Diner's Guide to the Landscape


Oct.21, 2017: In today's divided and partisan world, I can stand up and declare "I don't give a fig!", literally, and, if you owned a fig tree, you would understand. I consider myself a reasonably generous person and when it comes to produce from my garden, I am a vegephilanthropist. I give away bushels of squash, chard,kale, prunes and other fruits and vegetables I have in abundance to friends, neighbors and even strangers, whether they ask or whether I have to force it upon them. But not figs! They are too precious to my palate. So, keep your hands off my figs and go grow your own, which I'm happy to tell you , out of my own self-interest.

If you live in the Willamette Valley of western Oregon, you can grow cold hardy figs outdoors. Easy peasy. If you are on the coast or Cascades. it's a little dicier. Figs require summer heat and the coast's summer often don't provide that and they also can't take temperatures of -10 F or solidly frozen ground, so the Cascades are too cold.

When I'm talking figs, I'm talking about the common fig, Ficus carica. The genus sports a plethora of tropical and sub-tropical species , some of which we use as houseplants, such as the rubber tree or weeping fig. There are over 200 cultivars of figs grown in North America, but in our area it dries down to about a handful. I myself have a Vern's Brown Turkey fig (named after Oregonian garden writer Vern Nelson). Other recommended varieties for our area are Lattarula, Desert King , White Dakota and Chicago.

As a landscape tree (figs can grow 15- 30' tall), the large lobed leaves give a tropical air to a planting. Figs don't have a compact crown (unless you're pruning alot) and can look a little bit gangly, but it's a minor fault when compared to its fast growth, pest free, low maintenance and drought tolerant characteristics. If you don't want to use an orchard ladder to gather your figs, then topping (which in this case is OK) can help to keep the height manageable.

Right now, fall, is a great time of year to plant. Pick a sunny spot with well drained soil. Organic matter or compost is nice to add, but not essential. And then you just wait. It took me about 6 years from a cutting before I started getting figs. Speaking of cuttings, it's easy to propagate figs. They are rooted from hardwood cuttings, simple layering or air layering (my favorite) and you can find out from somebody else on the internet the details of doing it.

Here in Oregon we get one fig crop a year. More southerly tropical locations will get two. Many fig cultivars produce 2 types of figs, a "main" fig and a" breba" . Brebas form in the spring on last season's wood. They sprout directly under a leaf. Main crop figs grow on current season wood and sprout directly above a leaf. In the Coast Range where I live, I get a crop of brebas in August and the mains never reach maturity to harvest. Brebas are said to be less tasty than main figs, but they're plenty tasty for me and no, you still can't have one.

Most of the cold hardy figs are self pollinating, which is good and bad. Good because we don't have to worry about having male fig flowers around, but bad because we miss out on the utterly fascinating pollination process involving tiny suicidal wasps. In fact, that's what I wanted to write about originally but I got wrapped up in telling you how to get your own figs. Stay tuned for a future series, "Sex and the Single Plant", in which I will delve , in erotic detail, into the kinky sex lives of figs and other swinging plants.

Knowing when to harvest figs was a skill that evaded me for the first couple if years. I always got overly excited and picked too early. Once picked, figs do not ripen. and they taste crappy. Figs, even when ripe, don't keep well. Maybe a week in the fridge. A ripe fig looks and feels like it's overly ripe. It's squishy to the touch and the stem attaching it is drooping. They will often also change color from green to yellowish, goldenish or brownish.

Since figs don't keep long, you have to process them quick. Fresh figs are great but dried figs, to me, is hog heaven. I'm also partial to drunken fig jam, which has lots of brandy in it.

I hope I've discouraged you from asking me for figs and encouraged you to grow your own damn figs!


Feb. 19, 2011: Once upon a time, in Greek mythology, there was a young, beautiful and mortal PlutoPlutomaiden, named Menthe. Now Menthe was fooling around with the god Pluto and Pluto’s wife, Persephone, a goddess, was not thrilled about this. One shouldn’t mess with goddesses, as they have the power to put a hurting on you quick. Now I don’t know whether there were marriage counselors back then on Mount Olympus that Pluto and Persephone could go to and work out a marital resolution, but I suspect not. If you’re an immortal couple, then you’ve been married for aeons, and you’ve probably discussed the same issues a million times. After an eternity, what’s the point? Anyways, that’s a question for Dr. Phil, not me.

