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Q&A: Ivette Soler and 'The Edible Front Yard'

October 24, 2011 | 12:02 pm

0-Ivette-Soler-tomato-barreLos Angeles garden designer Ivette Soler presses a landscaping philosophy that places her somewhere on the continuum between artfully edgy and classically pragmatic. She is passionate about putting veggies, herbs and fruiting plants in the spotlight by creating edible gardens that have curb appeal, and Soler's book, "The Edible Front Yard: The Mow-Less, Grow-More Plan for a Beautiful, Bountiful Garden" (Timber Press, 2011), is a compendium of stylish ways to blend edible plants with ornamental ones.

PHOTO GALLERY: 'Edible Front Yard'

It's no surprise that good design is Soler's primary motivation, since she spent more than a decade as a design associate with Judy Kameon's Elysian Landscapes. Soler left that venture in early 2010 to write a blog and to launch her own landscape design practice, both called the Germinatrix. She and her husband, Jan Tumlir, live in Eagle Rock, where their front, side and back yards, as well as the strips along the sidewalk, contain an eclectic combination of edibles and ornamentals.

Skeptics may think enthusiasm for food gardening has clouded good judgment about growing fruit and vegetables in the front yard, where contamination from cats, dogs, coyotes, cars and other urban staples remains a distinct possibility, if not likelihood.  But Soler remains unfazed, advancing a particular brand of edible gardening that weights aesthetics as heavily as taste. We talked to Soler about the book and her recommendations for what plant this fall for this edited Q&A:

What type of vegetables add curb appeal? Which ones don't?

It's funny,  I was never one to segregate edibles and ornamentals. I don't believe in horticultural xenophobia. Living here in Southern California gives us the opportunity to use so many herbs, vegetables and edible flowers almost year-round. One of my favorite vegetables that has more impact than many other garden-variety plants is the artichoke. It has amazingly striking gray-green serrated leaves, the choke itself is super cool, and then if you decide to let it bloom -- Bam! -- total gorgeousness! Pair it with bronze fennel, and you have an edible combination that will stop traffic. And that is just the tip of the iceberg (lettuce, get it?).

On the other hand, there are edibles that you should think hard about when planting in the front yard. All curcurbits, for example -- squashes, cucumbers, zucchinis, melons -- have leaves which are susceptible to powdery mildew and end up looking ratty rather quickly. Save those for your back yard, or if you only have front-yard growing space, place them towards the back of your beds where they can be hidden by the other beauties in your front yard. Tomatoes, too, can look a little worse for wear as the season goes on. Make sure you have your tomatoes climbing on a great structure that will keep them looking neater.

How do you address questions like "What will the neighbors say?" to that mini-cornfield on a street where front lawns otherwise thrive?

Often, there will be some severe blowback, especially if you live in a suburb or planned community. Just this summer a woman in Michigan was threatened with 93 days in jail for having four raised beds where she was growing vegetables for her family. Isn't that astonishing? The fact that we can't do what we want with our own property is shocking to many, but I can understand it -- our property values are linked to those of our neighbors. Most people wouldn't want a car up on blocks in a front yard next door, and while a cornfield certainly isn't that extreme, a functioning farm that has to be harvested, tilled under, amended and so on may be an eyesore to neighbors and appraisers. This is why I advocate an integrated approach -- combining your edibles with ornamentals to create an edible front yard rather than a front yard farm.

Describe how you incorporate edibles into ornamental gardens?

In my drought-tolerant front yard [front path pictured above], I use herbs like sages and thymes as under-plantings for my agaves and phormiums; I tuck fennel (both bulbing green and bronze forms) behind roses to create a feathery backdrop; and my artichokes take pride of place. In my book, there are examples of front yards with raised beds that are dedicated to edibles surrounded with ornamental beds overflowing with salvias, lavenders and grasses, as well as front yards that have small patches of lawn with edibles and flowers mixed into the surrounding borders. There is a style of ornamental edible gardening for everyone.

How can you have a drought-tolerant garden that also contains edibles?

I like to cluster plants with similar cultural needs together, so in Southern California that means using herbs that grow perfectly in a lean, Mediterranean soil. I've always used tough Mediterranean herbs like marjoram as an under-planting for agaves and aloes. They thrive together.

But that also means plants that need more water can grow together. You can incorporate pretty kales and strawberries, which look like flowers themselves, with perennials. Lettuces and fennel combine really beautifully with roses -- and that's an entire edible arrangement, because rose hips are edible. Pop a rose hip in your smoothie and you'll get a great source of vitamin C.

Now that fall is here, what are your recommendations?

Our fall is like spring in most parts of the country, and, since we plant our fall garden a little later, our fall and winter edibles can last through the onset of everyone else's spring. To me, fall means kale -- and you can plant gorgeous gardens just with different kale varieties, including Lacinato, Redbor and Red Russian. Giant red mustard is also a winter plant I wouldn't be without, for structure and color (and a jolt of flavor) and the leafy, tangy red mizuna is one of my cold-season favorites.

Fall is also a perfect time to get your lettuces started. When choosing salad greens, you can go crazy, since there are so many eye-catching varieties to plant. Choose from frizzled, speckled, ruby-red or chartreuse green lettuces; experiment with color and texture and plant them en masse at the bottom of a stand of sugar snap peas or fava beans. When you start thinking ornamentally with your edible plantings, gardening becomes like playing, and the results are delicious.

-- Debra Prinzing

L.A. at Home's garden coverage includes a weekly column on sustainable landscaping and a forthcoming series on gardening on a budget and global gardening -- growing fruits and vegetables from around the world. Follow our coverage by joining our Facebook page devoted to gardening.

The leaves of an ornamental potato vine as a backdrop to pequin peppers.


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Photos: Ann Summa / Timber Press