Edible landscaping: Beautiful, fresh and delicious plants from your yard

Aug 18, 2008 at 10:57 a.m. ET

Though you may never have to forage vegetation for survival, like Christopher McCandless in Into the Wild, but you can reap the delicious benefits of growing edible plants in your own backyard. Despite the ease of purchasing quantity-over-quality fruits and vegetables at the grocery store, raising your own produce is not only part of -œliving green,- it also gives you the opportunity to grow - and eat - vegetation not readily found at your local supermarket. Read on for more reasons to enjoy edible landscaping.

Prickly Pear

Three advantages of edible landscaping

In her Gardener's Handbook of Edible Plants, Rosalind Creasy lists three advantages of edible landscaping (or growing edible plants in your own backyard).

1. Edible landscaping provides delicious, healthful food – the truly organic food without the high prices.

2. Edible landscaping allows you to practice living green – literally and figurately. Growing edible vegetation in your backyard can help reduce wasted water, soil and energy. And if you grow it, you don't have to drive to get it.

3. Edible landscaping is not only beautiful, it is edible. It's the closest you can get to Willy Wonka's sugar petals and chocolate rivers!

Get started on your edible garden

When planning your edible garden, be sure to read up on what plants grow best in your region. In addition to Creasy's The Gardener's Handbook of Edible Plants, give The Encyclopedia of Edible Plants of North America a read.

You can start your garden with seeds or with seedlings (or young plants). You will find the greatest variety of seeds in the spring but late winter and early spring are the best times to buy edible plants for planting.

Beware of buying non-fruiting plants. Remember to stress the words "fruiting" and "edible" to the gardening specialist when making your purchase.

Three edible plants to try

Any savvy chef knows that the best dishes start with the freshest ingredients. And it can't get any fresher than picking from your own backyard.

The well-stocked edible garden includes the staples: tomatoes, peppers, squash and an abundant bouquet of your favorite herbs. However, there are plants growing in your backyard that you may not even know are edible – fiddlehead fern, dandelion and prickly pear. Look for these:

Fiddlehead Fern

Fiddlehead ferns are just a fancy name for the unfurled fronds of a young ostrich fern. The ferns are very delicate and should be picked as soon as they emerge from the ground in early spring. Carefully brush away the brown scales and boil in salted water or steam for 20 minutes. Serve immediately with melted butter.

Note: The Center for Disease Control advises to cook fiddleheads thoroughly before eating -- boil for at least 10 minutes. A number of food-born illnesses have been associated with fiddleheads that were consumed raw or barely cooked.


One woman's weeds are another woman's salad garnish. The dandelion's yellow pom-pom flowers, which litter gardens and fields all across the northern hemisphere, can be plucked and eaten, as can the long green leaves.

All parts of the dandelion plant are edible and are a good source of vitamins A and C and calcium and may even help combat cancer. Serve the leaves in a mixed salad and garnish with the yellow buds. The roots can even be roasted and ground to make an interesting coffee substitute.

Note: Be sure the dandelions you grow or pick are pesticide-free – since they are weeds, they are often sprayed with chemicals.

Prickly Pear

The prickly pear, also called the "Indian fig," is native to Central and South America but can also be found in semi-arid regions of the US.

The prickly pear cacti have flat, pad-like stems with round furry dots and sharp pointed hairs. The pads can be harvested and eaten in the spring while the golden-red prickly pear fruits can be harvested and eaten in the fall.

The sweet fruit is full of seeds and often served chilled. In contrast, the pads are delicious boiled (after the pointed hairs and spine are removed) and seasoned with salt, pepper and butter. The pads taste similar to string beans.

Note: Beware of pads with milky sap, though -- the pads should only hold water.

For a list of edible plants, check an encyclopedia of edible plants or visit this plant database. And before consuming any form of vegetation you are unsure of, do your research first – nobody wants an ending like Into the Wild (it is speculated the person the movie is based on died from eating the seeds from a poisonous plant).

Here are more ways to take your tastebuds on a culinary adventure