Ursula Kraljevic's interest in filling her Columbia yard with shrubs, trees and herbs that satisfy the palate as well as the eye is not trendy -- she's been at it for years.
However, the recent surge of interest in "edible landscaping" has greatly broadened her selection of plants, both usual and unusual. Not that maintaining fruits and vegetables around the home is new. It was the only landscape plan up until the Renaissance. At that time, some plants began to be used and bred solely for their ornamental value. Kitchen gardens and "door yard" fruit trees were essential to American Colonial living.
Since Victorian times, most landscaping theory has rested on the principle of creating pleasant and private settings for homes to the exclusion of food plants.
But now, several forces seem to be returning many of us to an interest in "growing our own." There is concernabout efficient land use for both space and energy. There are pesticide worries. We also seem to be caught up in a frenzy of sentimentality for anything with the label "country" on it. Along with these social currents has come the acceptance and availability of fruits and vegetables that are uncommon and/or simply not adaptable to commercial agriculture. They come from all over the world.
"I only want to grow vegetables and fruits that are difficult to find, or, if available, very expensive in local markets," says Kraljevic. She defines her family as international -- she was born and raised in Germany, and herhusband is from Bolivia. They have been living in the United States for many years, in Columbia for 14.
In their early years here, many of the mainstays of both German and South American cooking were unavailable anywhere. It was Kraljevic's quest for familiar flavors of her homeland that started the collection of unusual plants around her home and in her vegetable garden. Delicate, sweet woodruff carpets the ground under her shrubs and trees. Its tender spring leaves are used in traditional May wine. It can replace the more common pachysandraor periwinkle.
Neat mounds of runnerless Alpine strawberries forma garden border. Their tiny berries pack a flavor that makes ordinary strawberries unacceptable, Kraljevic says.
Where Japanese hollies or euonymus might surround the neighbor's house foundation, Kraljevic has planted red currants, black currants and gooseberries. The 4-foot- to 5-foot-tall bushes have attractive foliage, and produce clusters of bright red, black and green berries, respectively, three to four years after planting. There is also a white currant available. Popular berries in Europe, currants and gooseberries were not only scarce for years, but illegal to plant in some states. The plants are an alternate host to a fungal disease called White Pine blister rust. Theefforts to eradicate this disease, common in more northern states, by outlawing currant and gooseberry
plants, has mostly been abandoned, says Scott Aker, county urban agriculture agent.
There is an island of raspberry bushes, both red and yellow, toward the back of the yard. The yellow ones, fall producers, are special, says Kraljevic.They have sweet aromatic flavor.
A pair of dwarf cherry trees, one sweet, one sour, stand against the fence. Innovations in dwarfing rootstock have been a real boon to edible landscaping because they take up less space and can be picked and monitored for pests without long ladders.
However, there are no apple or peach trees, dwarf or otherwise, on this property. They don't fit the Kraljevic rationale -- "there are plenty of them at the supermarket, at good prices," says Kraljevic.
Thriving hardy kiwi vines more than cover a trellis nearthe back door. For the first time, this spring they have flowers andpromise fruit. A recent addition to the yard is a papaw tree. Still in its infancy, it sits in a garden bed out back. It will take several years to reach fruiting size. The taste of the light yellow, oblongpapaw fruit, native to this area, is reminiscent of a favorite Bolivian fruit, notes Kraljevic -- a custard-like, pear-banana combination.
At one time, the Kraljevics spent 2 1/2 years in the Chaco, a dry jungle area of Bolivia. Kraljevic acquired a taste there for her husband's native foods. These vegetables and spices are still difficultto find here, but among her gardening successes are a temperamental perennial, "locoto," which produces a small, hot, yellow pepper and "quiquinia," a leafy herb that accompanies it in a traditional Bolivian piquant sauce.
She also maintains a large garden in the Long Reach community garden site, where she grows vegetables and small fruits.
What most people notice first in her vegetable bed are the fava beans. Sturdy, upright plants send out leaves and pods from the stems. A Mediterranean classic that is also a staple in Bolivia, the fava bean is planted early here, in February, and produces very long, heavy pods filled with huge beans. They are used much like lima beans.
The garden plot is unusual in another respect. Since Kraljevic summers in Germany with her family, the garden must take care of itself for at least two months. She has developed a technique that combines timing her plantings so that peak harvests come during early summer or fall, with heavy mulching to keep weeds down and retain soil moisture. Her gardening neighbors marvel at how successful her garden looks -- even after a parching August.