Over the years I’ve had many conversations like this:
ME: “What’s this plant?”
FRIEND: “It’s a [insert name of ornamental].”
ME: “Can you eat it?”
FRIEND: “I don’t think so.”
ME: “What about this one?”
ME: “This one?”
ME: “WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU? DON’T YOU HAVE ANYTHING USEFUL IN YOUR YARD? YOU’RE NOT MY FRIEND ANY MORE!!!”
Okay, that’s an exaggeration. I have plenty of friends that grow ornamental rather than edible plants. I just don’t like it when they move into my neighborhood.
Yet recently, I’ve softened a little in my stance on ornamental plants. Don’t get me wrong: I really think it’s foolish to fill your yard with plants and grass that can’t feed you.
Seriously: if you don’t have at least a dozen edible and easy-to-grow plants in your yard, you’re wasting your property.
Once you have a good set of edible vegetables and fruit, however, it might be time to think about “supporting” those plants with other plants that may not be edible.
What do I mean?
Creation contains a complex web of interactions between widely divergent species.
For instance, here in Florida, we have gopher tortoises: according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, their burrows may be shared with more than 350 other species!
Plants and trees are the same way. It’s rare to see just one type of plant growing alone, yet we humans have a “thing” for planting blocks of plants together. Look at our lawns… our pine tree farms… our cornfields… even our vegetable gardens!
In Creation, you won’t see one thing growing without other species around it. A perfect lawn with a sycamore tree in the middle is NOT a healthy or robust ecosystem, though it may look nice.
A robust ecosystem contains many hiding places and food sources for beetles, reptiles, toads, birds, and bees. It contains a diversity of plant species, ranging from poisonous to delicious. It contains mushrooms, fallen logs, rocks, drifts of leaves and predators.
Together, these things balance out problems. One insect eats another… one plant provides nitrogen; another provides an abundance of growth that feeds the soil when it freezes in the winter. Fallen wood feeds soil fungi, which in turn feed the roots of nearby plants.
A large mix of species also keeps disease and pests in check. A swath of a single species looks like a buffet to hungry caterpillars, yet a mix of plants confuses them and allows places for caterpillar-eating predators to hide.
With this in mind, I have to confess: I’ve started adding some “ornamental” plants to my acre of gardening projects.
If they attract the butterflies and the bees (like sweet almond verbena), I want them. If they grow rapidly and can be cut back to make compost (like Mexican sunflower), great. If they fix nitrogen with their roots (like Siberian pea shrub), wonderful.
This “powderpuff tree” is a popular ornamental in warm climates. It’s also an insectary plant and a nitrogen fixer.
The problem is, most of us have concentrated on growing pretty things and forgotten how to grow our own food. We buy heavily sprayed berries from the grocery store rather than planting a mulberry tree. We eat e. coli-laced spinach greens from a thousand miles away rather than plant a few pots of organic greens on our porch.
This is foolishness!
Plant some edible species first. After you do that, give them those plants some support by planting useful ornamental plants. I also like to plant native species that bring in our indigenous creatures.
Native plant nurseries are a great source for plants. One of my favorites in North Florida is Taylor Gardens Nursery… I’ve picked up some great buys there.
Wherever you get your plants, make sure you scatter them about like they live in nature. Plant some herbs and onions around your pear tree… put a bottlebrush near your citrus… plant cassia by your loquat. The mix of species helps all the plants grow and keeps the air filled with the pollinating insects that ensure bountiful harvests of fruits and vegetables.
Many ornamental plants have more than one use. Some are even edible. When combined with your fruit, nuts, and vegetables, they can be a worthwhile addition to your homestead – not a worthless waste of space.
Just don’t plant only ornamentals or I’ll mock you in one of my posts.