Leslie Bennett speaks with Garden Tribe "about her approach to gardening, what inspires her, and her top five tips for people who want to grow their own edible garden."
Leslie Bennett is the owner of Pine House Edible Gardens, an Oakland-based landscape design firm that creates beautiful, edible gardens. She told us about her approach to gardening, what inspires her, and her top five tips for people who want to grow their own edible garden.
Tell us about your garden and your approach to gardening.
My client gardens are a really fun mix of curated style and food production. I combine my interests in food and design as I approach each garden I create. First I think about all the food that I, or my clients, want to be able to grow in a garden—it’s usually a pretty long list of familiar favorites like tomatoes and apples, and then also some “wish” items like pomegranate or avocado, that people aren’t sure are possible to grow in their home garden. Usually, I look at the list and figure we can grow almost everything—it’s just a matter of figuring out how to fit it all in and still make it look good! Once I’ve gotten a sense of the food to be grown, I take a close look at the space and decide what overall style will work best for the garden and what look and mood I want to create. Once I know the aesthetic I am going for, I start to figure out how to use edible plant material, including fruit trees, vegetables, edible flowers and herbs, to achieve the look I want, and also to maximize food production. For example, I might move some ornamental trees out of a super sunny spot so I can put the space to better use with a trio of fruit-producing espaliered fig trees—they have such beautiful foliage and the homegrown fruit is so good eaten fresh from the tree! I use tons of ornamental trees and shrubs, and flowering perennials, too—because I love them—and also because they support food production by attracting pollinators, can be used for flower harvests, and they make the overall space more beautiful and inspiring to live with.
When did you first start to garden? What did you grow?
I got my start in gardening as a farmer! Actually, I’d trained as an environmentalist and lawyer and, in my mid-twenties was working as a (non-environmental) lawyer, and felt totally chained to my desk and disconnected from real life. I got super interested in food, and learning how to grow it, and how to generally be a more practical person, so started volunteering and WWOOFing at small organic farms on the weekends. I was living in England at the time, and there is such a great agricultural history there, and still so much of a really authentic sense of seasonality in the way people live and eat. I got so excited about the first asparagus, and rhubarb harvests of the season, and loved the various people I met who were doing things like making apple cider, and creating rural homesteads, that I quit my job and, over several years, did a series of volunteer work, trainings and farm apprenticeships at farms in England, Jamaica, and Northern California (Mendocino and Grass Valley areas). I grew everything from English apples, to Jamaican callaloo, to heirloom tomatoes and okra. But there were never enough flowers! Or enough of a design element, for the farms to really have my heart. So, I moved on and dedicated myself to learning as much as I could about how to create beautiful, food producing gardens that included food but were also visually inspiring spaces that people could live with.
Who or what inspires you in the garden?
I am inspired by the sense that every space and season has its own beauty and that we are connected to and an integral part of this natural beauty. The beauty is not always easily apparent, but it is always there—if you look for the true character of the space and season, and can figure out how to highlight its natural qualities. Same goes for us, plus spending time creating and enjoying natural beauty, i.e. a garden, tends to bring out the best in ourselves. I am also inspired by the color green. Good thing as there’s a lot of that in the vegetable garden! But, also, in ornamental plants—foliage textures and shades of green are endlessly lovely to me! As for food, I love it all and especially find the “trial and error” aspect of growing food to be so interesting—things like trying to grow sweet potatoes in Alameda, is it possible?! Also, apricots, I just love them. So much. The trees themselves and the fruits.
What do you love to grow? What’s your favorite plant at the moment?
I love to grow pomegranates because they are so evocative of the Meditteranean, and the good life… and because their red flowers and fruits add such a bright, kicky punch to the garden. I also love the Japanese herb shisho—it’s absolutely beautiful and such a unusual, fresh addition to summer salads—and edible flowers such as agastache and blue cornflower. They make the kitchen garden so pretty and make any food you prepare look so special.
We know you’re an amazing edible landscaper, but what was your biggest gardening fail?
My biggest gardening fail was probably forgetting to test the soil at a garden and later realizing that the soil was in fact contaminated with lead, so I had to remove all the edible plants and put in camellias! Booo… Test your soil!!
What are your top five tips for someone wanting to start growing their own edible garden?
- Start small! Create a smaller kitchen garden area within your larger landscape. You’ll grow your annual vegetables like kale and tomatoes here, but take it easy, you don’t need much space to grow a lot of food and you don’t want to overwhelm yourself!
- Grow herbs: go for a full collection of culinary herbs, including things like marjoram, chervil, savory and shiso (!) so you can keep up with your best recipe books and get creative by using them freely in simple things like salads
- And edible flowers: remember, if you can eat the leaves, you can eat the flowers (this goes for flowering basils like African Blue Basil, agastaches, rosemary, and more)!
- Be organic. And use really good quality compost, lots of it.
- Take your time and lay out your edible plants (fruit trees, vegetables, and herbs) as carefully as you do other parts of your garden. They can all be really beautiful elements of your garden if you take the time place them carefully so their natural beauty is highlighted!
Leslie Bennett is the owner of Pine House Edible Gardens, an Oakland-based landscape design firm that creates beautiful, edible gardens. She is also co-author of The Beautiful Edible Garden (Ten Speed Press, 2013). Pine House works to design outdoor spaces that provide as much visual enjoyment as they do delicious, super-local, organic food. Her company puts together a unique set of design, fine gardening and organic farming skills at your service, offering design, installation, full service maintenance & harvesting, and garden coaching services— essentially whatever it takes to transform your yard into a beautiful, productive garden! Leslie’s work has been featured in Sunset Magazine, C Magazine, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, and Gardenista.com.