Happy June everyone. It's Brie the Plant Lady, excited to share a blog about my passion: Foodscaping. This month, I want to share details on how you can inspire a foodscape revolution of your own - right in your yard and neighborhood!
Before I get too excited sharing our foodscaping story, I want to address some misconceptions about poisonous plants. I get so many questions on this subject, and I think it is important to help clarify what is safe, and not, to plant in your home landscape.
MYTH: Poinsettias are highly toxic and are one of the most dangerous plants you are likely to have in your home or garden.
Some plants get a bad rap, either from rumors or misunderstandings. At the top of this list is our holiday favorite, the poinsettia. I always thought it was strange that we would choose to decorate our home with a plant that was so toxic, especially to house pets. I was shocked to learn, while studying horticulture in college, that this is categorically untrue!
Poinsettias are only mildly toxic, and the dangers are hardly ever serious or fatal. The milky sap found in all Euphorbias does contain chemicals that are like those found in common detergents. When LARGE quantities are ingested, mild signs such as vomiting or drooling may occur, but nothing terribly serious. I do recommend wearing gloves when handling poinsettias as the white sap can cause a skin irritation and is painful if rubbed into your eyes. But, overall, poinsettias are much safer to have around compared to other more commonly grown plants that do possess fatal reactions when consumed.
Poisonous Plants in the Home Garden
This mixed bed in my garden contains my favorite poisonous plant - larkspur, as well as toxic hydrangea.
- Nightshades: Many of our most common home-grown veggies fall into the “poisonous” category. Yes, all those summer favorites like eggplant, peppers, potatoes, and tomatoes are in the nightshade family (Solanaceae) and therefore have poisonous properties. All these plants contain toxins in their foliage so humans and pets should avoid the leaves and stalks of any nightshade plant.
- Lily of the Valley: Another commonly grown, but poisonous plant is the fragrant spring blooming lily of the valley. This plant contains a compound called cardiac glycosides and can cause vomiting, dizziness, rashes, and death if left untreated.
- Castor Bean: A famous toxic plant that I grow every summer is the castor bean. Oddly, castor oil, which is extracted from the seed, has long been used for home remedies and can still be purchased in drug stores today. But consuming just one seed can kill a child as the toxic protein ricin will cause severe dehydration.
- Rhubarb: Did you know rhubarb has poisonous leaves? The stems of this veggie are delicious, but if you eat the leaves you risk kidney malfunction. Luckily for most of us in the southeast, rhubarb is not easy to grow, as it prefers cooler temperatures year-round.
- Azaleas and Hydrangeas: Here in the south we love planting these colorful flowering shrubs. I bet you did not know that they were poisonous! The blooms and leaves of Hydrangea macrophylla, aka mophead hydrangea, contain cyanide! The good news is you, or your pets, would have to eat a lot before the fatal effects would occur. (Although toxic to dogs, cats, and horses, the leaves of your hydrangea are still a delicious snack for deer! Read my tips for keeping deer away.) The entire plant of azalea and rhododendron are highly toxic. Ingestion can lead to abdominal pain, difficulty breathing, coma, or death. Be sure to keep these blooms away from people and pets!
- Flowering Ornamentals: A few more lethal commonly grown ornamental plants include daffodils, foxgloves, lilies, oleander, and wisteria. All these plants contain different toxins that can result in painful, sometimes fatal reactions. In the case of daffodils, the poison is obvious if you bring a bundle in for spring arrangements and mix them with other flowers. Overnight everything other than the daffodils will die!
Digitalis purpurea, commonly known as foxglove. It is a striking addition to the garden, and often found in the wild, but the entire plant is toxic including roots and seeds.
- Larkspur: My favorite poisonous plant to grow is larkspur. In spring I have these colorful flowers scattered in all my beds to help deter deer, rabbits, and groundhogs. All plants in the Rananuculaceae family contain diterpene alkaloids which can cause an array of symptoms including heart rhythm abnormalities and organ damage. All parts of larkspur are poisonous, but the new growth and seeds contain the highest level of the toxic substance. Just two milligrams of young larkspur can be enough to kill an adult human. The advantage of cultivating larkspur is that animals instinctively know not to eat it, and therefore, they will leave your garden alone!
Larkspur is one of my favorites! An annual that is easy to grow from seed and will happily reseed itself. Toxic to people and animals, it will help deter those browsing mammals.
I hope this has not scared you too much. The real point here is that you should stick to eating the fruit and veggies that you are familiar with and not try foraging from your ornamental garden plants without additional knowledge. And you should be aware of these plants - wash your hands and wear gloves when you are handling them, and make sure your pets do not nibble!
The Foodscape Revolution Neighborhood Edition
Aidan and Abby were the catalyst for our neighborhood foodscape revolution!
In mid-March, when school first closed, my awesome garden helpers, Aidan (13) and Abby (10) suggested we start installing gardens for our neighbors. With time on our hands and knowledge in our brains, we set out to show people in our community exactly how to grow food, right in their landscapes.
The first step, as always was to get the Soil³ humus compost ordered and delivered. This is, after all, our insurance policy for success! As the kids say “Soil³ makes our gardens beautiful and bountiful.”
