Palo Alto Weekly

Real Estate - January 14, 2011

Gardening with good taste

Local landscaper creates edible eco-systems

by Karla Kane

For edible-landscape designer Rosalind Creasy, there's nothing better than a garden filled with succulent fruit trees, vibrant veggie patches and flourishing, fragrant herbs. Such a yard is not only aesthetically beautiful but useful too, providing nutritious, tasty food in an eco-friendly manner.

"My yard has soul," said the Los Altos resident and author of the recent book "Edible Landscaping: Now You Can Have Your Gorgeous Garden and Eat It Too!"

Creasy said she eats something homegrown just about every day, including eggs from her cherished flock of chickens. She changes her garden layout every two years to maintain creativity and experiment with a variety of plants and designs.

A current favorite area is a section of colorful wine barrels set on a brick patio, each growing crops such as blueberries, horseradish and peppers.

Anyone can create an edible landscape, she said. For newbies, herbs such as rosemary, sage and oregano are by far the easiest to start with, requiring only good soil, sunlight and watering every few days.

"I call them edible plants with training wheels; it's hard to go wrong," she said.

On the other end of the spectrum, "Almost everyone fails at peach trees. They require a lot of time, a lot of work, a lot of knowledge. When you eat an organic peach, salute the grower because it's really hard," she said.

Creasy's passion for edible landscaping blossomed early. She grew up in the Boston area and had her first vegetable garden at age 5. When she moved to Los Altos in the 1970s she became active in the environmental movement, including with the Sierra Club.

Trained as a teacher but interested in a new career after raising her two kids, she entered Foothill College's horticulture program.

The concept of edible landscaping — combining the beauty of a decorative garden with the utility of a mini-farm — was novel at the time.

"Nobody did it, nobody taught it in the U.S.," she said. But trips around the world with her late husband Robert, a frequent business traveler, revealed that outside of America, people of all cultures commonly grew fruits, vegetables and herbs in their yards.

For her final assignment in her Foothill landscape-design class, Creasy told her instructor she wanted to design an edible garden.

"I thought that would be a better use of the soil and space than ornamentals. The teacher said, 'That's considered tacky,' but I said 'I'm doing it anyway,' and he gave me an A," she recalled.

Creasy, who's taught for Palo Alto Adult School and lectures at local garden store Common Ground, published her first book, "The Complete Book of Edible Landscaping," in 1982.

"The response was unbelievable. We were on 'Good Morning America,' 'The Today Show,' in the Wall Street Journal," she said. But in those days, environmental awareness was less widespread and the concept of being a "locavore" (eating food grown locally) was not yet established. The landscape industry was, ironically, not very "green," promoting chemicals, lawns, inefficient water use and non-native plants, she said.

"It was a different world. I had to explain what recycling was. Heirloom seeds were unknown. I mean, people didn't even know about salsa 30 years ago!"

As interest in sustainability rose in recent years, Creasy decided it was time for an update to reflect the growing popularity of edible landscaping in the mainstream, following the success of local foodies such as Alice Waters and Michael Pollan.

Creasy's latest book was published by Sierra Club Books in late 2010 and offers the reader vivid color photos, eight chapters on landscape techniques, an encyclopedia of edibles and several handy indexes.

"In 30 years we've come so far. People are starting to realize local eating is better quality. Americans didn't believe edible yards could be beautiful but when I show audiences photos of my garden they gasp," she said.

For Creasy, maintaining a landscape is a pleasure, not a chore.

"People say it's a lot of work. Well to me, going to play a game of tennis is a lot of work. It's the way you look at it, the way you enjoy your time out there."

Her yard has proved a source of community for neighbors, with fascinated kids gathering to pick berries and visit her chickens.

"If you don't want to know your neighbors and delivery people, don't have an edible landscape. And I can't comprehend raising children without a veggie garden around," she said.

It's made her home a popular spot for dinner guests as well.

"People are delighted. There is an emotional element to it," she said of visitors given the opportunity to pick out their own food fresh from the garden.

"It's like, 'What would you like for supper? Let's go see!'"

For more information, visit www.rosalindcreasy.com

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People say it's a lot of work. Well to me, going to play a game of tennis is a lot of work.

— Ros Creasy, edible landscaper

Editorial Assistant Karla Kane can be e-mailed at kkane@paweekly.com.

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