Columns | Kane County Chronicle

Plants do double duty when they provide food, too

Perennials – trees, shrubs and nonwoody flowering plants – are the backbone of our landscapes. We expect them to provide beauty, shelter and shade, but did you know that you can also choose perennials that will produce something to eat? Landscaping with a few edible plants can be a subtle way to get a little extra while still having a neat and attractive yard.

If you have the space and full sun, one of the easiest ways to add an edible perennial is to plant a fruit or nut bearing tree. A hardy tree to consider is the native butternut or white walnut, Juglans cinera, originally used in Butterfingers candy.

You will be competing with the squirrels, but there will be plenty of the hard-shelled, tasty, sweet nuts for both of you. The tree is susceptible to a fungal disease, but it’s unlikely to get it in a landscape setting far from other butternut trees. To play it safe, you can choose the cross between a butternut and a Japanese walnut (J. ailantifolia) that is resistant to the disease.

Do you have an empty space that needs filling in the back of a sunny flower bed? How about along a fence or other border? Consider asparagus! Its tiny fernlike leaves can add a three- to six-foot background after giving you super fresh spears.

To fill in your space quickly, buy three-year-old crowns and follow planting instructions. Harvest the spears from early spring until summer. Then let the rest of the spears grow into beautiful, airy foliage that feeds the roots. The foliage will die after a frost, but let it stand over the winter to collect snow that will insulate the roots from cold damage.

What can be simpler than planting a bulb and then being able to harvest the world’s most expensive spice for years to come? The saffron crocus blooms in fall — it’s a surprise to see a crocus at that time of the year.

Plant bulbs in early fall; new bulbs need to overwinter to flower in the following fall. You’ll see three long, threadlike red stigmas (female parts) in the flower that are harvested and dried for saffron. You would need at least 100 bulbs to make a few ounces of saffron, but even a few bulbs can make enough saffron for a dish or two.

Consider landscape plants that can do double duty!