A landscape that includes perennial and annual flowers and plants along with its trees and shrubs can enhance any home. When that landscape also includes edibles, the benefits increase.
“We’re definitely seeing an uptick of people growing food,” says Gardens of Babylon landscape designer Ryan Fogarty. “Ever since the pandemic, people have been growing more of their own food, so they know where it comes from,” she says. “We’ve had significantly more raised-bed garden installations since the pandemic began.” As the cost of food rises, the amount of those growing and preparing food at home rises as well.
Start with a plan to add edibles into your landscape
To include food in your landscape, start by assessing the conditions in your environment and what you hope to grow. Consider the amount of space you have, and whether you want to grow a garden in the ground or in one or more raised beds. Also note where the sun comes in and where you have shade. “Pretty much every edible, whether it’s trees or blueberries or herbs or vegetables, is going to need full sun to do its best,” Ryan says.
When you begin to think about what to include in your landscape, consider plants that serve a dual purpose: ornamentals that look good all year and that produce something you can eat. Here are a few that Ryan suggests:
Trees and shrubs
Serviceberry. This large shrub or a small tree blooms with white flowers early in the spring and produces fruit in early summer that is similar to blueberries in size and taste. In fall, the foliage of Amelanchier turns bright yellow, orange and red, and its gray bark stands out against a stark winter background.
Fig. The fruit of Ficus is a sweet treat when it ripens in the summer. ‘Brown Turkey’ is a variety that is hardy enough to survive a typical winter in Middle Tennessee. If there’s not room for a full-size fig tree in your landscape, Ryan suggests the dwarf variety ‘Little Miss Figgy,’ which tops out at 4 – 6 feet and can be grown in a pot.
Blueberry. These shrubs are not maintenance-free, but can provide a satisfying crop of tasty berries if the right conditions are met. Blueberries grow best in acidic soil that drains well, so soil preparation at the outset is key. Once established, your biggest problem may be finding a way to keep some for yourself while sharing with the birds that will inevitably find them.
Blackberry and raspberry. These are the most common types of plants horticulturists call “brambles.” Both are often grown as hedgerows, may benefit from trellis structures to keep the berries off the ground, and require regular pruning. They should also be planted away from potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant or strawberries, which are all prone to similar disease problems.
Herbs and vegetables
Thyme. As a landscape plant, creeping varieties can be an effective groundcover between stepping stones. In the kitchen, use thyme in cooking meats, sauces, soups, stews and vegetables.
Rosemary. The popular culinary herb grows as a small, spiky shrub that can be a good backdrop for other low-growing plants. Not all varieties are reliably hardy in Middle Tennessee, but ‘Arp’ and ‘Tuscan Blue’ are two that will likely withstand winter here if planted in a protected location.
Vegetables. A garden will always be evolving, Ryan says, and a garden bed of perennials may have space to include edible annuals that die at the end of the season. Think about adding vegetables or herbs that have a tidy growing habit, such as lettuce, spinach and kale in late winter and spring, changing those out to plant summer favorites such as basil, peppers or okra.
A final note: Gardens of Babylon offers a Personal Farmer service to help you plan your garden. “We give you what you want and what we know will do well,” Ryan says.
This may be the spring you get serious about planting a kitchen garden. But where to start? Beginning gardeners often find that culinary herbs are a good way to dip a toe into the soil. They are easy to grow, most are forgiving of beginner mistakes, and you can use them to flavor meals now and preserve some for use after summer ends.
Here are five easy-to-grow, almost fool-proof favorites for the garden. They can also grow in containers on a sunny deck, porch or balcony. Most of these are perennials, which will remain in your garden for several years.
Needs: Warmth, sun, well-drained soil. Water regularly.
Varieties: Sweet basil is the most well-known and most often used for cooking, but there are different varieties with distinctive colors and flavors, including, lemon basil, Thai basil and others.
Use in: Pasta sauces and salads, with mild cheeses, in rice dishes, and to make pesto.
Note: Basil is very tender and will be killed by cold temperatures, so plant it after the temperature is consistently warm. Basil is an annual, but if you let it flower and go to seed in the fall, the seeds will drop to the ground and may sprout next year when the ground warms. At the end of the season, make basil pesto and freeze it in small batches to use in cooking throughout fall and winter.
Needs: Well-drained soil in a sunny location; water regularly.
Varieties: Garlic, onion and Chinese chives are all easy to grow. Garlic and onion chives have tubular leaves; Chinese broadleaf chives’ leaves are flatter. All are mild-flavored members of the onion family.
