​How to Cash in on an Edible Landscape

About 100 square feet of food-producing plants can save $1,000 a year in grocery bills. by Tom Oder

GROWING MONEY: Try blueberry bushes instead of azaleas and ground covers like strawberries instead of ivy — and you'll be off and running with your edible landscape.

Is your lawn eating you alive with maintenance expenses? Lawns, after all, are costly. They account for 50 percent of all residential water bills nationally, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Then there’s the price of fertilizers, fungicides, algaecides, pesticides and other lawn care products and equipment.You can reverse the cash flow by eating your lawn instead of having it eat you.Seriously.

There is a nationwide trend of turning lawns into multi-dimensional edible landscapes, said Lindsey Mann, owner of Sustenance Design in Decatur, Ga.“While there were no edible landscaping companies in the Atlanta area prior to us starting in 2006, now there are several,” she said. “The same is true in other cities all over the nation.”

The benefit of turning a lawn into an edible landscape is that a family of four can save $1,000 a year by devoting just 100 square feet of the yard to planting edibles, contends Mann. And, it doesn’t even have to be contiguous space, she adds.

To emphasize her point about cost-saving, she says to think about grocery store prices of strawberries, raspberries and blackberries. Think, too, she suggests, about the price of small plastic containers of herbs or the sticker shock you may get from the cost of melons shipped from a farm somewhere in Central America.

Is an edible landscape a concept you haven’t considered or is it one you have thought about and discarded because you were afraid your field of dreams might be your neighbor’s worst nightmare?

If the answer to either of those questions is "yes," here’s a guide to how growing edible plants can put money back into your pocket and make the look of your property the envy of those on your street.

What is an edible landscape?

First, it’s worth noting what it’s not. It’s neither a vegetable garden nor a cornfield outside the front door. An edible landscape is an attractive way of planting a yard with valuable resources that feed and nourish the family with wholesome, fresh produce, including fruits, vegetables and herbs.

What does multi-dimensional mean?

Think of vertical layers, from ground covers to bushes to trees.

What are examples of edible plants?

  • Strawberries: They can be substituted for ground covers such as ivy or pachysandra.
  • Creeping thyme: An ideal herb for placing between stepping stones.
  • Blueberry bushes: They are a popular choice to replace accent plants such as azaleas.
  • Blackberries: Tasty thorn-less varieties can ramble along a fence.
  • Fruit trees: Peach, pear or apple trees bear fruit, unlike the commonly used non-fruit-bearing Bradford pear.
  • Pineapple guava trees: Edible landscapes are anything but boring, especially when they include varieties not often seen in groceries. Pineapple guava is hardy to USDA Zone 8 (hardy 10 degrees F) and the flowers are stunning.
  • Vegetables, including cool-season and winter vegetables, can be tucked among the edible plants in different areas or sited singularly to capture optimum sunlight.

Make it pretty!

Regional native plants, including wildflowers, can be strategically located among the edibles to add color and contrasting textures. They also will attract pollinators that will visit the vegetables.Native plantstend to adapt better than hybrids to the harsh conditions of summer heat or winter freezes.

Are edible landscapes really a good value?

While there are many ways to measure value, monetary value usually seems to be the No. 1 consideration.

Here are yields for just a few of the many popular and easy-to-grow home vegetables fruit and their dollar value. The value is based on prices at a grocery store in Atlanta that is part of a chain of Southeastern groceries. The yield assumes a 10-foot row, properly amended soil, at least six hours of sun, an adequate amount of rain and that homeowners harvest the crops before the rabbits, chipmunks, squirrels, raccoons or birds! The yield for blueberries is for a mature, 6-year-old plant.

Vegetable Yields/lbs. per year Store price per pound Total annual value
Asparagus 3-4 $2.99 $8.97 - $11.96
Beans (snap) 3-5 $1.99 $5.97 - $9.95
Cucumber 8-10 $1.49 $11.92 - $14.90
Squash 20-80 $1.69 $33.80 - $135.20
Potatoes 6-15 $3.29 $19.47 - $49.35
Tomatoes 15-45 $1.69 $25.35 - $76.05
Other Yield Store price per unit Total value
Blueberries (gallons) 2 $4.98 per half pint $159.68

The exact dollar value of an edible landscape is difficult, if not impossible, to measure. There are, of course, negative costs of installation, some of which are one-time expenses, and those of annual maintenance, especially in years of drought. And a CPA might want to factor in positive cost benefits of fuel savings for grocery trips or attach a negative value to the time spent in the garden.

But for many home gardeners, having the grocery produce “aisle” outside the front or back door and knowing that the food being served to family or guests is organically grown is a labor of love for which the intrinsic value far outweighs any monetary costs. Then, of course, there is the immeasurable value of how much better home-grown food tastes than that which may have been picked before its prime and shipped thousands of miles.

What will the neighbors say?

If you share, or invite them to pick some for themselves, probably not much.

What about zoning

The desire for sustainability is causing changes in covenants and zoning across the country, Mann said.

Bottom line

An edible landscape can begin reversing the cash flow of a grass lawn not only within the first year, but within the first few months, according to Mann. The rate of return will increase through the years once the start-up costs have been paid and the fruit trees mature and start producing. Freezing or canning surplus summer harvests can extend the savings into cold weather months. Of course, winter vegetables can be grown when the summer ones are pulled up, making the edible landscape a year-round producer. And don’t forget another intrinsic value, Mann adds. Edible landscapes can become an educational haven for children and help to teach them lifelong healthy eating habits.