The most basic question when it comes to edible gardening is this: What is an edible garden? Our generic answer is a little too simple: A garden with edible plants, of course! But there’s another key question lurking behind the surface of the first: Edible…for whom?
Our answer to that takes us deep into garden philosophy-land. But here’s the short and sweet version: You want to eat what you work so hard to grow, and you should certainly do so. But we recommend integrating into the “edible-for-you” garden plants that provide food and/or habitat to birds, bees, butterflies, and other creatures, too. Because if the beneficial insects and native species are well-fed, your yield from domesticated crops will be more robust, and you’ll also have more choices for harvest. Plus, the ripple effect of a well-balanced garden that feeds more than just you is a healthier ecosystem and healthier planet.
You might expect to share some of the classic edible-for-you goodies with other critters (for feeding feeding beneficial insects, think Apiaceae family members like dill, carrot, and parsley and Asteraceae family members like lettuce, sunflower, and chamomile). But in addition to sharing with them what’s primarily good for you, you can also share some of what’s primarily edible for them.
Native plants are the best way to feed native creatures: this goes for beneficial insects, which provide services like pollination and pest control and for birds and other animals, as well. Native plants are adapted to our soils and climate so they need relatively little or no watering, fertilizing, or care once established. They are generally less susceptible to common garden pests and diseases, and they attract a variety of native birds and butterflies by providing food and shelter.
Here are some of our favorite natives that are good both for you and for wildlife:
Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium) Berries are tart but make great preserves; young leaves can be used fresh in salads. All plant parts have medicinal properties, based in part on the high berberine content; root is especially potent, and is used as an alternative to goldenseal in herbal medicine, as goldenseal populations are threatened.
Stinging nettles (Urtica dioica) These are not easy to grow on purpose, and anyway, we wouldn’t recommend planting them where anyone–especially children or pets–will come in direct contact with them… But if you have safe and contained space to dedicate to them, they are phenomenal allies! Leaves are full of protein and vitamins A, C, iron, potassium, manganese, and calcium, and they taste like spinach (and don’t sting any longer!) when cooked. They are also beneficial for allergy sufferers and insects.
Oxalis (Oxalis oregana) Groundcover is important for providing shelter for little creatures, and oxalis (a.k.a. sourgrass or wood sorrel) is a wonderful ground cover–and it’s tasty, too! We like to eat it for a quick treat while hiking, and it is good around a garden, too. Like spinach and Swiss chard, oxalis leaves contain oxalic acid (hence the name), so eating very many leaves is not advised.
Evergreen huckleberry (Vaccinium ovatum) Huckleberries can be temperamental to grow sometimes, but they are great treats for birds (especially hummingbirds) and butterflies. They are also very tasty for people! Isabel’s great-grandma made amazing huckleberry pies; they can also be dried, and traditionally were used in combination with dried game as traveling food.
Red-flowering currant (Ribes sanguinium) Finally (for now), we have to highlight the red-flowering currant. It has one of the earliest-opening flowers in spring, and provides much-needed nectar for bees. Although these aren’t domesticated currants, their fruits can be used in preserves and wine.
Some things that are edible (for you and other creatures) are NOT good to have in the garden. One example: Himalayan blackberries. Chances are, if you have Himalayan blackberry, you didn’t put it there and don’t want it to stay. Let us know if you have any blackberry issues–we get enormous satisfaction from removing invasive species!
You can find a directory of native plant nurseries at the East Multnomah Soil and Water Conservation District (EMSWCD) website, and you can get them directly from EMSWCD during the 10th Annual Native Plant Sale. Pre-Orders close Sunday, February 6th at 11 pm; pay for and pick up plants on Saturday, February 19th from 10 am-3 pm. If you’re on the west side of the metro area or elsewhere, check out West Multnomah Soil and Water Conservation District (WMSWCD), or your local SWCD.