Replace those sorry-looking patches of grass with mint, thyme, strawberries, and a host of attractive and practical fruits, vegetables and herbs.

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Why bother mowing thirsty lawns when you can grow edibles? Replace those sorry-looking patches of grass around trees, pathways and slopes with mint, thyme, strawberries, and a host of attractive and practical fruits, vegetables and herbs.

“Turf is sort of the lowest common denominator in ground covers,” says Weston Miller, a horticulturist with the Oregon State University Extension Service in Portland. “It takes more work, specialized timing and tools. The advantage with edibles is that they provide more (wildlife) habitat and they also look good.”

Edible landscaping includes more options than simply adding ground cover. Ornamental shrubs and trees can be attractive, practical and long-lasting, too.

“If you’re looking to eliminate trouble spots, the thing to keep in mind is that the bulk of herbs and a lot of the fruits do best in full sun,” Miller says. “Some will be just as colorful in partial shade, although they won’t bear as much.”

Good drainage also is important, he says. “Low-lying areas are not good places for growing edibles.”
Recommended food plants for lawns, slopes and problem areas include:

GROUND COVER

Herbs. “You get more for your money with perennial herbs over turf,” says Rhonda Ferree, a horticulturist with University of Illinois Extension. “Herbs don’t have a lot of pest problems, and make for a good alternative.”

Edible flowers, such as viola, calendula, chives, nasturtiums and ferns. “I’ll add flowers to a dull-looking salad to add color,” Ferree says. “Or sometimes I just eat flowers right out of the garden.”

Greens. “Highly recommended. Fast and easy to grow,” Miller says. “They also have a long harvest period. Rainbow chard is a great ornamental.”

Fruit. “One good way to start is with strawberries,” Miller says. “Wild strawberries or Alpine strawberries do better in partial sun than garden varieties. Wildlife like them a lot.”

SHRUBS

Berries, including currants, raspberries and blueberries. “Use a raspberry fruiting shrub as a hedge,” Ferree says. “Hops, grapes, edible passion flowers, cucumbers or pole beans work well as vines.”

Roses. “Rose bushes are beautiful and hold soil well on a slope,” Ferree says. “Wild roses develop hips with a lot of Vitamin C that often are used in teas and for making preserves.”

TREES

Fruit over ornamentals. “A hickory tree makes a great large shade tree while also providing delicious nuts,” Ferree says. “Instead of a spring-blooming tree like a redbud, consider an apple or cherry that not only have beautiful spring blooms but later provide delicious fruit.”

Strawberry plants are among the food plants that can serve as ground cover to replace thirsty backyard lawns. (Dean Fosdick / The Associated Press)
Strawberry plants are among the food plants that can serve as ground cover to replace thirsty backyard lawns. (Dean Fosdick / The Associated Press)

Dwarf varieties grown in containers or raised beds work well on small patios or balconies. The same is true for smaller varieties of tomatoes, raspberries, blueberries and many herbs, Ferree says. “Even a citrus tree houseplant can be moved outside during summer.”

Food plants are better choices for the environment than a wide expanse of grass, she says: “You’re not going to have the output of emissions and mowing costs.”

Growing edibles, however, might not be best if you’re trying to find a labor-saving replacement for turf, Miller says.

“They require a different kind of maintenance: mulching, organic fertilizers, finding the right pH balance and things like that,” he says.