By Kathy Canavan
Special to Delaware Business Times
There’s a new niche market for the savviest garden centers — foodscaping.
It’s a small sliver of the $47.8 billion Americans spent on their lawns and gardens last year, but it’s growing annually.
Foodscaping is landscaping with a twist. Home gardeners may use edible thyme as a ground cover. They may hang a strawberry basket, fill a garden bed with edible pansies or violets, or plant blueberry bushes as an attractive and appetizing hedge.
The trend has its roots in the easy-peasy square-foot-gardening renaissance of the late 1990s, and it grew again during the 2008 Recession as homeowners added food plants to their flower beds to save money. Now, some garden centers that stock the pollinator plants and flashy edibles customers seek say they are seeing a decided increase in sales of edibles.
Karen Fox, gardening specialist at Wharton’s Landscaping in Rehoboth, said sales of edibles have grown 25 percent to 30 percent over the past three years. Steve Keulmann, owner of Old Country Gardens in North Wilmington, said his edibles sales have risen 10 percent to 15 percent every year and they continue to grow.
“We’ve had a great amount of interest from the customers in their 20s and 30s wanting to grow their own food so they have control over what pesticides are used,” Fox said.
Vikram Krishnamurthy, executive director of the Delaware Center for Horticulture, said kitchen gardens and cutting gardens are becoming so popular that the center hosted a lecture on kitchen garden design last year.
Krishnamurthy said many homeowners are turning to multi-colored edible chards and kales for fall gardens. “They add a nice pop of color at a time when fall flowers are kind of getting to the end of their lifespan,” he said. “In the last five years, there are so many new cultivars that are really adding color to the landscape. Vegetables are great for filling in the blank areas of the landscape as your annuals are starting to peter out.”
Fox said her favorite hedge to use in a landscape design is a line of blueberry plants. It provides blueberries in season, followed by beautiful blue-and-green foliage that turns into a spectacular red-and-orange color in the fall, she said.
For several years, Keulmann has seen a steady trend toward edibles at Old Country Gardens.
“A lot of people are doing container gardening on their patios and decks too,” Keulmann said. “The selection and varieties have increased dramatically in the lasts 10 years. Now they’ve brought back the heirloom varieties that people’s grandparents grew. And I think there’s more interest in growing food because they can control what goes into it.”
“The trend is to create more edible gardens and less lawn,” said Wharton’s Fox. An unintended benefit of foodscaping is producing vegetable plant waste material that acts a natural filter as it flows into drainage systems leading to coastal streams and tributaries, she said.
Not everybody is planting edibles with an eye on the dinner menu. Keulmann said some of his customers put herbs and vegetables in with their flowers just for color and texture. Thyme makes a fragrant ground cover that repels some animals. Oregano, used to treat maladies for generations, cascades beautifully out of hanging baskets.
Some garden centers aren’t experiencing a noticeable uptick in foodscaping. Fran Earl, manager of Delaware Landscaping in Dover, said some customers are growing vegetables in window boxes, planters or pots on the deck, but many just want a low-maintenance traditional landscape. “Millennials don’t really seem to have the time. You’ve got both parents working. You’ve got kids in school. I don’t see a lot of younger people in the market now,” she said. “The younger generation might put in a couple of shrubs, mow the lawn and call it a day.”
And, it’s not just adult humans who are chomping down on the foodscape. Keulmann and Fox said many of their customers are planting for pollinators like the birds and the butterflies. “There’s a tremendous interest in monarch butterflies,” Keulmann said.
The foodscaping movement could have a very long tail as many young parents are getting their children out into the garden with them too. “The younger generation is bringing their children into it,” Fox said. “When kids are involved in gardening, it’s easier to get them to eat the food.”
There’s another important factor that will probably ensure that that the sales spike in edible plants will continue next year at the centers that offer choices and guidance. “Produce is a large chunk of your food bill, so it’s also something that helps with the household budget,” Fox said.