Climate Change

In this project we are highlighting the experiences of people whose lives are being affected by climate change.


Meena Viswanathan speaks with Matt Lebon, a foodscaper in St. Louis. He runs an edible landscaping business where he introduces the community to the many benefits of growing native plants in their backyard. In the face of climate change, he believes that understanding biodiversity is the key to resilience.

Bringing edible landscapes to St. Louis to combat changing weather conditions

by | Sep 14, 2022

Native plants are our biggest allies

by Meena Viswanathan | Next Generation Radio, St. Louis Public Radio | September 2022

Click here for audio transcript

Hi, I’m Meena Viswanathan with NPR’s NextGenRadio in St. Louis.

Matt Lebon is a foodscaper in St. Louis. He focuses on growing edible plants that are native to Missouri. He believes introducing edible landscaping will help face the challenges of changing weather patterns.

“Edible landscaping is pretty much the same thing as landscaping, except we use edible plants instead of the traditional ornamental plants that we oftentimes see. So a lot of times you might see in traditional landscaping something like a boxwood or a hydrangea, and instead of those plants, we might plant a blueberry or a service berry.

“My name is Matthew Lebon. And I am a foodscaper. I own and operate Custom Foodscaping.
“I think climate change is one of the things that has informed my passion through a lot of contextual examples. And as time goes on, I’m starting to peel those layers back and start to understand them better.

“You know, the first example I could probably point to was what we call here in Saint Louis, the flood of 93. I grew up out in West Saint Louis County, where we had a huge flood in 1993. The levee walls broke and or were, you know, over overwhelmed and huge areas of land, you know, were flooded right by where I grew up. All the baseball fields and soccer fields that I grew up playing on were underwater.

“And I think that really was the first natural event that gave me context for the power of water and what it is to think critically about engineering topics and about how we design cities and landscapes to manage flood conditions and increase rain conditions.

“In the face of challenging weather conditions, we really tried to focus on tough, resilient plants, native plants, native grasses, things like, little bluestem and prairie drop seed are really common grasses that we like to plant. We like to plant Echinacea and Black-Eyed Susan and other native flowers. These are the types of important native plants that are going to weather the storm of challenging weather conditions and still do their important job of providing nectar for pollinators for sequestering carbon in the soil.

“And these are really important functions to play around the plants that we need for their ability to provide food. So we plant these plants around things that might be really well-suited for, you know, flood conditions like the pawpaw that can handle a lot of water.

“We plant a lot of elderberry that can handle a lot of water. And then on the other side of the equation, we love to plant things that are drought tolerant and also produce food like the mulberry I mentioned. Also that can handle drought conditions is a tough, resilient plant. I love those plants. We plant a lot of figs. We plant a lot of jujubes.

“These are the types of uncommon plants that are well-suited to edible landscaping, well-suited to drought and excess, you know, flood conditions.

“Not all of the native plants are going to survive climate change or changing climatic conditions, but the vast majority of them have stood the test of time. It’s the native plants that have stuck around and are continuing to to thrive despite, you know, the crazy flood years and the crazy drought years, those are our biggest allies.

A house in the heart of the Tower Grove neighborhood stands out with its lush green landscape. Native fruit trees line the edges of the fence, a salad garden sits in the middle of the yard, and other herbs and vegetables are growing in scattered patches. A bee hive is above in one corner and a pile of logs—used for the cultivation of mushrooms—are stacked up beneath a tree.

Matt Lebon, a foodscaper in St. Louis, is the owner of this “urban food forest,” a type of gardening that focuses on edible and perennial plants. It is the home of Lebon’s business, Custom Foodscaping, which aims to replace traditional ornamental landscaping with edible plants.

A man wearing a gray shirt with a plant on it smiles while looking towards the camera in his backyard in south St. Louis

Matt Lebon, 37, owner of Custom Foodscaping, on Monday, Sept. 12, 2022, in his backyard garden in south St. Louis.


This style of agriculture, Lebon said, may hold the key to weathering major climate changes.

“The idea behind this edible landscape is that these perennial native plants come back every year and that every year the system gets more robust, resilient and bountiful so that you’re putting in less work and getting more out of it,” Lebon said.

Lebon didn’t grow up with a green thumb.

“My story is one kind of a childhood disconnected with nature, with plants, with animals,” Lebon said. “And I had no thoughts about where food could come from beyond Schnucks.”

But while working as a Peace Corps volunteer in Paraguay, he lived in a rural farming environment. Many members of the community had livestock, fruit trees, and vegetable gardens.

 “I witnessed first-hand how these small farmers were masters at managing the local ecology with a deep understanding of the plants and animals with which they were cohabitating,” he said.

 And when the town experienced drought, he said, they were prepared.

A man points to a mushroom

Matt Lebon points to a Shiitake mushroom on Monday, Sept. 12, 2022, outside of his home in south St. Louis. “As soon as the weather starts to cool, we’ll have Shiitake mushrooms coming off of those logs,” he said. “This is the first Shiitake mushroom of the fall just dried on the log here. We didn’t get proper cool weather here. Logs want cool cold weather, then they might heavily fruit. For now this is one mushroom that just popped up yesterday, it is a sign of what’s to come.”


“It was a really remarkable thing to see the resiliency that comes with a super diverse self-sufficiency model, one where people are not simply going to be affected by a summer drought because there’s all these other ways of weathering the storm, if you will,” Lebon said. “This gave me the context for the power of resiliency.”

Lebon returned to Missouri and began working at EarthDance Organic Farm School, a 14-acre organic farm school in Ferguson. He said they faced many climatic challenges, like soil erosion, tilled soil getting washed away in water events, and gullies forming during big rainstorms.

In response, he and his team implemented a farm scale water management system — a type of land management that reestablishes a hydrological cycle, funneling water into the landscape as opposed to letting it run into the storm water system. They also planted fruit trees like pawpaw, a deep tap rooted native fruit that flowers late and is very well-suited for challenging climatic conditions.

He used this knowledge and experience to create his own business. His now seven-year-old urban food forest is host to native fruit trees like the pawpaw as well as the persimmon, jujubes, and perennial herbs and shrubs. Lebon advocates for these lesser-known plants by offering tours to the community.

“If we can get them even a taste, it will immediately light them up usually and get them intrigued to grow it in their own yard.”
And since the founding of Custom Foodscaping, he’s tried to rely on earlier lessons of diversity and resilience.

“So one of the recent challenges that a lot of us gardeners have faced is the lack of cold winters,” Lebon said. “So a super cold winter can kill certain pathogens, can prevent certain insects from overwintering, or it can simply significantly reduce the amount of insect eggs that overwinter.”
Overwintering is a term used to describe a type of hibernation insects use to survive the cold. But without cold winters, more insects can survive the harsh conditions. Lebon said they have had issues with flea beetles—a pest that affects brassica plants like arugula, broccoli, or cabbage.

“Arugula is a really important early spring green and if it’s super holey then it is really hard to bring to market,” he said.
But he found a solution.

“I think that the way that I chose to mitigate that was to grow lettuce,” Lebon said. “Turns out lettuce has almost no pest or disease issues here in our climate. Which is to say that diversity always wins.”

An insect lands on a flowering plant

An insect lands on a plant on Monday, Sept. 12, 2022, outside of Matt Lebon’s home in south St. Louis.