Edible Landscapes: Planting for the Palate

Adding plants with beautiful colors, textures and shapes to flowerbeds and garden space always makes sense, but joining permanent edible landscape plants to your yard is another bright idea that can benefit your family at the kitchen table.

Anne-Marie McMahon, founder and owner of Sugarbush Nursery in Robeson Township, Berks County, gladly advocates installing edible landscape plants, especially native ones, around a home, where feasible.

The Pawpaw: Host Plant for Zebra Swallowtail Butterflies

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Pawpaw tree seedling. Photo: Alessandra Rolffs

One tree McMahon notes, which has a fun, pet-friendly sounding name to it, is the pawpaw.

While a good number of people haven’t heard of pawpaw fruit, it’s something often first learned about between one local person and another in Southeastern Pennsylvania.

“Pawpaws are often found as a small understory tree or at the edge of the woods but work surprisingly well as a small tree in a front yard in full sun,” McMahon says. “While pawpaw is a native plant, the leaves have an almost tropical appearance, and curious maroon flowers hang from underneath the leaves, so you have to get under the tree to see them.”

McMahon points out that several edible landscape plants can be a way to help wildlife, and that includes pawpaw trees.

“The pawpaw tree is the host plant for the Zebra Swallowtail butterfly, so planting pawpaws is beneficial for these beautiful butterflies,” she says. “The fruit of a pawpaw tree is about the size and shape of a small mango, but inside, there is a soft pulp surrounding the seeds, which tastes much like banana custard.”

Pawpaw seeds
Pawpaw seeds are in the upper right hand corner. They look like coffee beans. Photo: Alessandra Rolffs

McMahon adds that pawpaw fruit must be eaten when it’s very ripe and soft, which explains why it’s never seen for sale in grocery stores or local markets.

“The pulp makes a great addition to smoothies, breads and pancakes, and it can be eaten with a spoon,” she says.

Pawpaw trees will reach 15 to 20 feet high by 10 to 15 feet wide in our region, McMahon says.

Other Plants That Benefit Insects and Humans

Rhubarb, persimmon, hazelnut, serviceberry, chokeberry​ and asparagus are other permanent edible plants McMahon mentions as plants benefit wildlife.

Asparagus and rhubarb are both non-native plants which are hardy in our region.

“The main benefit is that insects eat the leaves of native plants, thereby translating the sun’s energy into animal protein in the form of their own bodies,” she explains. “Other animals can then eat insects as their food, whereas they may not have been able to eat the leaves themselves.”

“Rhubarb requires no annual maintenance—just plant, wait a year and then harvest from the same plant every year thereafter,” she says. “The plant will gradually expand into a large clump, offering succulent stalks to harvest in spring and summer, and clean, glossy foliage the rest of the season.”

Black Chokeberries: A New Superfood

Black chokeberries, which grow in shrub form, are another of McMahon’s recommendations.

“Black chokeberries make a great informal hedge for dense screening in spring, summer and fall, and carry outstanding fall color of maroon and purple,” she says. “The black chokeberries produced in late summer are one of our new ‘superfoods,’ offering extraordinary antioxidant value; they’re currently being tested for their ability to counteract diabetes.”

McMahon explains that chokeberries are generally very productive, so if you plant a hedge, you’ll have plenty for yourself, and plenty left over for the birds, too.

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Asparagus: An Informal Hedge

“Since asparagus is planted in long rows,” she says, “it can double as an informal hedge in landscaped areas.”

McMahon notes that the best rows for growing asparagus must be deep, lengthy trenches.

“You then place the bare-root asparagus crowns at the bottom of the trench, on little mounds of loose dirt, and add a mixture of soil and compost to just cover the crowns,” she says. “Then you wait until the crowns start sending out shoots, and as the shoots elongate, you keep adding a few more inches of soil to the trench.”

The trench needs to be filled in completely so that it’s level with surrounding soil, over the course of one to two weeks, McMahon says.

“Once you plant asparagus, let it grow naturally for a full two years before beginning to harvest,” she adds. “In the first year of harvesting, harvest spears for only two weeks, and then let the remainder of the spears continue to grow.”

By the next year, McMahon says it’s okay to harvest for three to four weeks.

“The following year, you can harvest the full length of the asparagus season, about four to six weeks,” she says. “This process allows the asparagus to build up enough energy in its roots to withstand a long harvest season every year.”