newsafton orchard tests edible plants to learn what grows best in virginia

Afton orchard tests edible plants to learn what grows best in Virginia

Crystal Graham
Blooming kiwi fruit plant
(© Martin Capek –

As a promoter of backyard orcharding since 1979, Michael McConkey wants potential growers to know that cultivating their own “foodscape” of edible fruits, herbs, berries, nuts and flowers is within reach.

Working 25 acres of orchard and greenhouses in Nelson County, McConkey grows more than 180 exotic and native cultivars that are sold and shipped locally, throughout Virginia and nationwide.

Since he lives on site, most of his own meals are picked fresh from the backyard pantry.

His team manages pawpaw trees, goumi shrubs, kiwi vines and chinquapin nut bushes by hand with no chemical input. He has attempted to grow hundreds of varieties over the years, and about one-third have performed well in Virginia.

“A lot of this is a test orchard,” McConkey said. “We’ve found what actually works here.”

With trial and error, the Afton nursery developed an extensive edible inventory, including desert-loving species like the prickly pear hardy cactus.

“I juice them for fruit salads,” he said. “It’s a little vegetably-tasting, like beet juice with an aloe consistency, and deep red. It’s good on sweet fruit or citrus salads.”

For those lacking acreage, an edible landscape can be scaled down, said Virginia Cooperative Extension Master Gardener Alyssa Ford Morel.

Her own residential foodscape includes Padrón peppers, fennel, Jerusalem artichoke and an edible passionflower vine that doubles as a privacy screen.

“And our Swiss chard is going gangbusters,” she said.

For smaller spaces like patios, she recommends edibles suitable for containers – arugula, cherry tomatoes, hot peppers, kale, leeks and sweet potato.

Growing an edible landscape can be done affordably.

“I encourage you to start small,” Morel said. “Pick a few plants to try. Don’t try to convert your entire yard.”

Learn more

  • Those with plenty of acreage may learn from horticulturalist Michael McConkey’s Edible Landscaping website.
  • To watch an edible landscaping video produced by Master Gardeners of Northern Virginia, visit

Crystal Graham

Crystal Graham

Crystal Abbe Graham is the regional editor of Augusta Free Press. A 1999 graduate of Virginia Tech, she has worked as a reporter and editor for several Virginia publications, written a book, and garnered more than a dozen Virginia Press Association awards for writing and graphic design. She was the co-host of "Viewpoints," a weekly TV news show, and co-host of Virginia Tonight, a nightly TV news show. Her work on "Virginia Tonight" earned her a national Telly award for excellence in television.