Does edible landscaping belong in the public sphere, which is to say in the landscapes owned by cities, businesses, and in multifamily housing like apartment buildings? It sounds like a great idea, and if asked, I think most people would give an unqualified and enthusiastic “yes”!
However, there are a lot of considerations with edible landscaping that actually make it really challenging to do well under industrial circumstances, and edible landscaping has the potential to cause problems in these types of settings if it isn’t implemented thoughtfully, particularly for businesses.
Some of you may know that I serve on my city’s Design Review Commission, where we look at, modify, and approve commercial and multifamily building projects (including landscaping) with the goal of helping our city’s regional and cultural identity flourish. Because Arcata is such a forward-thinking place to live, our land use code specifies that no less than 50% of the landscaping for these types of sites be comprised of either native plants or waterwise plants. Recently, there was some discussion about whether edible plants should be included in that 50% requirement, because growing your own organic food can and should be considered a very environmentally-friendly thing to do.
When I first thought about this issue, I felt really positively about recognizing the role that edible plants play in giving people a feeling of connection to the landscaping, as well as the environmental benefits involved in reducing the amount of food shipped from across the state or even across the world. It’s easy for me to imagine that somebody might walk outside at lunchtime during a particularly busy day, grab a few pieces of fruit, and avoid the fast food drive-through. Imagine that scenario multiplied all over town and all over the country, and you can see that edible landscaping has the potential to make an enormous difference on our health, the connection we feel to our surroundings, and on the environment.
However, when I started thinking more deeply about it, I realized the issue isn’t as simple as it might seem. The landscaping for cities, businesses, and apartment buildings is used in much different ways (and is maintained in much different ways) than are our home gardens. While I don’t want to sound negative towards edible landscaping, I think it’s important to be as honest about the drawbacks as we are about the benefits, so that when people do use edibles in these types of settings, they have a greater chance of doing so successfully.
Problems with edible landscaping in the public sphere:
Rot and vermin
People can be so disconnected from the natural world nowadays. You wouldn’t think the bounty from a fruit tree could be ignored and left to rot in a busy parking lot, but I’ve seen it myself, and have concluded that a number of things can lead to just that situation.
First, some people are so unfamiliar with how our food looks when it’s growing that they can be staring an apple in the face and be unsure of whether it’s as safe to eat as something at the supermarket.
Secondly, nobody likes to feel like a thief, so if it’s unclear to people whether or not they are allowed to take some fruit, the majority of people would lean towards not taking it.
Third, all of that fruit comes on so fast that even if 20 employees are having an apple or two every day, it’s not nearly enough to keep up with the flow from just one tree. Once fruit drops on the ground in a somewhat public setting, nobody is inclined to eat it except for rats and other vermin, which makes it into a maintenance and health hazard.
Another issue that most people don’t think about is liability. If people are wandering around in the landscaped beds rather than on the stable concrete surface of the pathway, there’s a lot more potential for people to trip and become injured. This concern is multiplied if there’s any rotten fruit left on the ground that may have become supernaturally slippery.
Homeless and other foot traffic
In areas with a large homeless population, some businesses would prefer to do whatever they can to discourage homeless people from loitering near their customers’ vehicles or near the windows of the business.
I’ve also witnessed some issues with homeless people behaving like my chickens when faced with free fruit – often times people will take a bite or two and then throw the fruit on the ground, sometimes littering walkways, drains, and the concrete surfaces of parking lots which can become dangerous when littered with organic material. For whatever reason, this behavior may be repeated multiple times. I’m not entirely sure what leads either human beings or my chickens to take a single bite out of 10 different pieces of fruit and then leave the rest to rot, but it does happen.
While there are some edible plants that are 100% suitable for landscaping, don’t make a mess, and don’t need much special care, the fact remains that the majority of edibles do need some level of extra maintenance in order to perform well and not suffer from disease issues.
For example, fruit trees benefit from winter pruning and a few applications of dormant oil and organic fungicide each winter. While I personally am unbothered by blemishes on a piece of organic fruit, most businesses wouldn’t find it easy to encourage people to pick a bucket of spotty apples. We’ve gotten spoiled by the pesticide-laden fare at the supermarket which looks perfect, and people think there’s something wrong with an apple having a couple of spots.
Beyond that, there’s the simple issue that it takes a lot of energy for a plant to create fruit year after year. In home gardens, we add compost, maybe a little organic fertilizer, and generally provide good care to our plants. In a more commercial setting, there may be foot traffic compacting the soil, irrigation is often turned off after the first few years, the contractor may have used landscaping fabric which slowly contributes to the depletion of nutrients from the soil, and the landscape may even be “mulched” with rocks, which shatters fruit as soon as it drops. And I’ve never seen a commercial landscape that was top-dressed with compost after the initial installation. Never. That is a challenging life for a plant from which you are asking so much.