In the end, Persephone knew that there was no changing Pluto’s philandering ways and she went right to the other source of the problem. She turned Menthe into a lowly green plant. Even though Pluto was a god, he couldn’t undo Persephone’s spell (yet another reason not to anger goddesses). It worked like a charm. Pluto’s ardor immediately cooled, but before he went right out and found another beautiful maiden, he bestowed upon Menthe the gift of smell. Kinda like “Sorry, babe, I can’t fix this, but at least you smell nice”. And ever since mint has smelled nice . . . .and wanted revenge.

The mints are both a family of plants (Lamiaceae) that include lots of plants we wouldn’t think of as mints (basil, oregano, thyme, the teak tree) and a genus (Mentha) that is the topic here and comprises about 15 Carmen MirandaCarmen Mirandadifferent species. Two characteristics that all the Mentha and most of the Lamiaceae family have in common are square stems and oppositely branched leaves. What is truly amazing about mints is the variety of them and the variety and subtly of smells. Talk about smelly - we have the traditional peppermint and spearmint, but also banana mint, pineapple mint, apple mint, chocolate mint, orange and lemon Bergamot mint, lavender mint and even a mint that’s been bred for use in mint juleps, aptly named Kentucky Colonel. What will plant breeders develop next in mint? Who knows, but I'm hoping for a winter hardy Nacho Cheese mint that you can gather during the half time break watching Super Bowl. Mint, it’s the Carmen Miranda of the plant world.

Mints come in many shapes and forms from low-growing steppables (Corsican mint , pennyroyal) to 3’ high Chocolate mintChocolate mintapple mint. As intriguing and endearing as are the types and smells of mint, we have yet to discuss . . . the attitude. Many mints (not all) are angry, aggressive and invasive. Wouldn’t you be if you were turned into something people stepped on? They spread by rhizomes (underground running stems) and stolons (aboveground running stems) and by seeds. If you don’t want them taking over the garden, you need to plant them in an inground container (like a 3-5 gallon plastic nursery pot with the bottom cut out). I presently have a mint war going on in one of my landscape beds between two botanical bulldozers, apple mint and lemon balm (Melissa officinalis, a mint family member that aggressively spreads by seeds). Long after more peaceful, bucolic plants have been pushed out of the neighborhood, I’ve watched the battle lines move back and forth. I’ve been loathe to go in and impose a peace treaty as I want to see which gladiator wins. Looks like apple mint might, but I’ve been seeing evidence of lemon balm terrorist attacks in other parts of the garden. Like some sort of botanical Huns, they are on the move and employing the horticultural equivalent of rape, pillage and burn to find themselves a new homeland.

In the edible landscape, mint is a great addition (IF CONTAINED). Mint can be used for flavoring and cooking (a prime ingredient for Middle Eastern, Thai, and Vietnamese cuisine). Mints with higher menthol content (peppermint, spearmint) are great for flavoring (ie teas) but not as good for cooking as some of the more “fruity” named mints. Mints also have therapeutic and other curious properties. Its good for the digestion, it’s an antiflatulent (gas), febrifuge (fever reducer), helps the liver, helps prevent cataracts, used in aromatherapy to quiet and sedate, and as an insect repellent (pennyroyal).

Design wise, mints can be used as ground covers, backdrops or key accent plants in perennial beds. Mints are not good as xeriscape (drought tolerant) plants. They enjoy water, but lacking it, they will not die readily, but they'll look dead.

