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From Persimmons to Pawpaws, Custom Foodscaping Helps Chefs and Consumers Build Their Own Edible Landscapes

Matt Lebon’s company designs and installs edible landscapes of all sizes for restaurants, schools and even suburban backyards.

  • 9 min to read

Today, the permaculture orchard at Principia School, a private Christian Science institution in Town and Country, Missouri, looks modest. Young fruit trees and bushes are just beginning to mature alongside more robust patches of native flowers and herbs. In four or five years, though, students will be able to harvest a wealth of produce here, including raspberries, strawberries, rhubarb, apples, Asian pears, persimmons, Nanking cherries, pawpaws, plums and juneberries. This is a far cry from the grassy hillside that once occupied the property, and it’s a direct result of high school students learning about global food security and the benefits of growing their own food.

“We were starting the year off with a topic on food and where our food comes from,” says Lynne Scott, a sustainability and biology teacher at Principia's high school. “Through that unit and that conversation, we were learning about sustainable methods of farming and the concept of permaculture. The students were really interested in it, and were like, ‘Hey, let’s build a garden; let’s do permaculture on campus.’”

Scott headed up the project alongside her students, seeking funding for the orchard from a private donor. Once funds were in place, the next hurdle was identifying how to best plan and plant a permaculture orchard. A friend had previously connected Scott with Matt Lebon, then the farm manager at EarthDance Organic Farm School in Ferguson, Missouri, for a class tour of EarthDance. Already familiar with Lebon’s work, Scott reached out about the orchard, which led to Lebon visiting the site and putting together a plan for Scott's class.

Today, that's exactly the work that Lebon does with other clients through his company, Custom Foodscaping. The business designs and installs permaculture foodscapes, which seek to mimic the naturally self-sustaining elements of an ecosystem. Lebon specifically focuses on planting edibles instead of ornamentals, with an emphasis on edible perennial plants in biodiverse environments.

Lebon's process includes seeking out native plants, including fruits like pawpaws and grapevines like Vitis labrusca, which thrive in our climate, as well as flowering plants, like yarrow, to attract pollinators. This approach omits chemical herbicides and pesticides and seeks holistic alternatives to deter pests and critters, such as netting cabbage beds or building a deer fence to protect young fruit trees.

“Permaculture aims to have integrated systems, and we want to use the architecture of forest ecosystems to create these multi-storied landscapes, not just one row of boxwoods,” Lebon says. “The biggest thing I do with clients is not only educate them about unique species – like a lot of people may not have even heard of a pawpaw, or certain varieties of pear trees that hold up very well to pests and disease. So that selection is creating a biodiversity – bringing in all the different natives and multifunctional plants, because then the proliferation of pests and disease can be mitigated by a biodiverse ecosystem.”

Another important element of Lebon’s work is designing natural water management strategies like rain gardens and swales to conserve water resources and minimize the need for traditional irrigation systems. A swale is a shallow basin or ditch with sloping sides that’s contoured with the land to collect rainwater; plants can then be positioned along the slope of the swale, allowing the collected rainwater to seep into the soil and accumulate moisture, passively irrigating the roots. Swales mimic the way undisturbed ecosystems infiltrate rainwater and are commonly built to act as passive irrigation systems in permaculture gardens.

For Principia's permaculture orchard, which Custom Foodscaping installed two years ago, Lebon implemented a different type of passive irrigation system. He took advantage of the sloping landscape with swales aided by contour berms, mounds of dirt on top of which fruit trees, shrubs and herbs were planted. The swale was dug on the uphill side of the berms, allowing rainwater to slowly seep into the base of the berms.

“It keeps the area that’s planted hydrated for a much longer period of time,” Lebon says. “The area behind the berm is very shaded, as well, so it doesn’t dry out as quickly.”

Scott says the permaculture orchard has been a huge benefit for her curriculum and work at Principia, as it gives students a sense of service to the land and helps educate them about where food comes from. The food grown in the orchard goes directly to the school’s dining hall, which has also allowed students to experience the full cycle of farming.

“Students will taste [an herb like] anise hyssop and say, ‘Oh my gosh, this tastes like licorice!’ And it’s like, ‘Yeah, that’s where that flavor comes from!’” Scott says. “Tasting sage or chocolate mint for the first time… It’s the excitement of learning that flavors can come from natural things; they don’t have to be artificial. Any time students get to plant, see and harvest food themselves, I see more willingness to try – to try the food, to try the herbs, to then try the food that’s being connected to that herb. They’re part of it. Those moments of connection to the land and what they’re able to do with it are big.”