Benefits of edible landscaping in the public sphere:
Now that I’ve depressed you by talking about the potential problems, let’s talk about the benefits that edible landscaping can contribute to a cityscape, business, or apartment setting.
A positive company culture
Have you ever worked in a soul-sucking cubicle, with people who don’t seem to like each other much, all trooping along to meetings and CCing one another on pointless and exhausting emails? Well, I haven’t, but I’ve certainly heard rumors. Now imagine the following scenarios at this company:
- Your boss ends a meeting by saying, “And I just wanted to let you all know that the pears in the parking lot are ready for picking, and there are bags and boxes in the break room. Please take as much as you can use.”
- An email from the CEO that reads, “The blueberries are ripening and should be going for another two months, so please help yourself. And by the way, here’s a recipe for a great blueberry coffee cake!”
- Sitting at your desk, too busy to run out to lunch, and your coworker brings back a bag full of plums and offers some to you.
- In the break room, a constant summer stream of homemade galettes, pies, and fruity muffins brought in to share by industrious coworkers.
- Hearing the enthusiastic “thanks!” from friends and relatives when you bring them a bag full of fresh lemons, apples, or a homemade pie made with the free fruit from your office.
Wouldn’t you feel just a little bit better about your job, and your boss, and your coworkers?
This type of generosity can extend to customers and clients, too. I don’t know about you, but if my chiropractor or yoga teacher ended each session by encouraging me to grab a bag on the way out and pick some fruit, that’s an experience and a business that I would go out of my way to talk about.
Or, if a local business had a poster on the wall with a running tally showing how many bushels of fruit they’d donated to the local food bank each year, I’d feel cheered and encouraged to think that I was supporting a company that is truly a part of my local community. There are even volunteer groups, at least in my community, that will come and harvest the fruit for you if you’re donating it to the hungry.
Keep tenants longer
Imagine living in an apartment building with a small community garden area of raised vegetable beds available for tenants to use. And imagine that the surrounding landscaped areas had a combination of low-maintenance fruit trees and berry bushes for people to pick, even if they didn’t have the time or inclination to plant up a veggie plot.
People living in apartment buildings often have a low income, so offering these kinds of small benefits is an amazing way of encouraging a positive sense of community as well as a healthier lifestyle. Even people who don’t take advantage of the opportunity to grow and pick their own fresh food would feel better about their lives knowing the option was open to them. I would assume that a happy tenant would stay much longer than they might have otherwise, and treat the property with more care.
A connection with the business
Restaurants and bars have a particularly good excuse to incorporate some edibles into the landscaping. We’ve all seen wineries with gardens lovely enough to attract visitors, but breweries, upscale bars, and any kind of restaurant can incorporate edibles as either a conversation piece or to be used as actual food to serve customers.
I’ve seen photos of a bar in Seattle with a funky vertical cocktail garden on the patio housing a variety of herbal garnishes and berries. Some breweries grow hops along decorative trellising in outdoor seating areas. And locally, there’s a bed and breakfast with a small but highly productive vegetable garden that guests enjoy strolling. The daily menu always includes a little something from the garden, even if it’s just herbs.
Anytime you can connect your business with a sensory experience in that way, it gives people an excuse to visit, bring friends, and tell people about it. Not to mention that it’s a great excuse to invite your local media to run occasional stories about your business. That’s certainly worth the bit of extra time and care taken with edible landscaping, isn’t it?
You can see that landscaping in a somewhat public arena is more complex than it may seem initially, but I believe that if it’s done well, it has enormous potential to improve how people feel in their everyday lives, relate to the businesses they frequent, and develop warm relationships between businesses and their employees, or landlords and their tenants.
When you imagine these benefits multiplied across the country, edible landscaping has a real potential to make a difference to our environment (less pesticide runoff, since most people will eat supermarket produce but won’t spray pesticides on the food they grow), air quality (less gas used shipping food in from all over), and health (I’m more likely to eat fresh produce when it’s convenient and free).
However, I think we’ll only get there if edible landscaping can be used with clear eyes and a strong understanding of exactly what challenges it may pose. If a commercial or multifamily building project installs edible landscaping without fully understanding what they’re entering into, they’re more likely to rip out that failed experiment after a few years and be less open to trying new things in the future. A starry-eyed beginning has the potential to relegate edible landscaping in commercial settings to a short-lived trend, which doesn’t benefit anybody.
***Note: the thoughts stated here are my own and are not to be confused with policies or opinions of the City of Arcata or the Design Review Commission.***
Photo at top courtesy Janette Heartwood.