Years ago, I taught a college botany course and I thought it would be fun and educational to have a botanical tea party (this was before the word tea party became a political screech) as an aid to discussing plant aromatic compounds. I gathered together blackberry leaves, several different kinds of mint, had friends send sassafras roots from the Southeast and yellow birch twigs from the Northeast and the only ingredient I felt I needed to buy was pennyroyal. PennyroyalPennyroyalPennyroyal is a mint that grows wild in the Northeast and as a kid I gathered it and brewed it. It makes a tasty tea, but not having a ready gathering source I had to go to an herbalist shop to get it. Upon purchase of said pennyroyal, the woman herbalist asked me what I was using it for. “I’m having a tea party for my students”, I enthusiastically declared.
The herbalist frowned and asked “Are there women in your class?”
“Why yes”, I replied.
“Are any of your women students pregnant?” she asked.
Now I frowned and said, “This is something I really don’t know.”
Pennyroyal she informed me is an abortifacient. It causes miscarriages. I thanked her profusely for averting a terrible disaster and a huge lawsuit for the college, but I could see she was thinking to herself “Men! Just like Pluto!”


Jan. 30, 2011: There aren’t many vegetable that are national symbols, but the leek (Allium porrum) is one. Every March 1st, St. David’s Day, true Welsh folk don leeks (or daffodils, the other national botanical symbol) on their clothing and parade down the streets of Welsh towns and villages. The story goes that in a 7th century battle with invading Saxons the Welsh warriors were instructed to wear leeks in their caps to distinguish themselves from the enemy. They defeated the Saxons and Wales remained a bastion of Celtic Britons until the 13th century. (There are limits to how long a vegetable can protect you.)

In the garden, leeks are a bastion of hardiness. As seedlings, they can be planted in January/February (one of our earliest crops to plant). They can last in the ground throughout winter. Just last week I harvested the last of my leeks which had survived several single digit temperature events. I have further discovered that leeks are the only vegetable I have ever grown that I have never encountered a single pest problem on. Not even gophers will eat them.

Leeks are one of the milder members of the onion family (Allium). They don’t stink like garlic and they ]don’t make your eyes water like onions. Another legend of leeks is that if a young maiden where to sleep with a leek under her pillow she would dream of her future betrothed. Try that with an onion or clove of garlic and you may scare away vampires, but you may end up an old maid, at least dreamwise.

This year, I’m planning on putting leeks in the landscape. Landscapers and designers frequently use ornamental garlic in their plans for the interesting ball-like clusters of purple flowers it shows. Leeks will do the same thing (only with white ball-like flowers), but a far better use is to harvest them before the flowers, when their tunicate bulbs can be used for making leek potato soup. In the edible landscape, the chief ornamental quality is the cascade of dark green linear leaves. Planted en masse (so you can harvest them in stages) it makes an effective backdrop for more showy annuals or perennials. I’ll let you know how they work in the landscape. They’ve never disappointed me in the vegetable garden.


Jan. 19, 2011: I’ve grown Swiss chard for years in the garden. I grow lots of it because its hardy. I live in a valley in the Coastal Range that I like to call “Little Siberia”, as I am routinely 10 degrees colder than the Portland Metro area. I’ve had frosts as late as the third week in June. In a good year, I might get tomatoes, but peppers and corn – forget it. But chard - ah, that's always been an earner.

Last year I got to thinking about chard as a landscape plant and tried some in my yard. I would say, not immodestly, it was a success. So, back to this idea of edible landscaping. Plants in an edible landscape have 2 functions: edibility and ornamentation. It’s a tricky balance because if you completely harvest your edible plants, why you have no landscaping and if you never harvest, well you’ve got no edibility. The best plants then are those you can harvest and they still remain behind. This is not so hard to achieve with woody perennial shrubs and trees, but with herbaceous perennials and annuals there is a smaller palette. That is particularly true for incorporating annual garden vegetables into the landscape. For one thing, not many are all that ornamental and secondly, you are usually removing quite a bit of the plant in harvesting. When dealing with garden vegetables, they are treated as annuals often with a very limited time span as a landscape ornamental.

Not so chard. Chard is an annual but I’ve had it last into the winter. I’ve found it to survive down to 20 degrees. It can be planted early spring and last until late fall and winter. The ornamental value of chard lies in its lush green (and now in purple) foliage and brightly colored stems. The most eye catching variety of chard is “Bright Lights”which has red, yellow and white stems. If you want big and green, “Fordhook Giant” is a cultivar that has been around a long while. I used it in my edible landscape trial last year with success (though I’ll try “Bright Lights” this year for pizzazz.) There is even a purple leaved variety called “Prima Rossa”. In the cool spring, it’s purple. When temperatures warm, it turns green with red veins.

