling baby and a business to run mean I just don't have time to fuss with things.
If you're busy but love eating garden-fresh food, consider planting perennial and woody edibles, which give just as much payback, yet require almost nothing from you once they're established. Even better, perennial edibles can be tucked right into your ordinary landscape beds, and most are attractive enough to double as ornamentals.
Fruit trees. If you choose a variety that does well here and plant it in the right location, you can harvest huge quantities of food with little effort. Apples, pears, Asian pears, lemons and limes, cherries, plums and pluots, figs, loquats, persimmons and Frost peaches all do well on the North Coast. While I recommend pruning deciduous fruit trees once per year and applying an organic dormant spray in winter, that's only strictly necessary for the first few years, as long as you don't have any pest problems.
Cornelian cherry (Cornus mas). While I haven't tried them, I hear the "cherries" from these 20-foot-tall dogwood trees are tart and juicy.
Native serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia). This slow-growing deciduous shrub grows to 10 feet and bears ample fruit that look and taste similar to a blueberry, yet are even higher in antioxidants. The best part is that unlike many fruiting plants, it actually prefers part shade.
Currants. I always feel so British eating currants (Ribena, wine gums, scones). Both black and red currants have a naturally upright habit that work well in the backdrop of a small landscape. Our native flowering currant produces edible berries, but they're so tart — use a great deal of sugar, or leave them for the birds.
Aronia berry. This large deciduous shrub has berries with a complex, astringent flavor that juices well or makes a brightly-flavored syrup. If you don't eat the berries, the birds will.
Native huckleberry. Our native huckleberry produces delicious fruit, although you may need an industrious young helper to do the fussy work of harvesting them. It also does beautifully in shade, even deep shade. Though the berries need sugaring, they make excellent jams, pies and syrups. Try huckleberry syrup in champagne for an elegant local cocktail.
Gooseberry. Though gooseberries aren't that tasty right off the bush, they are naturally high in pectin and make for an easy jam or jelly. They can also be used in a crumble or cake. Though the bush has a wide, low habit that can look a little unruly, its prickly stems make it the perfect unfriendly low hedge to keep dogs and people from stumbling into your garden.
Chilean guava (Ugni molinae). In the good old days when I worked at a nursery, these strawberry-scented berries lured people from 10 feet away. The fruit itself has a leathery skin and tastes more like an herbal gin, so while it is not something you will eat by the handful, they are fun to nibble on when you're outside.
Blueberries. Most gardens in Humboldt have naturally acidic soil, which is ideal for growing blueberries. They're one of the most productive and trouble-free fruits, and because they freeze well, you can enjoy them year-round. They are also one of the most ornamental types of shrub, with bell-shaped white flowers in spring, clusters of blue fruit, rich fall color, and attractive stems in winter.
Perennial or shrubby herbs. Our Mediterranean climate is well suited to growing rosemary, sage, oregano, thyme and lavender, all great for cooking. Rosemary, sage and oregano are the easiest to grow and last the longest without care; lavender and thyme eventually become scraggly and should be replaced every three to seven years.
Kiwi and grapes. Both types of vine are wildly vigorous and should not be planted on one of those cute little six-foot trellises; rather these are plants to use on a large, open pergola or other structure. On a 20-foot by 20-foot pergola, use no more than two vines — either two grapes, or a male and a female kiwi. Kiwis do beautifully in the mild weather on the coast, while grapes generally do better with the hot temperatures inland.
... and how to use them
Grow a living fence. Espaliered fruit trees, with branches growing in a flat pattern rather than bushing out, can be trained onto a simple fence framework to provide a green screen that is both more attractive and more productive than an ordinary front yard fence. My most recent acquisition was an espaliered pear that has six varieties on it, but apples are a more common choice.
Swap out sissy plants for sturdy berry bushes. Every garden has at least one: the plant you had such high hopes for, but limps along pitifully — or conversely, explodes into such exuberant growth that it regularly eats its neighbors without stern intervention from you. Whatever that plant is, get off that maintenance merry-go-round and swap it out for a carefully selected berry bush instead. 'Peach Sorbet,' 'Top Hat,' and 'Jelly Bean' are all compact varieties of blueberry, while native huckleberry, Chilean guava, or aronia berry work in more spacious settings.
Don't plunk trees in the lawn. The most common mistake I see is people planting fruit trees in their lawn. Lawn roots are exceptionally thirsty and fibrous, outcompeting fruit trees, or really any plant struggling to get established. If you really must put a fruit tree in the lawn, make sure your irrigation system isn't watering the trunk (which can cause fungal issues), clear out as big a circle as possible around the base (at least a 2-foot diameter circle free of lawn and weeds) to allow the tree to get a foothold before fighting with the lawn, and don't let any errant weed whackers whip the bark off the trunk.
Give them three years of coddling. Even the hardiest plant will appreciate three years of good care to help it get established. A thick layer of mulch, applications of organic fertilizer in spring and summer, and regular deep watering during dry seasons will help your plant sink deep roots into the soil. Once your shrub is growing strong, it should be able to provide a bountiful yearly harvest with little input.
Donate your excess fruit. Unless you are avidly into canning or dehydrating, even a single apple tree often produces more than one family can reasonably eat. If that's the case for you, consider donating some of your bounty to a food bank. Here in Humboldt, Food for People accepts donations of fresh fruits and vegetables at their Eureka location on W. 14th St. It's a beautiful gift to families and seniors in our community, and saves you the guilt of raking up and composting uneaten fruit.
Genevieve Schmidt is a landscape designer and owns a fine landscape maintenance company in Arcata. Visit her on the web at www.GenevieveSchmidtDesign.com.