The Incredible Edible Landscape

Currant Shrub
Currant shrubs provide both food and beauty.

By Carrie Wolfe
Horticulture Intern
Iowa State University Extension

Many people think having fresh fruits require a large garden area. However, edible landscapes do not need vast spaces and can be incorporated into your current landscape. Besides providing food for us, edible landscapes also offer seasonal color and habitat for wildlife. Plants can be incorporated as climbing vines, shrubs and trees. Here are some plants that will help you create an edible landscape: 

The best vine crop for the edible landscape is grape. Grapes grow well in a wide range of soils but do best in well-drained soils. Grapes are self-fruitful, which means they do not require another cultivar to produce fruit. 

There are four types of grapes that can be grown in Iowa:  Vitis labrusca (American type), V. labrusca x V. riparia(American hybrids), V. vinifera (French hybrids), and seedless cultivars of American or American x European parentage. The American hybrid types are the hardiest.

Since a trellis system is needed to support the grapes, why not use an arbor to provide an attractive entry to a garden or yard? Grapes can also be espaliered (grown flat) to a fence to create a natural screen. For more information on growing grapes, pick up a copy of Growing Grapes in the Home Garden (PM 1707)

Edible shrub possibilities include gooseberries, currants or blueberries. They can be grown as small or medium hedges or used in a mixed shrub border. The fruit can be eaten fresh or made into jam, jelly, pie or sauce. 

Recommended gooseberries for Iowa include:  ‘Poorman’, ‘Welcome’, and ‘Hinnonmaki Red’. Good currants for Iowa include:  ‘Perfection’, ‘Cherry’, ‘Red Lake’, and ‘Wilder’. Gooseberries and currants can be alternate hosts to white pine blister rust so they should not be planted near white pines. Gooseberries and currants are both self-fruitful.

Blueberries require well-drained, acidic soils (pH 4.5 to 5.5) that are high in organic matter. Because the pH of most Iowa soils is above this range, the soil pH must be lowered by incorporating sulfur or Canadian sphagnum peat into the soil. Blueberry cultivars suitable for northern Iowa include:  ‘St. Cloud’, ‘Northsky’, and ‘Northblue’. These are lowbush blueberries and will grow 2-4 feet tall. Highbush blueberries perform well in central and southern Iowa and will grow 6-8 feet tall. Highbush varieties suitable for Iowa include:  ‘Bluecrop’, ‘Patriot’, ‘Blueray’, and ‘Elliot’. While blueberries are considered to be self-fruitful, planting two or more cultivars will maximize yields. See RG 503 Growing Blueberries in Iowa for more information on growing blueberries.

Need a little shade or visual screen? Place fruit trees anywhere you would place a flowering tree or shade tree. Having fruit trees doesn’t necessarily mean having an orchard. Serviceberry, walnut, cherry, and common persimmon are all excellent choices.   

The serviceberry is a large shrub or small tree that can grow up to 25 feet tall and is attractive from spring through fall. In early spring, plants are full of white blooms. After flowering, plants produce berry-like fruit that change in color from green to red to dark blue as it ripens. The fruit resembles a blueberry and can be eaten fresh or processed into jam, jelly or sauce. Serviceberry also has brilliant fall leaf color that varies from yellow to orange to red. Popular cultivars include ‘Autumn Brilliance’, ‘Regent’, and ‘Rainbow Pillar’.

The black walnut is native to Iowa and found throughout the state. Its nuts are often used in baking or eaten fresh. Black walnut trees can reach 75 feet tall with a spread of about 50 feet. A popular cultivar is ‘Thomas’. However, black walnuts can inhibit the growth of some nearby plants (especially tomatoes), so be careful of their placement. 

Cherry trees are always a popular choice for edible landscapes. Sweet cherries are not reliably hardy in Iowa, but tart cherries perform well in the state. Cherries produce beautiful white flowers in early spring and are self-fruitful. Two cultivars recommended for Iowa include ‘Northstar’ and ‘Meteor’.  ‘Northstar’ grows to a height of 8-10 feet and the fruit matures in mid-June to early July. ‘Meteor’ grows to a height of 10-15 feet. The fruit ripens 10-15 days later than ‘Northstar’.

For something more unusual, consider the common persimmon. It grows at least 30 feet tall and has a spread around 15-20 feet. The common persimmon flowers in May or June and its fruit ripens in late September through October. The fruit is yellowish to pale orange and has a roundish shape. It has interesting bark and handsome foliage. However, this tree is best suited for central and southern Iowa as it is not reliably hardy in northern Iowa.

Limitless possibilities
Of course, there are more edible plants than just the typical fruits and nuts. Edible flowers such as pansies and nasturtiums can be planted in the landscape along other annuals and perennials. Vegetables can also be grown as ornamentals. Chives can create an attractive border, cabbage can be tucked into a perennial bed, and asparagus can add a light, fluffy backdrop. 

However, if you plan to harvest the fruits of your labor, take care to limit or avoid the use of pesticides. It is also important to choose cultivars that are appropriate for your area and soil conditions, that way the plants will be around for many years to come.   

The possibilities are limitless. Dare to be different and add an incredible edible landscape to your property.

Contacts :
Jean McGuire, Continuing Education and Communication Services, (515) 294-7033,
Carrie Wolfe, Horticulture,

There is one photo for this week's column: 72205Currant1.jpg