Most chard is grown from seed, which in landscape is hard to be successful with. If you use started plants as you can often find in cell-packs at local nurseries, there should be no problem.

A single chard plant produces a number of basal stems much like celery. This means you can harvest the outer stems and the plant keeps producing. You can eat your chard and view it too. Though climate hardy, chard is not immune from pest problems. In the vegetable garden it gets aphids and chard leaf miner, a little grub that burrows between the upper and lower layers of a leaf. You can actually see the little leaf miner grub if you hold a leaf up to the light and cut it out with scissors and eat the rest of the leaf, but that may not be for the squeamish. Chard is also susceptible to g** d**n gophers (as you can see I have little love for gophers). In the fall, when rain softens the soil, these rodents from hell will burrow along a row of chard (or beets, also in the same family) and eat just the roots. They then wait in hiding for some unsuspecting gardener to go out to pull some produce and wind up flat on their tuckus. Gophers are cruel.In the landscape though, garden vegetables will be less prone to pest problems because they are isolated in small groups with numerous other plant species around them. In a vegetable garden, they are concentrated and more vulnerable than in a landscape.

What do you do with chard once it’s in the kitchen? Lots and there are a lot better resources on the Internet for the many great ways to cook with chard than I can summarize here. You can treat the leaves like you would spinach, you can treat the stems like you would celery, and if you want to harvest them before the gophers do, it blanches and freezes easily for winter-round use. Bon appétit!


Jan.2, 2011: The sun is out . . . and it’s 18 degrees in my valley. Oregon is the same latitude as Minnesota and Northern New York. The only thing that keeps us in Western Oregon from frostbite is the rain and its clouds. Yes, it’s the devil’s bargain, but I’d rather be soggy than a block of ice. And it won’t keep me from craving vegetables from the garden or fantasizing about them, which I am now about to do.

You don’t have to have a tilled chunk of ground to eat from your landscape. I am a big believer in edible landscaping – incorporating edible herbaceous and perennial plants into a contemporary landscape so it is both functional and aesthetic and edible. Your yard does not have to look like Old McDonald’s farm to get there. I highly recommend “Edible Landscaping” by Rosalind Creasy, to get a full picture of the art and science.

So, I thought I would start a series on some of my favorite edible plants in the landscape. Afterwards, I might then start a series on which plants not to eat in the landscape . . . maybe “Death in the Garden: A Lucretia Borgia Guide to the Landscape”. Anyways, let the series begin.


Elderberry or elder. In the Pacific Northwest, we have 3 native varieties – Sambucus cerulea (Blue Elderberry) and Sambucus racemosa (Red Elderberry) and Sambucus callicarpa (Coast Red Elderberry). I say respect your elders for elders are not entirely benign. It’s sort of like having a family member in the Mob. They can be very generous, but if you take too much from them or the wrong stuff you’ll end up being kneecapped or at worst, whacked. Most parts of the elder are toxic ranging from mild (if you eat a quart) to very toxic (a handful), but the part most people (and kids) are likely to encounter are the berries and flowers. Here the simple rule to remember: the blue elderberries are edible raw in moderate quantities, the red elderberries you better cook or avoid. All elderberries must be harvested when fully ripe. I’ve had both varieties raw and haven’t dropped dead yet, but I wouldn’t take that as assurance from me. The rest of the plant (leaves, bark, roots) are indeed poisonous, but have long been used in folk medicine by both Native American and Western cultures for over 70 ailments. Unless, you’re an experienced herbalist, I’d be wary of self medication.

Now to say that blue elder berries are delicious, to me, is a stretch. Elderberries are small to begin with and have little crunchy seeds in them and tastewise are . . . OK. Not something I would munch on while watching Sunday football, but you add a little sugar to them in the form of jelly or jam, buona tavola! The berries are very high in vitamins A and C and anti-oxidants. Research is currently underway to develop elder as an anticancer drug. I like to add a handful of elderberries to a large bowl of ice cream. Makes me feel like I’m eating healthy.