Scott says that the orchard, combined with other gardens on campus, has opened students’ eyes to the reality of food production and the role they can play in it.

“In a traditional garden, you’re constantly having to water, weed and fertilize," Scott says. "In a permaculture garden, it’s really mimicking an ecosystem, and I think that’s what my students continue to walk away with: There are ways to grow food that benefit our ecosystem. And that’s a really different perspective, a really different concept, than traditional farming and where food comes from. I think that’s been a new concept and a totally different way for people to view food production.”

For Lebon, Custom Foodscaping is the culmination of years of agriculture experience. For more than a decade, he has worked on farms both rural – including homestead farms in Paraguay while volunteering with the Peace Corps – and urban, like when he studied farming in Brooklyn, New York. A native St. Louisan, Lebon returned to home in 2012 to work at EarthDance Farm in Ferguson, Missouri, where he spent five seasons, eventually becoming farm manager. Lebon founded Custom Foodscaping in 2017, which has since grown to include Ben Tegeler, an ecological designer who brings a background in ecological foodscaping to the business.

Custom Foodscaping doesn’t currently offer maintenance services, so it’s especially crucial to Lebon to set expectations with clients before anything is planted. He starts off each project with a site visit to assess the potential and gauge the expectations of the client: What do they want to grow? How much time do they have to dedicate to garden maintenance and harvesting? What will they do with the food they yield, especially if it’s growing too fast to keep up with?

“Just having plans in place,” Lebon says. “I don’t dive in, I kind of burrow into people’s lives and try to understand more about the holistic situation, and try to match the planting with not only how eager they are, but if they have the financial means to hire help and those kinds of things to help size the landscape.”

The orchard at Principia is one example of Custom Foodscaping’s commercial and institutional work, which comprises about half of the business (with the other portion being residential). Last year, the company installed an edible landscape around a portion of the perimeter of Vicia, Michael and Tara Gallina’s lauded vegetable-forward restaurant in St. Louis.

Positioned just outside the restaurant and visible from the window-lined dining room, the foodscape is anchored by fruit trees, shrubs and a groundcover of alpine strawberries. Michael, a James Beard-nominated chef, has already been able to harvest herbs, some strawberries and figs (including fig leaves, which he notes taste like coconut) and edible flowers from the garden during its first season. In the coming years, he’ll be able to source Nanking cherries, elderberries, jujube fruit and more right outside his door.

“The whole idea of the restaurant is connecting our guests with where their food comes from, and what better way to illustrate that than right outside the restaurant?” Michael says. “One of the things that excites me most is that if guests are interested, we take them out to the garden and show them; if they have questions about ingredients, we can take them out and show them where it’s growing.”

Since the foodscape was installed last year, Vicia has been able to harvest roughly 60 to 70 percent of herbs for the restaurant from the garden. While cooks use herbs like chocolate mint, shiso and thyme in dishes, bartenders employ basil and roselle, similar to hibiscus, for herbaceous and floral seasonal cocktails.

Michael was already familiar with the work required to maintain even a small garden: Before opening Vicia, he worked at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, chef Dan Barber’s restaurant in Tarrytown, New York, located on a working farm. Yet for his cooks, Michael says the garden at Vicia has been eye-opening.

“They get that carrots and herbs come in from different farms, but for them to actually be responsible for maintaining the garden, and going out and harvesting food... I think that’s very, very important,” Michael says. “It gives them a sense of responsibility and a sense of respect. Farming is a very, very tough job, and maintaining even a small garden is a lot of work. I think it gives them that responsibility and that feeling of being a part of even more of what they’re doing.”

Although Michael came to the project with some farming knowledge and experience, he says Lebon proved an invaluable source of information for what was possible in Vicia’s garden.

“We’d just open up catalogs and talk – there were things I was excited about [planting], thinking back to working with Anne Lehman [of Dirty Girl Farms in St. Louis], and then at [Blue Hill at] Stone Barns, some of the things we’d use there,” Michael says. “[Lebon] was a wealth of knowledge to help us say, ‘Oh, we could do that. We could grow lovage here or shiso over here.’ I know you can grow shiso [in Missouri], but the amount we got last year was just incredible.”

