When Diane Schwictenberg of Irvine wants to make a salad for dinner, she doesn't open the refrigerator. Instead, she goes outside and picks herself a bowlful of the ground cover that grows beside the back-yard patio.
"It's New Zealand spinach," she says.
Florence Campbell of Huntington Beach has salad greens growing in her back yard, too. But instead of harvesting them, she let them grow, and now the lettuce and escarole plants have become decorative, waist-high bushes.
Not so long ago, edible plants that had the nerve to spring up outside the confines of their regimented rows were often denounced as weeds and summarily yanked out of the ground, paying the ultimate penalty for their individuality. But now vegetables, fruits and other edible plants are breaking free of their confinement, moving beyond the garden fence and into the yard as full-fledged components of the landscape.
The concept is called edible landscaping, and it's becoming increasingly popular as homeowners discover that their yards can pay back tasty dividends for all the energy that goes into them, without sacrificing the aesthetics of traditional landscaping.
Salad greens, for example, can grow just as well in circles as they can in rectangles, says Suzanne Morlock of Costa Mesa, a landscape architect who specializes in edibles, herbs and drought-tolerant plants.
"You can be just as imaginative with edible plants as you can with anything else," she says. "It isn't written in stone anywhere that vegetables can only grow in rectangular gardens."
The notion that vegetables have to be planted in rows goes back to the advent of mechanized farming, says Diane Schwictenberg's husband, Dan.
"Rows were designed for farming implements," he says. "They have nothing to do with the way plants should be growing."
Campbell, a lifelong gardener, is in the process of redoing her entire back yard in edible landscaping. And when she's finished, she wants to work in some edibles out in front of her house as well.
"I don't care much for lawns," Campbell says. "If I'm going to work on something and water it, I want to get something back, something I'll be able to eat or share with my friends."
The Schwictenbergs haven't gone to that extreme, preserving a large patch of lawn in the center of their back yard. But in both landscapes, the traditional dividing lines between "garden" and "yard" have been blurred.
In the Schwictenbergs' yard, for example, roses and dill weed grow together in a flower bed. The poppies growing next to the zucchini plants in Campbell's back yard not only add splashes of color, but also give visiting bees and other pollinators an added incentive to stop near the squash blossoms.
Such companion plantings are an important aspect of edible landscaping, Morlock says.
Morlock says a greater interest in the environment and renewed awareness about water conservation have combined to create more interest in edible landscapes.
"Lawns are very consumptive of water and of energy, whether it's the gasoline that goes into your lawn mower or the personal energy you put into doing the work," she says. "Edible landscapes don't necessarily take less energy, but they do give you something back, as well as being an environmental asset."
But edibles don't necessarily require more water or energy, either, says R.J. Schwictenberg of Costa Mesa, who has influenced his parents in designing their back yard.
"A lot of people just assume it's more work to grow something productive," says the Schwictenberg son, who works with Morlock and his partner Annette Campbell in building and maintaining edible and other environmentally oriented landscapes. Morlock's business, Hummingbird Landscape Systems of Costa Mesa, concentrates on design, while Campbell and Schwictenberg's Hummingbird Landscape Care focuses more on construction and maintenance.
Going edible doesn't have to mean redesigning your whole yard, Morlock says.
"Look at the planting beds you currently have and mix edibles in with them," he says. "Put an eggplant or a bell pepper in with the zinnias. Cut down on the annual flowers you plant, and put in some vegetables."
But don't abandon the flowers completely.
"You want to plant things for the birds and bees," Morlock says. "They'll spend more time there and help with pollination, so you benefit and they benefit. Think about it more as a system, a living environmental thing as opposed to just window dressing for your house."
Just mixing in a vegetable here or there means overcoming two well-entrenched gardening traditions, says R.J. Schwictenberg: monoculture and planting in rows.
"Monoculture is fine in some cases, but it can be beneficial to mix different kinds of plants."
As an example, he points out a flowering coriander plant in Campbell's back yard.