Use in: Eggs, salads, soups, potatoes, broiled meat or fish. Chinese broadleaf chives are especially good for stir-fries.
Note: Clip the leaves to use as needed. Cut chives can last in the fridge for a few days; for longer storage, chop them and store them in the freezer. This hardy perennial grows from bulbs, and may need to be dug up and divided every few years.
Needs: Well-drained soil in a sunny location.
Varieties: This is a tender shrub that may be damaged during extended extremely cold periods. Some varieties are hardier than others. ‘Arp’ is a variety that usually does well in Middle Tennessee winters, but most will survive if planted in a protected area.
Use in: Meat, chicken and lamb dishes, fish, casseroles, tomato sauces, egg dishes, vinegars and oils.
Note: Rosemary is evergreen, so you can use fresh leaves all winter if the plant doesn’t succumb to extremely cold weather.
Needs: Well-drained soil, but thyme is tolerant of poor soil and dry weather.
Varieties: There are many species and different “flavors,” but English thyme is a popular choice for use in the kitchen.
Use in: Stews, stocks and marinades, stuffing, sauces, herb butters, oils and vinegars.
Note: Some thyme varieties are upright, some have a creeping habit. Trim thyme often to keep it from becoming woody.
Needs: Well-drained soil in a sunny location, but will also grow in partial shade.
Varieties: Some species are more flavorful than others, so choose carefully. Italian oregano, a milder-flavored herb, is a good choice. Greek oregano has a stronger flavor.
Use in: pizza, meat, tomato dishes, vegetables, oils and vinegars.
Note: Pick the leaves whenever you want to use them for cooking. They can also be dried or frozen, so if you plan to preserve them, harvest the leaves right before the plant blooms, when the flavor is more concentrated.
At Christmas a few years ago, we bought a rose bush to commemorate a special family member who had died that year. It’s a variety called ‘Sunshine Daydream,’ and each mid-spring it fills an area beside our backyard deck with beautiful yellow blooms that do, in fact, invite anyone passing by to stop and smell the roses.
Full disclosure here: I am not an expert on roses. In fact, because my landscape is rich with large shade trees and roses need a lot of sun, I have resisted trying to grow them. This one rose bush is planted in what I believe must be the sunniest spot on the entire property.
But because I want this rose to thrive, I turn to my trusted sources to learn about its care, feeding and pruning. Here’s what the say about growing roses in your landscape:
First, know your rose
There is a wide range of types of roses – climbers, hybrid teas, grandifloras, floribundas; drift roses that can be groundcovers, shrub roses that may be grown in masses, miniatures that can grow in containers.
The climbing roses can be stunning as they frame a doorway or cover a trellis; groundcover roses can tumble down a bank or sloped yard; hybrid tea and grandiflora varieties can be the stars of formal cutting gardens.
All need the same basic care: full to part sun (at least six hours of sunshine each day), adequate water, well-drained soil, attention to fertilizing, and proper pruning at the appropriate times for the best production of blooms.
New plants are available as container-grown plants or bare-root roses sold as dormant plants. The best planting time is in spring before the worst of the summer heat arrives.
Planting and feeding roses
Dig the planting bed deeply and fold in compost or other organic matter to improve dense clay or overly sandy soil. Before planting a bare-root rose, let the plant sit in water for a couple of days to freshen the roots and canes. Plant container-grown roses at the level they grew in the nursery pot. Water deeply, and cover the soil with mulch without piling mulch against the stems.
For regular watering, sprinklers may serve double-duty by washing away some of the pests that visit roses – aphids and spider mites, for example – while it soaks the soil, but it also may encourage blackspot, a common disease that affects the plants. Water with sprinklers early in the day to allow the foliage to dry off quickly.
Some roses don’t need regular fertilizer, but many of the repeat blooming varieties benefit from regular feeding and produce more abundant blooms. Stop feeding in late summer, since any new canes that result from vigorous growth could be damaged by early frosts. Dry, slow-release fertilizer made for roses, such as Espoma Rose Tone, is a good choice. Liquid fertilizer may be applied on the ground and also sprayed on the foliage. Always follow package directions for the fertilizer you choose.
As for everyday care: You’ll enjoy your abundance of roses more if you clip off the spent blooms as they begin to fade, and cutting them back to a five-leaf leaf on the cane encourages new growth. Keep the ground clean in the rose bed, because debris left around the rose can play host to insects and disease.
The best time to prune a rose bush to promote strong growth is early in the year, near the end of the dormant season. I prune our ‘Sunshine Daydream’ each year in December or January, before new leaves begin to sprout.