The ability to harvest food on-site has allowed Michael and Tara to further develop Vicia’s mission to highlight the best of what’s grown regionally – which now includes the restaurant’s own green space.

“I think it’s an incredible wow factor – when people walk up from whichever lot they park in, and they see this fresh, vibrant greenery and fruits and vegetables,” Michael says. “And we try to talk about it as much as we possibly can – part of what we’ve worked on for the tasting menu is incorporating kind of a garden course, where people can go out and pick herbs for an herbal tea at the end of their dinner. And we would do that for any guest if they were really excited and wanted to walk through the garden and pick things.”

This year, one of Custom Foodscaping’s biggest institutional projects is with Jubilee Community Church in St. Louis. Plans for the project include installing an orchard and market garden in partnership with Good Life Growing, an urban farm focused on reducing food insecurity in the community.

“They’re catching all the stormwater off of the roof for the garden; they worked with a local architect and got funding from [Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District] to design it,” Lebon says. “This is the kind of comprehensive work that I want to be a part of – they’re catching stormwater, growing pollinator plants, they’ve got all these fruit trees and they’re thinking about the site holistically. It’s an example of a lot of different things in one space, and a lot of great partners working together.”

Lebon knows that not every home gardener or institution has the land or capacity to grow large edible landscapes, but no matter your situation, he’s confident he can find a solution. This spring, Custom Foodscaping installed a compact foodscape in the backyard patio at The Royale in St. Louis; to most efficiently utilize the small space, Lebon has planted espalier fruit trees, which grow up against walls almost like vining plants. “So instead of being 3D, you train the branches up against the wall,” he says.

Lebon’s also growing passion fruit and grapes over pergolas, strips of herbs, two pear trees and a fig tree on the patio.

“A few hundred square feet is plenty to start doing things,” Lebon says. “The problem solving… That’s what makes each job totally different, which is the fun part, for sure.”

As spring transitions into summer this month, Lebon’s earliest foodscaping clients are just beginning to see the fruits of his labor flourish.

One of Lebon’s first residential projects was for Dr. Fred Williams, an avid home gardener who likes to know where his food comes from – not only for his health and the wellness of his family, but for the health of the planet.

Williams started with a few raised beds, growing annuals like tomatoes, peppers and squash in the backyard of his former home in Chesterfield, Missouri. He’s since moved to Creve Coeur, and after working with Lebon, his raised beds number 15 and his garden has grown to incorporate fruit trees, nut trees and fruiting shrubs, plus two chickens and honeybee hives.

“It's really nice to go out in the backyard and pick your food – I don’t even wash it, because there are no chemicals on my dirt,” Williams says. “I just think it’s really gratifying to grow your own food.”

A longtime supporter of the local food movement, Williams has been attending EarthDance Farm’s Farmers Formal fundraiser for many years. Two years ago, he bid on a three-hour foodscaping consultation with Lebon. After an initial meeting and site consultation with Lebon, Williams was hooked; last fall, Custom Foodscaping designed and installed Williams’ foodscape, featuring an array of edible perennials, from asparagus that comes up in the spring to cherries in the summer and chestnuts in the fall. Today, Williams’ backyard, which occupies about an acre of land, is almost entirely a foodscape.

“To me, gardening is very therapeutic – if I didn’t have a job, I’d do it seven days a week,” Williams says. “But in the limit of time constraint we all have, it’s [a lot of work]. The cool thing about foodscaping is that as it grows, it really becomes its own little ecosystem. It’s really just a lot of perennials that keep coming back, and as they keep coming back and grow bigger and bigger, your food supply gets larger with very little work.”

This year, Williams will harvest herbs like sage, thyme, oregano, anise hyssop, mint and lemon balm, and maybe some raspberries, from his edible landscape. Yet as it matures, he looks forward to grapes, dates, pawpaws, chestnuts and other perennial fruits.

“Even if you live in an urban area, to have just a little 8-by-8-foot raised garden bed in your backyard where you grow some tomatoes, peppers and beans is just mentally and physically good for people,” Williams says. “It takes no room at all; somebody who has 20 or 30 square feet can put something in. That’s really kind of the magic of what Matt can do – he can come in and find little places to grow.”

Custom Foodscaping, customfoodscaping.com

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