Home & Garden

How to grow your own food and join the foodscape revolution

An apple ripens on a tree in Brie Arthur's backyard in 2016. Arthur maximizes her single-acre patch of suburbia through foodscaping.
An apple ripens on a tree in Brie Arthur's backyard in 2016. Arthur maximizes her single-acre patch of suburbia through foodscaping. jleonard@newsobserver.com

As dusk approaches in Brie Arthur’s Fuquay-Varina garden, the setting sun reflects glints of light from hundreds of empty wine bottles playfully planted as a ring around otherwise freeform beds. A bossa nova beat pulses from a speaker on her deck, seemingly tempting hearty plants to dance in the breeze.

Despite several recent frosts and thaws, flowers are blooming with determination, sprouting from sturdy stems that weeks before were little more than scattered seeds. Tucked between and around them, and amid winter-thin shrubs, are the frilly crowns of young carrots.

“If everyone in the Triangle planted carrots in an under-utilized spot in their garden, making smart use of the edible potential of our yards, we’d all be better off,” declares Arthur, author of the new “The Foodscape Revolution: Finding a Better Way to Make Space for Food and Beauty in Your Garden” (St. Lynn’s Press). She pauses to inspect a tiny orange root nudged from loose soil, rubs it between her palms and bites into it like the sweet dirt candy it is. “It’s important to support farmers markets, but when you can grow vegetables this easily – and, really, most vegetables are very easy to grow – there’s no reason to spend good money at the grocery store for ones grown somewhere else.”

Arthur, 37, is one of a growing number of horticulturalists who enthusiastically advocate for foodscaping, in which edibles are planted alongside the ornamentals long favored in home gardens. Her book spotlights ways to incorporate them into even the most immaculately groomed yards and in neighborhoods strictly regulated by homeowner associations. Fast growing and abundantly flowering okra can be as pretty as its cousins, hibiscus and rose of Sharon, Arthur says, and there is joy to be had in making healthful meals using whatever produce is at peak outside your back door.

Or your front door.

“I knew I was onto something when I won yard of the month in fall 2008,” Arthur says with a conspiratorial grin. “They had no idea I was growing all this food. They saw someone taking care of their landscape and didn’t even notice all the tomatoes and peppers. All they knew was it looked great from the curb.”

Arthur will lead a session on how to foodscape your home garden Saturday, April 1, at the annual Raulston Blooms! festival of the J.C. Raulston Arboretum at N.C. State University. The family friendly event features the spring plant sale, 17th annual birdhouse competition and presentations by leading horticulturalists. Admission is free for arboretum members, $5 for nonmembers or $10 per nonmember family.

I bought a 99-cent packet of seed and produced greens for six months on my window sill. That was it. I was hooked.

Brie Arthur

Arthur is a happy transplant from Michigan who ran programs at Montrose Gardens in Hillsborough and Plant Delights in Raleigh before launching her own consulting business. Her passion for growing food is rooted less in the romantic ideals of farming than her recollections of becoming seriously ill in college from E. coli traced to spoiled lettuce.

“I’m still leery of eating prepared salads,” says Arthur, who maintains a large bed of spicy arugula and mineral-rich Swiss chard, as well as tender mixed lettuces tucked into a planter box built into their little-used fire pit. “When I recovered, I bought a 99-cent packet of seed and produced greens for six months on my window sill. That was it. I was hooked.”

Arthur recommends establishing the bones of your ornamental garden before adding vegetable components. Once a framework of trees and shrubs is set, and favorite perennials and annuals are tucked in, forget about covering the balance with costly mulch. Follow Arthur’s simple steps to loosen surface soil and scatter seeds for carrots, lettuce or whatever you’d like to be able to pluck and consume on demand.

“Biodiversity is necessary for a sustainable ecosystem,” she says. “It’s easier to achieve success in a mixed garden than growing a bunch of sad-looking vegetables in a raised bed encased in lumber. I mean, seriously; who thinks that looks better than what I’m doing?”

To build skills and confidence, start with simply-sown vegetables like arugula and other prolific greens, cucumber and squash. If you have children – or can borrow a few eager ones from a neighbor, as Arthur does – involve them in everything from preparing beds and planting seeds to watering and eating the fruits of their labor. Proactively set a planting schedule so a hearty new crop will rise from limp remains as the growing season progresses from cold to hot and back again.

“For summer, I believe the best gateway to a productive garden is garlic and peanuts, which can be thumbed-in to any border. They are so easy and so rewarding,” Arthur says as she preps a weeknight dinner in which most ingredients were pulled minutes before from her garden. “Trust me,” she adds, gesturing toward a bowlful of dried bulbs, “my garden produces enough garlic to take care of everyone in Fuquay.”

To encourage more people to consider foodscaping, Arthur will welcome visitors to her home garden at 7624 Troy Stone Drive, Fuquay-Varina, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. May 6. This is the sixth growing season at the home she shares with husband David and two large, fluffy cats that like to lounge wherever the sun warms the soil.

She converted the ample yard, which she claims contained “basically all of the biggest landscape mistakes from the ’90s,” into a garden that delivers fresh greens all winter and enough summer bounty to share with neighbors. “The Foodscape Revolution” includes a handful of her favorite canning recipes, from zippy Bloody Mary mix to candied jalapeno peppers. Rely on your own home library for ideas to use whole grains like barley and Glenn wheat, the latter of which yielded enough to mill about 25 pounds of flour.

While the diversity in Arthur’s garden is a boon for both growing and consuming beneficial produce, it also serves as a marketing tool to demonstrate sustainable design methods to home builders.

I want contractors to suggest to homeowners that they could have this instead of just a bunch of azaleas, like every other house on the block.

Brie Arthur

“I want contractors to suggest to homeowners that they could have this instead of just a bunch of azaleas, like every other house on the block,” she says. Arthur also consults with municipal landscapers and hunger relief advocates wanting to create sustainable gardens that could help feed local communities or, at minimum, transform eyesores. She recently recommended growing diverse, low-maintenance cover crops to help stabilize land at a Raleigh property flooded by Hurricane Matthew, turning muck into pollinator haven.

Arthur also is developing a foodscape garden at nearby Herbert Akins Road Elementary that will provide children and families a better appreciation of where food comes from and what it takes to produce.

“Landscapers of the future can play a significant role in our food systems,” she says. “There are 180 million acres of suburbia that could be put to use this way. This is an opportunity for horticulture to suddenly provide something useful, without eliminating the ornaments. It’s a win-win all around.”

Raulston Blooms!

The annual Raulston Blooms! festival of the J.C. Raulston Arboretum at N.C. State University takes place 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday, April 1. The event features the spring plant sale, the 17th annual birdhouse competition and presentations by leading horticulturalists. Admission is free for arboretum members, $5 for nonmembers or $10 per nonmember family. Arthur will have book signings at 9:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m., with a foodscape presentation at 11:30 a.m.

Win Brie Arthur’s book

Enter to win a signed copy of “The Foodscape Revolution: Finding a Better Way to Make Space for Food and Beauty in Your Garden” by emailing giveaway@newsobserver.com by midnight Wednesday, March 29. Please put “foodscape” in the subject line of your email and include your mailing address. Only the winner will be notified.

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