Evergreen Edible & Low Maintenance plants for your balcony or container garden18 October, 2021
Most edible plants are seasonal and most evergreen plants are only ornamental. Is there a happy compromise to grow vegetables/fruits and still have a garden that doesn’t look bare in winter?
We’ve asked our expert edibles’ horticulturalist Caroline Scott to give us the solution and recommend the ultimate planting scheme for a kitchen gardener, which ought to be container and balcony friendly, suitable for UK weather and ideally low maintenance… just to be difficult 😉
Below are her best ideas for an Evergreen Edible Garden.
The brief: Evergreen, Edible, Low-maintenance Container-friendly plants, suitable for UK weather but also a little Exotic….Got you!
If you would love a low maintenance edible garden, AND year round colour and interest then edible evergreens are the way to go! Whether you would like to go fully evergreen, or to mix in some evergreens throughout your planting scheme, there are a number of options suitable for gardening in containers, on balconies and in small kitchen gardens.
Calling all edible evergreen explorers! Since most of our common foods are annuals or perennials that are dormant in winter, some of the plants in this article are more unusual fruits, leaves or flowers that are rarely available to buy in the shops. They are fantastic options if you love trying new flavours, and experimenting in the kitchen as well as the garden.
To add some more variety I’ve been a bit creative and also included a few plants that are not strictly evergreen, but do provide food or interest all year round.
We will be travelling the world with plants from all across the globe, but they are all happy growing here in the UK. Let the adventure begin!
Edible Evergreen Herbs
Our journey will start off in the Mediterranean with some of the more common herbs that you may already have in your garden.
Rosemary, Oregano, Sage and Thyme can be used in the kitchen to flavour soups and stews, in roasted potatoes and vegetables, and made into teas. They have attractive edible flowers in the summer, as well as leaves which can be used all year round. For a range of flavours and colours there are many types available including purple, variegated leaf and pineapple sage, lemon, golden, silver, and variegated leaf thymes, and white, pink or blue flowered rosemary.
Winter savory is a strongly flavoured aromatic herb, with a peppery spicy taste, that can be used to flavour all kinds of soups, stuffings and stews. It is commonly paired with beans as it can improve their digestion and stop flatulence!
Bay trees are very easy to grow, and as well as being ornamental, you can use the leaves fresh or dried all year round. In warmer areas they may produce fruit, which can also be used as a spice.
Lavender is a very aromatic evergreen, and the flowers and leaves can be used in cooking, especially sweet dishes, as well as in soaps and oils for skincare.
Originating in Russia, Roman or Russian Chamomile is an evergreen herb with small white flowers that are used for tea (after drying), and lovely scented foliage. It forms a low matt, and can be used around the base of larger plants.
Back at home, Salad Burnet grows wild in the UK, with leaves that can be used in salads. Many sources claim that the leaves taste like cucumbers, and although I’ve never tasted that myself, I do add them to salads in the winter when other leaves are scarce.
Chives, also native to the UK, are evergreen in milder locations. Keep cutting the leaves to encourage new growth.
Edible evergreen leaves and shoots
Perennial kale, descended from the wild cabbage found along our coastlines, is a very vigorous plant that produces kale leaves all year round. It must be grown from cuttings, not seed, and variegated leaf types are also available. Steam, add to stir fries, green smoothies and make kale chips (here some BBC food recipes)
Nine star perennial cauliflower is another evergreen that is grown for the small cauliflower shoots that appear in spring. Keep picking them and the plant will produce more! The leaves can also be eaten.
Swiss Chard is a very easy to grow plant that’s similar to spinach, available in stunning rainbow colours. My favourite varieties are ‘passion pink’ and ‘sunset yellow’. The stems and leaves are both edible, and in milder locations the plants will keep producing leaves all year round, and last for a few years if not allowed to flower.
Saltbush (Atriplex canescens) Originating in sunny exposed locations, this is a beautiful small shrub with silvery grey leaves that are tasty in salads or cooked. The leaves have a slight salty taste, and can be harvested all year round. Prefers well drained soil and full sun.
Turkish Rocket (Bunius orientalis) is sometimes known as Turkish warty cabbage, but don’t let the name put you off this easy to grow plant! Harvest immature flowering stems and use them as sprouting broccoli. The leaves are best eaten young, and can be too bitter for some people.
Wild Rocket is a perennial plant that self seeds readily. Its spicy leaves and yellow flowers can both be harvested all year round in milder locations.
Kings Spear, (Asphodeline Lutea) is not evergreen but does provide interest throughout the winter. A common ornamental, during winter you can eat the leaf bundles by removing the tougher ends and cooking as leeks. They produce lovely sweet edible flowers in spring and summer, and then go dormant in late summer, re-growing in autumn.
