An Edible Hedgerow in the City
By Joshua Burman Thayer
“Thrush in a Fig Tree” illustration by Rigel Stuhmiller
In our densely packed urban areas, space is at a premium. Courtyards, corridors, driveways, and narrow strips along property lines can seem lost for gardening use, but there are strategies for filling those zones with plants you can really enjoy and maybe even harvest for the table.
Evergreen Edible Hedges
Evergreen hedges can enhance privacy along your property lines while also softening the wind’s impact on your yard. If that hedge can also produce food for your table, you have a real bonus. The following trees and shrubs are typically grown fairly far apart, but planted close together, they can be pruned to work like hedges.
Olive (Olea europaea), an ancient staple, thrives in many parts of California. Olive growers here are putting in new groves using trees developed for high-density planting and pruning them into skinny rows for easy harvest. Ask at your local nursery for olive trees you could grow this way. You’ll boost productivity by planting two cultivars, such as mission and manzanillo, both of which do well in the East Bay.
Pomegranate (Punica granatum) loves our dry-summer “Mediterranean” climate. Depending on how you prune it, you can have a large shrub, a small tree, or even a container plant. It needs full sun to be healthy but requires little attention. I have seen mature pomegranate shrubs still thriving in completely abandoned lots. Good pomegranate varieties to consider are Parfianka and Grenada.
Pineapple guava (Acca sellowiana), aka feijoa, is a slow-growing South American shrub that’s possibly underrated for its ornamental value as well its edible petals, flowers, and delightfully sweet and sour fruits. It can be trained to espalier, and tolerates wet or dry conditions. Good varieties to plant are Moore and Nazemetz.
Deciduous Edible Hedges
For borders where privacy isn’t the main concern, consider these deciduous plants for edible abundance.
A forgiving plant, fig (Ficus carica) offers harvests of both fruits and leaves. It takes sun or shade and tolerates pruning to whatever size or shape you want. Try planting a row of black mission or black jack spaced at least six feet apart.
Apple and pear trees can be very useful in corridors. John Valenzuela, an active member of the California Rare Fruit Growers, taught me that you can trick apple and pear trees into feeling that they are in a cooler climate by planting them in part-shade areas. These are species that evolved in wetter regions with frequent grey-sky days, so they tolerate a lack of full sun and actually enjoy a cooler spot during their dormancy. Good apple varieties to plant in the East Bay are Gala, Fuji, and Pink Lady. For pears, try Bosc, d’Anjou, and Asian varieties.
If you have especially narrow spaces you want to plant, consider espaliered apple or pear trees. Nurseries sell trees that are pre-trained to set six or eight branches extending in two dimensions, much the way grapevines are trained in vineyards. In each growing season, the branches might add about one foot in length, and the depth of the mature tree can be kept pruned as narrow as two feet. When pruned to human height, they offer fruit that’s easy to harvest, and you won’t lose direct light into other parts of the garden. When buying a 15-gallon espalier apple or pear tree, understand that it’s a multi-year-old specimen, and thus the price per plant may seem high. One advantage of pre-trained stock is that you can buy a tree that’s been grafted with multiple cultivars, which means a diverse harvest through a longer season.
more ways to shape your space
Build an arbor or make use of an existing fence to grow table grapes. Concord and Thompson are my personal favorites, but if you like to encourage natives, try planting Vitis californica, our local native grape. It will grow quickly with a profusion of vines and leaves. The fruit is small and seedy, so it might not be as appealing for the table, but some people still like to eat it (and you’ll make wildlife happy).
Kiwi (Actinidia), another plant that needs a supporting structure, does well in the East Bay, and you might get a bumper crop of the fruit each year. Note that it needs full sun, and you will need a male and a female as they are dioecious plants.
Growing hops (Humulus lupulus) is a great way to add hyper-local terroir to your home brew. The plants climb on vertical trellises, but make sure to choose a space that can accommodate a plant that grows to 15 feet tall in a single season.
Some property lines do not warrant big or decorative plantings, and especially in spots where you want to discourage foot traffic, a berry zone is a great option. Pile up soil roughly two feet high to create a small berm for your shrubs. Raspberries (Rubus) are easy to grow and tolerate sun or some shade. Divide the plants every two years to start new berry zones elsewhere. Edible currants (Ribes), which tolerate sun or shade, are elegant perennials that will give you lots of small but deliciously tart treats. Elderberry (Sambucus), a tall shrub depending on how you prune it, produces tart fruits that are prized for their medicinal value and can feed humans as well as any wild animals you might like to encourage in your environment.
Green Up Your Hardscape
Our urban environment is full of paved areas, driveways, walls, and other human-made landscape structures that you may wish to screen or soften, and planting on a hardscape surface is so easy to do with raised beds. A redwood or cedar box can be left unstained and still last a long time, or consider a steel horse trough as an easier and more affordable option. A raised bed on the edge of the property line can hold a couple of trees, and you can plant the front edge with seasonal vegetables.
Joshua provides lots of good advice on how to implement these ideas, plus other subjects, in his monthly Gardener’s Notebook, a feature of Edible East Bay’s free e-newsletter.
Joshua Burman Thayer is a permaculture designer and educator. A regular contributor to Edible East Bay, he has also written for Mother Earth News and Edible Silicon Valley. Find Josh and his work at nativesungardens.com, and follow him on Twitter at @nativesungarden.