A lot of creatures besides the gardener are attracted to rose bushes. Aphids, Japanese beetles, spider mites and thrips are common pests. Encouraging the beneficial insects to come around (or not shooing them away) can help keep the damaging insects at bay. It’s best to avoid using pesticides that kill everything, because they kill the beneficial insects as well. In my landscape, Japanese beetles have become recent but annoying visitors that chew holes in the perfect rose petals and leaves. I keep a bucket of soapy water nearby, and flick the bugs off the rose bush into the bucket whenever I see them.
Roses are also susceptible to powdery mildew and to blackspot. Natural products such as Neem oil can be effective if applied before early, and re-applied throughout the season.
Rose rosette disease is a virus that has begun to affect roses within the past couple of decades, spread by tiny mites that blow in on the wind. Watch for bright red shoots that will grow into distorted canes commonly called witches’ broom. As the virus spreads throughout the plant, it will gradually die back until it is completely dead. You may be able to slow down rose rosette disease by cutting off the bright red sprouts as they appear. Some experts suggest digging up the infected bush and getting rid of it, though, so it won’t spread the disease to other roses in the garden.
A gardener whose landscape spaces are overshadowed by mature trees may have mixed feelings about this: there’s plenty of shade to relax in on a hot July day, Right? But just try to grow a rosebush – or any of those much-loved perennials that need abundant sunshine — in that shady garden. You are facing frustration.
Unless you want to lose the trees (which, in my opinion, you most definitely do not!) you may have to re-think what will thrive in your shaded spaces. Fortunately, there are many choices of shade-tolerant and shade-loving perennials to grow for color and texture in your landscape. Here are 10 that should thrive in shady garden beds.
First, define “Shade”
What’s the quality of the shade in your landscape? Part shade/part sun? Light shade? Full shade? Information from Tennessee Master Gardeners provides straightforward explanations:
Part Shade (or semi-shade, half shade) means the garden gets full sun part of the day and full shade part of the day.
Light shade is what some also call dappled shade, the “moving” light and shadows made by the sun filtering through the leaves of deciduous trees.
Full shade means that direct sunlight never reaches a plant’s leaves. This is probably the most easily understood, but the most difficult place for plants to thrive. Even so, there are plants that flourish in full shade.
Perennial favorites for part shade
Astilbe. Some gardeners call this plant false spirea; others may call it meadowsweet. It has fern-like foliage and blooms in feathery white, pink, peach, red or purple plumes. This plant can be a mainstay in your partly shady spaces where the soil is moist (but not soggy), or where you’re most likely to keep it watered; Astilbe hybrids don’t care for dry soil.
Bleeding Heart. Despite the name, bleeding hearts may evoke a smile when they bloom in your part-shade beds. The flowers of Dicentra (its botanical name) resemble a string of pink or white heart-shaped charms that dangle from long, curved stems. They do best in moist, fertile soil. Early- to mid-spring is their moment to shine; after the flowers are gone, the foliage remains until about mid-summer when it, too, fades away.
Columbine. This is another delicate, early-spring blooming plant that thrives in part to light shade. Aquilegia flowers may be red, yellow, pink, purple, white or bi-colored, and a bed of color combinations planted in masses can look like a party. A downside is that they may be susceptible to leaf miners, tiny insects that burrow into the foliage. They are also short-lived, and may need to be planted every few years.
Hellebore. Not only is Helleborus good for shady spaces, it has the bonus feature of being evergreen and blooming in the winter when everything else is taking a break. You may know of it as Lenten rose, referring to its’ blooming generally around the religious season of Lent – and in our region, much earlier. The sturdy foliage supports nodding flowers that are available in a range of shades from creamy white to lime green, yellow, pink, plum, purple and black. Another bonus: after flowering, those blooms, though fading, stay on the plants well into spring.
Hosta. There are hundreds of varieties of Hosta, from very small to very large, in various shades of green and gold to deep green, blue-green or variegated, with spreading or upright habits. All prefer moist soil, some tolerate a moderate amount of sun, as well, as long as they get sufficient water. Their flowers are tall, sometimes fragrant spikes, but really, it’s hosta’s foliage that stands out in a landscape. Hostas also grow well in containers.
Heuchera. This shade-lover, also commonly called coral bells and alumroot, is another perennial that is a reliable presence in Middle Tennessee gardens. The flowers in late spring are small, but it’s the foliage of Heuchera sanguinea that provides the most interest. The plant grows in mounds of pretty leaves in shades that range from metallic silver to purple to chocolate brown. Heuchera thrives in rich, moist soil in that light shade; too much sun during summer will cause those colors to fade.
