When someone asked me to help her design a grazing garden, my first thought was, “Wow, I’ve never done that.” But I quickly realized that I have my own grazing garden at home. I didn’t design it for that purpose, but it’s rare for me to go into the garden without nibbling on something. My friend’s request put me on the spot, though: How would I define and plan a grazing garden?
Some things are mandatory. To begin with, a grazing garden must be managed organically. You’re going to put things, probably unwashed, straight in your mouth. (If you are squeamish, swishing in clean water will remove most dust and dirt.)
Next, of course, your garden should be crammed with things you are tempted to eat straight off the plant, vine or tree, and you don’t need a lot of any one thing. What you want is variety, and you can tuck a little bit of something in a very small space. It takes one square foot of ground to grow a carrot patch or a tower of snap peas.
It’s generally best to separate areas destined for annual crops from perennial plants, bushes and fruit trees. Annuals benefit from richer growing conditions, while perennials resent root disturbance.
A formal garden design such as might be used for an herb garden could easily be adapted for a grazing garden simply by alternating beds designated for annuals and perennials. You might give the garden a backdrop of espaliered apples and Asian pears, with a mini-dwarf apple tree as a centerpiece or a columnar apple in a big pot. Or a fig tree, if you have the space. Nothing benefits more from being eaten straight off the tree, warmed by sun.
There is no need to segregate flowers and vegetables, of course! Organic gardens need plants that attract insects, both predators and pollinators. Just mingle perennial flowers with perennial herbs and fruit, and annual flowers with annual vegetables. The easy way to do the latter is with self-sowing annual flowers that volunteer: Nigella (love in the mist) and nasturtiums are well established in my garden, popping up in any available spot along with the corn salad and wild arugula. You just have to remember to leave a few of everything to go to seed.
Nasturtium flowers are edible and delicious, much less spicy than the leaves and green, unripe seeds. Other annual flowers worth eating are calendula, borage and pansy. Leave a few plants of arugula, mustard, kale and coriander and chervil to make tasty flowers. Pollinators love them, too. Among perennials are rose, rosemary, lavender, bee balm and chives. Some flowers are toxic, so please don’t branch out without a bit of research.
The plant that I personally identify as the archetypal grazing-garden candidate is the alpine strawberry, or fraise des bois. This is a dainty, ever-bearing plant without the runners we associate with cultivated strawberries. The pointy fruits are tiny, the flavor unsurpassed.
You could in theory plant enough of these to fill a bowl for dinner, but you’d get tired of picking them. They are perfect, however, for random grazing. The plants are short-lived in my garden, but self-sow politely. White Flower Farm (mail order) has offered a superior strain for many years, and I spotted something similar at Down to Earth this spring.
Another fruit ideally suited for casual sampling is the blueberry. I recommend Sunshine Blue or some other dwarf blueberry, as they continue fruiting over a period of many weeks and don’t take up much room. Blueberries fruit best in full sun but they will grow and even fruit in light shade. So will our native evergreen huckleberry, and the blackcurrant of incomparable flavor from which cassis is made.
I don’t know much about the new dwarf red raspberry sold under the trade name BrazelBerries Raspberry Shortcake, other than it’s thornless and looks adorable in pots. The extra drainage provided by pots makes them practical, too, since raspberries are susceptible to root rot in our climate.
If you like to munch on leafy greens, it is nice to have a few that are perennial and a few that self-sow. Spicy Sylvetta wild arugula falls in both categories. It’s a cut-and-come-again tap-rooted perennial that will volunteer all over, but excess plants are very easy to hoe away when young. French sorrel is a long-lived perennial with pleasantly sour leaves. When it sends up flowering stems, cut it back hard and feed it, and you’ll get a fresh crop of tender leaves. French tarragon and lovage are other perennial herbs I like to nibble on.
Even if you grow a lot of tomatoes, it’s worth growing some with bite-size fruit for snacking. Cherry tomatoes like Sweet 100 and Sungold are perfect, growing on compact, easy-to-manage vines. They also succeed in less than perfect summers. EW editor Ted Taylor likes to munch on ground cherries, also known as ground tomatoes. He says this yellow tomato relative with a papery husk is one of the few things that grows well in his shady raised beds.