Abby stands next to our gardening essentials: Soil³ and i must garden animal repellent. Behind her is our foodscape - a "no lumber needed" raised bed.
With the help of Jim Putnam, the famous YouTube gardening expert behind Horttube, we got busy installing three foodscapes in our first week and filming the progress! The kids and neighbors were so excited to be a part of something meaningful.
Choosing the right location is key. Focus on full sun areas in existing landscapes with easy access to water. This will ensure the crops will thrive and it will be easy to manage and harvest. The whole idea behind foodscaping is simple, just incorporate your favorite food crops into your landscape. This way you can make the most of the resources you devote to the space and have some fresh food to bring into your kitchen.
Our initial March plantings included cool season veggies like broccoli and cauliflower along with cover crops of crimson clover to fix nitrogen and buckwheat to attract beneficial insects. We also transplanted ‘Chandler’ strawberries from my garden to grow as an evergreen groundcover that produces sweet fruit all spring.
Aidan is busy seeding cover crops, buckwheat and crimson clover, around the other plants in this foodscape.
As these crops develop and become ready to harvest, we will simply mow them back in place and start the process over for summer. With a 2-3” top dressing of Soil³ these new foodscapes will be ready for all the traditional favorites, including basil, peppers, and tomatoes!
Check out our update video showing these neighborhood foodscapes two weeks later:
After two weeks, Abby checks on this foundation foodscape where the broccoli starts are growing and the millet and buckwheat seed has germinated.
Of course, with me involved, we must add a few less common summer crops as well, including Aidan’s favorite corn! Over the years we have discovered that corn is a great crop for June planting. It will germinate quickly when direct seeded and produce fresh eating cobs by mid-July. (Here's my handy Vegetable Planting Calendar for the Southeast.)
Potatoes are another favorite crop of the neighborhood foodscapers. In the southeast, potatoes are perennial, so they can be planted anytime. But for reliable, abundant harvests plant your potatoes directly in Soil³ either in the ground or in containers in March. They will be ready to harvest in June!
Okra is another crop that we love to grow and thrives in the summer heat and humidity. Our favorite variety is an All-American Selections winner called ‘Candle Fire’. It has beautiful burgundy stalks and delicious, tender fruit.
Foodscaping is all about integrating seasonal edibles with ornamental plants in your existing landscape. Like this bed with Encore Azalea in the foreground and broccoli and cover crops planted in Soil³ behind.
Covers crops are an important part of foodscaping, as they help reduce weed pressure while serving additional purposes including reducing soil erosion, adding natural fertility, and attracting beneficial pollinators. My favorite summer cover crop is peanuts because they are a beautiful groundcover that love the summer climate of the southeast.
Callie helped Aidan and Abby with this foodscape bed for our neighbor, Peggy. We planted some shrubs (azalea, camelia and gardenia) along with vegetables - that is what foodscaping is all about!
Planting peanuts is easy - just break open the shell of a raw nut and thumb it into Soil³ about an inch deep. Peanuts are a legume that will naturally fix nitrogen helping feed all the other plants in your garden bed. They grow all summer and will be ready for harvest around Halloween. You can even grow peanuts in large containers using Soil³ as the compost to fill your pot.
Life Lessons and Time Well Spent
Our neighborhood foodscape crash team!
Overall installing and helping maintain the neighborhood foodscapes has not taken a lot of time. We spent about 2 hours installing each one, including time talking with the homeowners to understand what they want to grow and harvest- all with social distancing of course. This has been a great opportunity to get to know the people we live near and we have established wonderful relationships as a result.
With Aidan and Abby leading the way, this is a great example that people of any age can make a difference. Since they are bonified foodscaping experts, with 5 years of experience already, they take the lead and ask the homeowners what their favorite veggies are and help guide the process for deciding what should get planted where, when, and why. It is cool to watch them teach adults!
Ultimately foodscaping is a way to make gardening simpler. The results have been awesome, with stellar harvests right from our landscapes. With these three neighborhood foodscapes established and ready to be replanted for summer, we are feeling like a professional team with sights on more yards this summer. We all agree, this is our favorite way to stay active, engaged, and help the people who live nearest to us. It is my greatest hope that we will inspire others to start a foodscape revolution of their own!
The Future is Foodscaping
We transplanted ‘Chandler’ strawberries from my garden into all our new foodscapes. Along with providing fruit, they are an evergreen ground cover.
This simple idea really can be revolutionary, and this summer we will have a special guest blogger sharing her first-time gardening experiences! Ms. Flora Barrow, my intern from last summer, has been inspired by Aidan and Abby to start a foodscape of her own in her rental home in Carrboro, NC. Armed with Soil³ and the 100 gallon Root Pouch garden bags, Flora will be growing veggies for the first time and sharing her journey in a future Soil³ blog. I am certain she will find satisfaction and will have plenty of produce to share with neighbors this summer!
Stay tuned for more updates on our neighborhood foodscape revolution by subscribing to the @BriethePlantLady YouTube channel. All the foodscaping tricks can be found in my book, The Foodscape Revolution available on my website Briegrows.com.
Until next month, happy foodscaping!
All photos by Brie, unless otherwise noted.