My frizzle chicken using the stepping stones to patrol for pests within my purposeful garden.
Recently I picked up the Bill Nye book Unstoppable: Harnessing Science to Change the World. The science guru suggests that in order to be long term residents on this planet we need to start making small, impactful changes to our daily life. Using different forms of energy, like solar panels, and growing our own food were some of his suggestions.
Edibles in the Landscape
Three years ago when I purchased my 1-acre homestead, I was not given a blank canvas. The yard had more than 20 large oak (Quercus) trees, a pool, and grass. The grass was a mix of invasive species and the medium- to high-maintenance St. Augustine grass. Grass lawns are good for children and dogs to play on, high foot traffic areas, swales, and a place for the occasional vehicle to park on. However, if your lawn area doesn’t serve a purpose, you might consider a lower-maintenance ground cover instead. Asiatic jasmine (Trachelospermum asiaticum), perennial peanut (Arachis glabrata), beach sunflower (Helianthus debilis), sunshine mimosa (Mimosa strigillosa), ornamental sweetpotato vine (Ipomoea batatas), or mulch are all great alternatives to a water-guzzling, fertilizer-demanding grass yard. My front yard is still a mix of grasses, but my backyard now has mulched pathways with edible and ornamental plants in loosely defined beds surrounding the large oaks.
To me, who wanted to garden purposefully everywhere in my yard, the oaks presented a few problems. I want to grow large amounts of tropical fruits and seasonal vegetables. Since the oaks shaded much of my yard, I focused on plants that could handle moderate amounts of shade. After some experimenting, I discovered that many vegetables do quite well with some shade here in the sizzling Sunshine State.
I understand that the oaks are purposeful. They provide much needed shade in the summer and leaves, which are composted, in the fall and winter. Their roots also help with soil erosion on my steep incline of a homestead. To make them more useful I planted various edibles at their base. Now passion fruits (Passiflora edulis), luffas, and other gourds scramble up their trunks to reach the sun. Visitors are quite impressed when they see oak trees “producing” fruits.
Passion fruit now falls from the oak trees in my yard.
In addition to my seasonal vegetable garden, I have interplanted edible plants between the oaks. Edibles that I keep as shrubs include katuk (Sauropus androgynus), cranberry hibiscus (H. acetosella), moringa (Moringa oleifera), and chaya (Cnidoscolus aconitifolius). I also have some specimen fruit trees such as jackfruit (Artocarpus heterophyllus), miracle fruit (Synsepalum dulcificum), white sapote (Casimiroa edulis), and loquat (Eriobotrya japonica).
Bees making their home in a screech owl nest box.
To increase my yields, I encourage various forms of pollinators. After a pair of screech owls raised two owlets, honeybees moved into the next box. On hot days, the hive, which is 15 feet off the ground, is covered by bees cooling their hive by flapping their delicate wings.
In addition to being attractive, the passionfruit vines, which have a very small footprint, attract bees and butterflies. Rather than having one designated butterfly garden, milkweed (Asclepias spp.) is dispersed haphazardly throughout the yard to promote the flow of pollinators.
Currently I am growing two varieties of luffa. Luffa acutangular, which blooms at night, and L. aegyptiaca, which blooms during the day. These attract different pollinators such as butterflies and moths. When harvested, the luffas are used to scrub chicken food bowls, birdbaths, and plant pots.
To increase the purposefulness of the yard, I am slowly replacing pure ornamentals with specimens that are both useful for humans beyond aesthetics, and attractive to pollinators. Natives such as beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) are attractive, feed wildlife, and can also be used to make a palatable jelly.
Pinecone ginger or shampoo ginger (Zingiber zerumbet) is also scattered throughout my homestead. I can definitely make space for a plant that is colorful, vigorous, and used as a natural soap/shampoo in my yard.
Mulch and leaves help with weed suppression.
Close to one of my banana circles is a good-sized compost bin I easily made using four pallets. Garden scraps are recycled there and feed the bananas (Musa spp.). When the leftovers have decomposed to fine rich compost they are returned to the very gardens they originated from. By actively composting, we are encouraging nature’s natural way of recycling.
In addition to my pallet compost bin, I have a smaller plastic bin near another vegetable garden and a brush pile in the far back discrete corner of my yard. The brush pile is more of a passive compost area, where large branches and logs provide homes for native wildlife such as reptiles and birds.
Since the backyard is comprised of mulched pathways and stepping stones, there is no need to rake the oak leaves as they fall. The leaves provide nutrients to the plants and impede weed growth. Mowing over the leaves will break them apart and allow decomposition to happen more quickly.
As a person who is childless by choice, I do not have the joy of raking leaves into giant piles for a child to destroy by jumping and running through. Instead, I happily have a flock of domestic ducks and chickens to patrol my yard for pests and yes, play in the leaves. The backyard poultry eat leaf-destroying slugs and harmful beetles. All of which is done without the use of chemicals. As an added bonus, the birds provide a great number of eggs weekly, which I do not see human children contributing.
One of my chickens crossing one of my many mulched pathways.
Incorporating sustainable features into the design such as rain gardens, bioswales, and ways to harvest rainwater is a must if you want every inch of your yard to be purposeful. A rain garden is a low section of the landscape planted with plants that like to get their “feet” wet. The garden collects rainwater, giving it a chance to “strain” out impurities before draining into the aquifer.
Due to my yard being at such an incline, I have four cypress trees (Taxodium distichum) planted at the bottom of my property where an ephemeral pond occurs during the rainy season. This seasonal pond is surrounded by edibles including watercress, water chestnuts, and various types of bananas. According to IFAS, good flowering plants for rain gardens include blue flag iris (Iris versicolor), goldenrod (Solidago spp.), swamp sunflower (Helianthus angustifolius), spider lily (Hymenocallis liriosme), and milkweed. Many of these are native and will attract butterflies and other wildlife.
Bioswales, which are often seen in parking lots, reduce runoff water and increases groundwater recharge. In addition to bucketing water from the ephemeral pond to water my vegetables I also have several rain barrels. Unfortunately, these barrels are filled within a day or two of heavy August rains and are used quickly when the rains stop in the fall. In-ground cisterns may be a better option for those who truly want to be sustainable as Florida presents two opposing seasons: dry and flooding.
How do you utilize every inch of your garden? Send me a message to share your ideas. We would love to hear from you.
My front yard is still a mix of grasses but my backyard now has mulched pathways with edible and ornamental plants in loosely defined beds surrounding the two dozen large oaks.
A version of this article appeared in Florida Gardener Volume 22 Number 1.
Photography courtesy of Kenny Coogan.