For many people, the idea of a vegetable garden conjures up an uninspiring image of regimented rows of plants with bare soil in between and functional supports where necessary. But this is not the only way to grow produce. Imagine going out onto a flower-filled terrace and cutting some lettuce for lunch, or, in the same space, collecting herbs for soup and unearthing fresh new potatoes. All this is perfectly possible, even in the tiniest of gardens.
A quick look at history shows that gardens that were both attractive and productive were far more common than one might think. The Romans had beautiful fruit and vegetable gardens, and monks living in monasteries across Medieval Europe were usually self-sufficient and grew everything they needed in charming walled gardens that were used for quiet contemplation as well as produce. The designers of large country house gardens often tucked the vegetables out of sight in a walled garden, but even here there was frequently an emphasis on beauty as well as productivity. Saint Ignatius, a priest in 15th-century Spain, said, “It is not enough to cultivate vegetables with care. You have a duty to arrange them according to their colours, and to frame them with flowers, so they appear like a well-laid table.”
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At the beginning of the 20th century, one of the most famous ornamental vegetable gardens was created at the Chateau of Villandry, on the River Loire in France. When owner Joachim Carvallo purchased the estate, its original Renaissance garden had been replaced with an 18th-century landscape park. He wanted to restore the garden, but none of the plans for the original had survived. So Carvallo looked to the ornate gardens of the Renaissance and combined them with the kitchen gardens of the Benedictine abbeys in the area. The resulting plan gave vegetables pride of place next to the chateau, laying them out in intricate patterns.
Whether you have a large kitchen garden or simply a couple of containers, the theory behind growing vegetables beautifully is the same. First, consider what you would like to eat and what you are able to grow; there is no point growing chard, however pretty it may be, if you don’t enjoy eating it. Equally, there is no point trying to grow tender plants, such as chilies, if your garden is prone to frost.
Having chosen the vegetables you would like, consider what they look like as they grow. Many vegetables are available in ornamental varieties such as red Brussels sprouts, purple broccoli or rainbow chard. Lettuces can be any colour, from the palest green to deep crimson and many have the advantage of astonishingly frilly, or handsomely sharp, leaves. If you have room, a block of sweet corn looks striking (for pollination purposes you need to grow a block of it), but in a smaller space, peas, beans and tomatoes will give your garden height. Consider colour and shape, remembering that different shades of green with a few white flowers can look as spectacular as rainbow of colours. Think laterally, using parsley or lavender as edging and put tomatoes and herbs into hanging baskets.
How to fill the spaces
Of course, harvesting will affect the aesthetics of your garden. Sow a succession of seeds, rather than planting them all at once, and you will have new plants ready to fill any spaces. You also never will get a glut of anything, as the harvesting will be staggered. “Cut-and-come-again” crops can be harvested without removing the whole plant. Many salad leaves fall into this group and will regrow four or five times during the season. The other way to avoid gaps is to plant crops that grow at different speeds. Radishes mature in about 25 days and are invaluable gap-fillers while slower plants get going.
Having chosen the vegetables you want to grow, you can then add the flowers; annuals and bulbs and even perennials and shrubs, if your garden is large enough. Most vegetables are annuals, completing their harvest cycle within a year. Annual flowers make good companions, and each year you can vary the plants that you grow. Growing vegetables in different areas of the garden or even in different containers from year to year helps prevent soil depletion and disease. You can also vary your plants, for taste in the kitchen and looks in the garden.
Flower power helps vegetables
Flowers can also improve the health of your vegetables, with French marigolds or Tagetes attracting hoverflies, which will gobble up aphids and blackfly. Many of the prettiest flowers are edible; and pansies, nasturtiums, borage, lavender and many others will find a place in your kitchen as well your garden.
Whatever style of garden you have and whatever size it is, you can grow wonderful vegetables and enjoy a truly beautiful harvest.
Main photo: Vegetables and flowers mingle in a garden. Credit: J.M. Hunter