Garden Bones You Can Sink Your Teeth Into

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Oh, my aching muscles...

By Lorene Edwards Forkner

Who doesn’t love a flower?  But it wasn’t until I began to build my borders around more substantial trees and shrubs that my garden began to take on dimension, body and a sense of place. Whatever you want to call it—architecture, structure, the proverbial “bones” —the floral frock of your garden hangs on this critical framework which provides height, proportion, and balance.

Currently, three different varieties of corydalis await placement in my already burgeoning borders. They’ve been sitting in a flat since mid-March and may very well still be there in May as you read this. Corydalis is the cotton candy of perennials: it blooms sweetly in raspberry, cherry and grape before melting away to nothing. This plant is a fleeting ephemeral in my sandy soil, offering a mere two or three weeks of bloom. It is hardly the stuff of garden building and structural planting.

There’s no accounting for what little piece of flora will grab my fancy. There was a time when my garden was nothing but a quirky plant nerd’s collection; one of this, two of that. Whatever followed me home from a plant sale or a trip to the nursery, (ostensibly to purchase compost) simply got stuck into the garden anywhere I could find space. Don’t get me wrong—this is a great way to observe and get to know a great many plants. As a former nursery owner, I heartily recommend this approach. But anyone who’s faced a “collector’s” garden with a giant pile of plastic nursery pots to show for it knows: pretty doesn’t always make for a pleasing landscape.

Ironically, now I am free to indulge my plant lust because more structural plantings define the space, creating planting pockets that compliment a larger picture. A welcome side effect has been a reduced level of maintenance as plants mature and knit together into a self-sustaining environment provided I’ve followed the inviolable “right plant, right place” maxim.

Combining hot, salsa hues of rainbow chard with colorful summer zinnias may create a beautiful and tasty composition but it does not a garden make. Given the importance of woody plants in good garden design and my continuing effort to break down the boundaries between the ornamental and edible landscape, I investigated garden worthy, fruit-bearing trees and shrubs that offer form as well as a function in the garden. I’ve been pleasantly surprised at some of my findings and thrilled by the possibilities.

As for my corydalis collection, I think I’ll place them at the base of my ‘Forest Pansy’ redbud. Their charming, if fleeting, blooms will blend nicely with colorful waves of spring bulbs and other early season perennials, climaxing in April when flowers appear along the redbud’s graceful branches spangling the plants beneath them with a confetti of pink flowers, not unlike the sprinkles on a cupcake. Not only are these tiny blossoms a valuable nectar source for bees, but they are a delectable and decorative addition to spring salads and desserts.

In addition to apple, pear, cherry and other fruit trees, consider including some of the following trees or shrubs in your productive landscape:

Bamboo (Phyllostachys sp.) 
Full sun to part shade, moist soil, these woody evergreen grasses can reach 25 feet tall. Harvest new shoots in early spring. Consult a bamboo specialist for the tastiest shooting varieties.

Common blueberry (Vaccinium sp.) Full sun for best fruiting, height and habit varies with cultivar; good hedge plant, delicious summer berries.

Crabapple (Malus sp.) 
Full sun to partial shade, height and habit varies with cultivar, deciduous; abundant and showy spring flowers are followed by beautifully colorful fall fruit.

Eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis) Full sun to part shade, height to 20 feet with a broad flat crown, deciduous; spring flowers are edible.

Evergreen huckleberry (Vaccinium ovatum) Tolerates shade, growing six to eight feet without pruning; grows to just three feet in full sun, evergreen; late summer harvest of sweet/tart blue-black berries.

Fig (Ficus carica) Full sun, height to 25 feet but can be kept smaller with pruning, deciduous; late summer harvest.

Gooseberries and currants (Ribes sp.) Full sun to part shade, these deciduous shrub grow four to six feet tall; beautiful flowers and delicious jewel-colored fruit in summer.

Himalayan huckleberry (Vaccinium glauco album) Partial shade, this evergreen grows three feet tall and equally wide; late summer harvest of blue-black berries with a sharp flavor.

Persimmon (Diosporyus sp.) 
Full sun, Asian varieties to 15 feet, American varieties to 35 feet although they may be kept smaller with pruning, deciduous; gorgeous orange fruit ripens in the fall.

Pineapple guava (Feijoa sellowiana) Full sun, multi-stemmed evergreen shrub grows eight to ten feet tall; Raintree Nursery says the spring flowers taste like “cinnamon cotton candy.” Two-inch silver fruit with a tropical flavor ripen only in our warmest regions.

Quince (Cydonia oblonga) Full sun, height 20–25 feet, deciduous; closely related to apples and pears, the bright gold, fuzzy and strongly fragrant fruit ripens in late fall.

Rugosa Rose (Rosa rugosa) 
Full sun to part shade, four to six feet tall; excellent as a deciduous flowering hedge, harvest fleshy hips in the fall.

Serviceberry (Amelanchier grandiflora) Full sun to part shade, single or multi-stemmed tree fifteen to twenty feet, deciduous with excellent fall color; this Northwest native bears large, red berries in July.

Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens) Full to part shade, creeping evergreen groundcover to six inches tall; bright red pithy berries begin to ripen in August. Both berries and leaves taste strongly of wintergreen Lifesaver candy.

Chokeberry (Aronia sp.) 
Full sun to part shade, a sprawling deciduous shrub five to six feet tall and as wide, deciduous with beautiful fall color; berries ripen in fall and like cranberries are tart, astringent and very high in vitamin C.

Elderberry (Sambucus sp.)
Full sun to part shade, a deciduous suckering shrub to twenty feet, several cultivars with ornamental foliage; spring flowers may be steeped in wine or prepared as a fritter; blue, black or golden berries ripen in late summer.

In addition to these suggestions, consider columnar forms of apple and pear trees, woody herbs and fruiting vines as you create a garden of ornamental beauty and fruitful abundance.

Lorene Edwards Forkner is a freelance writer and garden designer at Her latest book Growing Your Own Vegetables, an Encyclopedia of Country Living Guide is now in print from Sasquatch Books.



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