Solomon’s Seal. In early spring, upright colonies of Polygonatum blooming with rows of tiny, creamy white bell-shaped flowers is a charming sight. After the flowers fade, you still have handsome, sturdy plants whose green leaves with white margins stand out in a shady bed. As summer moves into fall, the leaves slowly fade to lemon yellow, and by winter, the stalks and leaves disappear but return reliably the following spring. Note: Solomon’s seal that is native to the U.S. has solid green foliage; the variegated species that you find in most garden centers is from Asia.
These are fine in full shade
Aucuba. If we can include one shrub in this list, let it be Aucuba japonica, an evergreen shrub that has large, glossy leaves dusted with yellow-white splotches. Aucuba grows fairly quickly, can reach 4 to 8 feet, and tolerates dry soil. If you like the look, it’s a good choice for foundation plantings and informal gardens.
Ajuga. This plant, commonly called bugleweed, is a good groundcover for a full-shade area. Ajuga reptans will spread by runners to form a low-growing carpet of foliage and send up whorls of tiny blue-purple or white flowers each spring. The most attractive for landscapes has glossy purple or copper-colored foliage, adding another layer of interest.
Ferns. In an area that’s not only shady but moist, ferns are a solid choice for adding texture and interest to the landscape. There are several species of hardy ferns that are perennials (don’t confuse them with ‘Boston’ or ‘Kimberly Queen’ varieties, which will not survive winter outdoors). Holly fern (Cyrtomium falcatum), Japanese painted fern (Athyrium niponicum var. pictum) and Autumn fern (Dryopteris erythrosora) are three that return and grow year after year.
A lush, green lawn is a thing of beauty, but that beauty often comes with a cost: When it takes repeated application of chemicals to keep it green and growing, without the consideration of transitioning to more sustainable lawn care practices, the soil – and the environment in general – suffers.
Sustainable lawn care solutions are not out of reach, though. Gardens of Babylon’s new Lawn Care Programs focus on creating better alternatives to typical lawn care treatments. Naturally based fertilizers, along with a common sense longer term management approach are what allow patchy, weedy lawns to become thick and green, while keeping the environment in mind. Gardens of Babylon’s Matt Kerske tells how:
Where to Begin
It all begins with the soil, of course. If the lawn is trying to grow in soil that lacks biological and nutrient vitality, it may only grow the most vigorous plants – what we often call “weeds.”
“It’s no secret that grass is a plant, like any other plant,” Kerske says. “You can’t really build a lawn of thick, healthy grass without building a healthy soil. To get a healthy stand of turf, it requires a good understanding of the overall soil health and biology.”
The first step, then, is doing a soil test to find out of actual composition of the soil. This test measures the soil’s pH level and points out nutrient deficiencies, and is the best way to know the next steps to take to improve the growing conditions in your landscape.
“We focus on the biology in the soil,” Kerske says. “When we can balance the biology with the good microbes in the soil, we make the plants more resistant to diseases and pests, and you can have less of a weed problem.”
What we do
The service begins with a consultation and the soil test to first determine the nutrient levels and deficiencies, and make recommendations for addressing those deficiencies. A soil compaction test is also performed. “Making those recommendations, we build from there,” Kerske says.
Because each lawn and customer is different, the specialist designs a custom lawn care program with a long term focus on natural fertilizer, biological soil treatments, and herbicide applications. The service includes several visits each year, with the plan implemented in steps.
“During those visits staged throughout the year, we apply a combination of naturally based fertilizers and natural or conventional herbicides, depending on what type of lawn program the customer has chosen.”
In some cases, Kerske says, depending on the customer preference, a Bridge Program, using conventional herbicides, may be recommended at the beginning to help “Bridge” the transition to more sustainable lawn care practices. “For some harder to kill perennial weeds in warm season lawns” – he mentions dallisgrass and nutsedge, among others – “there are really no organic herbicides to eliminate them, so we selectively use conventional herbicides to first knock out the invasive weeds, then transition to an application of naturally based herbicides in coming years as the program renews.”
“How we differ from others is that most companies blanket-apply conventional herbicides multiple times every year,” he says. “Ours is a more reasonable approach.”
The program can be designed for any lawn, “But is especially attractive to customers who are wanting a lush, healthy lawn and have a bias toward more environmentally sound practices.” Kerske says.
Lawn programs like this allow you to enjoy a beautiful, sustainably cared-for lawn year-round, without the trouble or time-investment of doing it yourself.