Planting a yard good enough to eat

Are you anxious to do a little landscaping around the homestead this spring? Emily Steinwehe has a suggestion: this year, choose landscaping valued not only for its beautification, but also for its taste.

Steinwehe recently launched an edible landscaping business, Emily Plants, to encourage homeowners to eat what they sow. “Part of the fun of edible landscaping is educating people so they know which plants they can eat and helping them identify edible plants in their yards,” she says.

The idea, while not new, is gaining ground, especially in today’s sustainably conscious society, and Steinwehe is anxious to show customers that edible landscaping can be as attractive as it is tasty.

“It just makes sense to grow your own food,” she says, adding that she’s always been interested in sustainability. “It also lowers your carbon footprint because the food you’re eating isn’t being transported across the country.”

After years of helping friends and family with their landscaping she’s now hoping to provide her services on a fee basis. She’ll analyze plants in a yard, suggest new ideas, and do any pruning or planting a homeowner desires, but her core interest lies in the edible options.

And perennials are less work, she notes. “You don’t have to clean out the old growth every year, and since you just prune shrubs and trees, it’s easier on your back.”

Her favorite landscape plants are currants or juneberries. Juneberries, also known as serviceberries, are native to the area and one of the first shrubs to flower in spring. They are frequently seen in yards around town, but people often don’t realize the berries are edible, she says, describing the flavor as “a taste of blueberry with a hint of almond.” The plant displays white flowers in the spring, the fruit is easy to pick because the plants have no thorns, and the leaves turn color in the fall. “Plus, they are great for corner plantings.”

Juneberries can be frozen and enjoyed year round, or added to recipes much like blueberries would. Currants, meanwhile, are great for making juices and jelly.

Peachy profession

Steinwehe, a Valparaiso University biology grad, says she always had an interest in plants and gardening. She’s been employed as a naturalist for Aldo Leopold Nature Center for the past 10 years and recently launched Emily Plants with the hopes of growing it into a full-time business.

Fruit trees are her specialty, particularly apple, peach, cherry, or apricot trees. Each has its unique idiosyncrasies though, which she shares with customers.

“The average life of an apple tree here might be 50 to 100 years or more, but peach trees typically last 10 to 15 years.” New varieties of fruit trees have been developed to better withstand Wisconsin’s climate, making them easier to grow than in the past. Surprisingly, peach trees can thrive in a city setting because of what she describes as an urban warming effect, “and there’s nothing like a home-grown peach.”

But sometimes it’s about more than eating the fruit. Apple tree or grape vine prunings can also be used to flavor food. The trick, she says, is to prune fruit trees in February or March before leaves develop, allow the wood to dry out a bit, and then use the woodcuttings to flavor meats or vegetables on a grill.

And for those who love fruit trees but are concerned about the mess, she suggests planting smaller food-producing plants like cherries or juneberries instead of apples, or bush fruits like blueberries, blackberries, or raspberries.

And the bees need help too. Steinwehe is also keen on pollinator-friendly plants, such as crocuses, which bloom early in spring, violets, or native prairie flowers like mountain mist or bee balm.

Whatever the choice, Steinwehe says it’s important that people consider their lifestyle before determining an edible landscaping plan. Some trees only produce a harvest every other year, for example. “Apricots are quite hardy, and there are new varieties that bloom later so you’re less likely to lose your crop. You may not get a crop every year, but it’s a beautiful tree and a nice landscape choice.”



Rising from the ashes

Steinwehe simply loves being outside, working in nature, and teaching others to enjoy the same. “I want to help people make good decisions. I ask them what their life is like, what their favorite foods are, how much and what type of yard work they enjoy to help them decide what will work best for them.

“It all just makes me happy,” she says. “I love the smell of the earth, the rain, the grass, and the flowers. I love when you plant something and it survives the winter and then you see it bud out again in spring. That’s always exciting.”

She also sees opportunity relating to the unfortunate demise of ash trees in the upper Midwest due to the emerald ash borer. “The city is cutting down all those ash trees and replacing them with smaller, less shade-giving trees. If that happens in your yard, you’ll have a good reason to plant edibles that will thrive in the added sunlight.”

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