My favorite use is "elder blow". These are the flower clusters that are produced in abundance in June and July. Just snip the flower clusters off, dip in the best pancake batter you can make, and fry them up. It’s a pancake with a handle on it. I learned that from Euell Gibbons, the man who popularized wild food foraging and Grapenuts cereal back in the 60’s. When my daughter was young, I would delight her and her friends with breakfasts of elder blow pancakes and fried daylily donuts. Dad was “nature cool” then, as opposed to the teenage years when Dad somehow evolved into a “nature nut” and he had to eat the elder blow pancakes by himself. That’s when I turned to elderberry vodka (vodka infused with elderberries – simpler to make than elder wine), my second favorite use of elder. It takes the edge off rejection.

So, how does elder fit in the landscape? Give it plenty of room. They are big (10-15’ high and about equal spread) multi-trunk shrubs or trees. They are extremely tough, hardy, fast growing, full/part sun, and soil tolerant. Because of its proclivity to grow in hedgerows and ditches, some have called it ditchweed, but that’s not respectful. I think the best application of elder in the landscape is in a more naturalistic part of the yard away from the house (those berries clog gutters) or they make a wonderful hedge. They can get to look a little “rangey” as the older canes die out, which means at least annual pruning, if you want an immaculate look. A couple of winter’s ago, I discovered just how hardy they are. A winter storm broke most of the crown out of one large elder. Not having anything to lose, I whacked it down to within 2 feet of the ground and by that July it was as tall as it was before and much more healthier looking.

There are also cultivars of elder bred solely for ornamental landscaping. ‘Black Beauty’ and ‘Black Lace’ have black leaves and pink flowers. Sambucus nigra laciniata is a cutleaf variety that looks akin to laceleaf maple. There are two variegated varieties: Sambucus nigra ‘ Marginata” and S. nigra ‘Aureomarginata’. There are also a handful of varieties that have been bred for fruit production, mostly in Europe where its popular food and respected.

If you’re a bird enthusiast, the blue elder is the Chez Panisse of the bird world. All the uppercrust birds I don’t normally see around the place, like cedar waxwings, will deign make their appearance to dine on my berries. With blue elderberries (and to a lesser degree the red elderberries, as they’re not as tasty) to snooze is to lose and birds never snooze. Butterflies, moths and a some little black beetle (because its ended up in my pancakes) are all also attracted to elder flowers. If you haven’t eaten off all the flowers for pancakes, you had best get out there harvesting berries as soon as they’re fully ripe.

Now, here is one of the tricky conundrums of edible landscaping. In landscaping, we use edible plants not only for their food utility but also to look good, to have a certain amount of ornamental quality. Otherwise, all you’ve got is a vegetable garden around your house and not a landscape. Very often the ornamental characteristic of those plants are what we’re eating. You can’t view your elder blow and eat it too! Just a little cautionary reminder. It’s OK to have edible landscaping and not eat it, though. It’s perfectly acceptable to say, “Yes, I can eat my landscape, but right now I choose not to. Maybe in the next economic turndown . . . “

One last important characteristic of elder. Elder branches have quite large center piths. These can be easily punched out with a hot piece of hanger wire to form a hollow tube. Those same Native Americans and Europeans, who had utilized elder for its many other properties, used them to create flutes. Later, generations of school children would discover this and use elder to create not music , but another instrument of self expression (and torture) - the spitwad shooter. I know, because as a constant resident of the back row at public school (and often the detention row in study hall), I used elder to express my individuality. I even made them for my fellow delinquents and called them Death Elders (that was pretty cool back in the Coolidge years). Talking recently with a K-12 colleague, I was informed, much to my sadness, that the spitwad shooter is no longer. Whether today’s kids are more disciplined, more interested in their classes or have higher technological means to disrupt their classes, I don’t know, but an important piece of our culture has passed.

“Eh, cafone! Show some respect! “ that Mob guy might say. Elder either can provide us with beauty and food in the landscape or a slimy paper wad in the eye . . . or worse.

F & P