Including easy edible plants in your garden is a must for anyone who enjoys cooking. Even if you only have a small garden or courtyard, there is potential to fit in a selection of beautiful, easy to grow plants with edible flowers or leaves that you can use in salads, teas or include as an interesting addition to all sorts of other dishes.
Herbs are the obvious choice for easy edibles and most of us are familiar with rosemary, sage, thyme, mint and chives. But what about the less well known herbs such as sweet cecily, lovage, salad burnet or lemon balm? So many of these perennial plants are unfussy and easy grow and have the added benefit of being magnets for insects and birds too.
If you put a little thought into it, and plant in larger groups where you can, you can easily have a ready supply of salads and herbs throughout the year with little need to buy supermarket salads. Each year I grow a few annual lettuces, rocket and spinach to bulk up my edible leaves. With a few plants on the go at any one time I rarely need to buy salad leaves.
The benefit of perennial plants over annuals is that they come back year after year and need little attention apart from cutting back when the growth starts to look a little tired. This means less time spent planting and less need to do anything to the soil. The plants and the soil stay put and create their own ecosystem that needs little input from us.
What to grow?
So what plants can you easily include in your garden borders? And what might you already be growing that you didn’t know was edible?
Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) A very easy herb to grow. One that will self-seed itself about if happy so take care to pull up any stray seedlings. Lemon balm is a herb that you only need one of, as it can take up a lot of space. The leaves are gorgeously aromatic with a soft lemony scent. The flowers are white and attract lots of insects. Lemon balm is at its best in spring and I regularly pick it early in the year to use in herbal teas. It's good for digestion and can easily be mixed in with other herbs such as mint or sage to create a healthy tonic. Salad burnet (Sanguisorba minor) There are two things I love about this tiny plant. First the stunning crinkle cut leaves and second its evergreen growth. The young fresh leaves, of which I often have a supply of in winter, can be added to salads. When the leaves are a little older and not so tender you can use them cooked in soups or stews. I would recommend three to five plants planted along the front of the border. The flowers spikes are interesting and the foliage provides a lovely contrast to other plants. If the plant starts to look straggly at any point cut it back with garden shears to encourage fresh new growth.
Sorrel (Rumex acetosa, Rumex sanguineus, Rumex acetosella) A very useful and hardy perennial salad leaf with a flavour a little like apple skins. Be careful to eat in moderation, however, as more than your own size handful a day can lead to illness due to the oxalic acid which can be harmful if eaten in large quantities. The leaves are best in spring when they can be eaten raw in salads. It's also possible to cook for use in sauces and stews.
Columbine / granny's bonnet (Aquilegia) The fresh spring leaves of this pretty garden ornamental can be eaten raw in salads. I'm always excited to see the new spring growth of this plant as it signals the start of the growing season and a change in diet as we move away from our winter stores. Not only are the leaves edible, but the beautiful nodding flowers are a good early nectar source for many bees and provide lovely colour in the garden after a long winter.
Sedum (Hylotelephium) Another unexpected edible. The leaves of this lovely plant can be eaten throughout the year. Slightly succulent in texture they make an interesting and fresh addition to a mixed leaf salad. This plant is useful planted in groups at the front of the border where the late flowers are loved by lots of different insects. It is quite attractive to slugs and snails so you may need to surround new plants with wool to keep the slugs at bay.
Sweet cecily (Myrrhis odorata) This pretty plant is one of my favourite herbs. It's a useful addition to a garden border and can be planted in small groups in amongst other perennials towards the front of a border. The white sprays of flowers appear early in the year and are a magnet for various insects. The leaves have a gorgeous aniseed flavour and can be used fresh in salads and teas or added as a pot herb to fish dishes or risottos.
For more information on edible plants have a look at Martin Crawford's agroforestry website. He's also written an excellent and easy to use book called 'Perennial Vegetables'. If you're interested in doing a little foraging of your own have a look at the Eat Weeds website for lots of useful information.
A quick safety note - it's very important to ensure 100% ID with any foraged foods -whether you are collecting from your own garden or further afield.
If you want help creating your own edible garden get in touch with Emma at Wild Edge Garden Design.