Edible evergreen shrubs and trees
Blueberries are delicious fruits, and some varieties are evergreen, such as ‘sunshine blue’, which is especially good for growing in containers. Although you can get a good crop with one bush, grow two plants for better pollination and more berries. Some varieties have stunning autumn leaf colours. A cousin of our native bilberry, they prefer acidic soil, so add in some ericaceous compost.
From Scandinavia, Lingonberries or Cowberries (Vaccinium vitis-idaea), also prefer acidic soil, and are similar to cranberries but heavier cropping. The low growing evergreen bush produces masses of tart fruits that are perfect for jams, juices and sauces.
Originating in South America, the Hardy Fuchsia (Fuchsia Magellanica) is a commonly grown shrub with edible flowers and fruit. The purple/black fruit are best picked when soft, tasting sweet, with a slight hint of pepper, and produced over a long season. The flowers look stunning on cakes and other food.
Chilean Guava (Myrtle Ugni) is a very unfussy shrub from Chile, preferring a sunny spot. An unusual tasty fruit that used to be grown more widely in Victorian times. It will produce masses of pale pink and white bell shaped flowers in spring, that slowly ripen into small, sweet, strawberry flavoured dark red round fruit in early winter. The leaves can also be used in teas.
Salal (Gaultheria shallon) is an unusual shrub from North America that fruits well in the shade. It produces small fruits that taste a bit like blueberries.
Oregon Grape/ Mahonia is a tough, low maintenance plant that will grow in sun or shade. Eaten by the Native Americans, the fruits from this common garden plant are edible, but are cooked into jams and preserves due to their tart flavour. Mahonia flowers are also edible, and taste lovely and sweet, as well as giving a delicious aroma in winter.
Now travelling to Australia, Finger Limes (Citrus Australasica), also known as caviar limes, are traditionally eaten by Aboriginals, but are now being enjoyed by top chefs and foodies around the world (here some recipes). The fruits look like gherkins, but inside are hundreds of ‘caviar’ shaped balls, bursting with lime flavour. The plants are quite hardy but will do better with a bit of protection in the winter.
Mountain Pepper (Drimys lanceolata) is a compact shrub from Tasmania that grows well in the UK. It is attractive, with red stems, glossy dark green leaves, and produces yellow star shaped flowers followed by black berries. These berries can be dried and used as pepper.
Back in Europe, the Strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo) is a small evergreen tree with glossy leaves and beautiful bark, which produces wonderful bell shaped flowers in the autumn, followed by juicy red fruit that can be eaten fresh or used in cooking. I’ve never tried the fruit, and people have varying opinions on it!
Citrus Trees, such as lemons and limes are all beautiful evergreen plants that will fruit in sheltered warm locations. Slightly tricky to grow, as they ideally need an unheated greenhouse for the winter, but can also be protected with fleece or brought inside, as long as it is light and not too hot. For Citrus plant pots I recommend investing on plant coasters with rollers, since their large pots can be heavy and cause injury when moving them.
There are some citrus cultivars like Citrus Junos which are relatively hardy (up to -5C), with fragrant little flowers in spring and small tangerine fruits from summer throughout winter.
And finally back to the UK, Juniper (Juniperus Communis) is worth considering if you would like an easy ornamental shrub that you can use to flavour your gin! The berries are also dried and used for savoury dishes. An easy shrub to grow, available in prostate or upright forms.
Thornless Blackberry is a non-spiky variety of wild blackberry with an abundance of huge sweet fruits. This climber often keeps its leaves all year round, and can be trained across a wall or over an arch. Also in this family is Creeping raspberry, which is a groundcover that produces small raspberry type fruits.
Japanese Wineberry is another climber with small tasty raspberry type fruit produced over a long season. It does lose its leaves, but has stunning red spiky stems to admire all winter.
Jasmine (Jasminum Offincinale) is almost evergreen in milder areas, and the sweet smelling flowers can be used in teas and in foods.
Crab apples are a very ornamental tree, and the beautiful small apples can sit on the tree until January in mild locations, shortly followed by stunning spring blossoms. The fruits can be made into a lovely jelly, and their high pectin content is useful to set jams and jellies.
Finally, if you have perennial plants that die off over winter, then you can leave the dried flower stalks on the plants to create extra interest in the dormant season. They look stunning against the winter skies, and also provide habitats for overwintering insects. This works well with edibles such as fennel, yarrow, oregano, parsley and angelica.
Finally, it’s important to ensure that you have good quality planters to support your your plants in every season. They should be frost proof for durability while self watering planters are a great help if you are not too disciplined with watering during the hot season. Take a look at this selection of planters.
I hope that you’ve enjoyed this adventure as much as I have, and that this has given you an idea of the possibilities available when you start exploring the world of evergreen edibles. Experiment, be creative and most importantly, have fun!
About the Author
Caroline is an expert edible gardener, who works intuitively to create beautiful abundant gardens that work in harmony with nature.
Qualified in permaculture design, with over a decade of experience in growing, designing and teaching, she is passionate about healing people and the planet through ecological food growing.
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