The vegetable garden may be the Cinderella of the gardening world. No longer left behind to do all the work while her flowery stepsisters become belles of the ball, this formerly unadorned, straight-rowed patch is finally taking center stage donned in an array of ornamental finery.
It’s easy to make your vegetable garden decorative as well as functional. And there’s no need to sacrifice useful cultural practices such as interplanting and crop rotation. Ornamental vegetable gardening simply means designing the garden to make it more visually appealing. Here’s how to mix vegetables and flowers for a beautiful, bountiful garden:
Combine plants that have similar growing requirements. For example, eggplants thrive in the blistering heat, so they’d do well in a full-sun flower bed along with orange-hued cultivars of melampodium and Mexican zinnia (Zinnia haageana). Lettuces, on the other hand, prefer cooler conditions. Head lettuces make perfect companions for shade perennials such as astilbe and coral bells (Heuchera spp.), and romaine seedlings complement colorful pansies and columbines in a shade garden. Start lettuce seeds in trays so you can tuck each plant into position.
If you’re interested in growing just a handful of fresh tomatoes or want to experiment with a new variety, try mixing a few tomato plants among other sun-loving flowers such as zinnias, marigolds, or even roses—all have similar sun, soil, water, and fertilizer requirements.
Use the distinctive colors of vegetable leaves to add visual interest when combining vegetables and flowers. The feathery foliage of carrots and bronze fennel are striking amid large flowers and bold-leafed plants such as balloon flowers, cannas, and coleus. The colorful stems of ‘Bright Lights’ Swiss chard add a rainbow of hues to the front of a border.
Think about how the vegetables will change in appearance through the growing season. In some cases (such as lettuce), the entire plant gets harvested, leaving a gap where it was growing. In other cases (such as broccoli), the plant is attractive for just a few weeks, so be prepared to replace it with other vegetables or flowers when the time comes. In general, you’ll find that annual flowers and bulbs tend to be more companionable with vegetables than perennials, but experiment and see what appeals to you.
Create a series of framed beds laid out in geometric patterns intersected with narrow paths. Treat each bed as a work of art and have fun experimenting with combinations of vegetables, herbs, and flowers inside the frame. Nasturtiums, a favorite edible flower, will sprawl happily among melons, winter squash, and cucumbers. Sunflowers and corn make a great duo. Marigolds are a classic companion for tomatoes. Patches of zinnias, cosmos, and calendula germinate quickly for bright spots of color.
Try mixing varieties of lettuce for some visual interest. Divide a square framed bed into quarters and plant each area with a different type of leaf lettuce, such as ‘Red Sails’ (bronze-red), ‘Buttercrunch’ (green outer leaves and cream-colored inner leaves), ‘Red Deer Tongue’ (burgundy-tinted at maturity), and ‘Red Oak Leaf’ (deep burgundy at maturity). Or use one leaf color as a background and let your children plant their initials in a contrasting shade.
Edge raised beds with ornamental plants to give them some extra flair. Almost any small mounding plant will work, as long as it doesn’t hinder the vegetables’ growth and production. Early in the season, plant the edges with pansies and violas. As temperatures climb, try globe basil or marigolds. Position a large container of flowers, an obelisk, or a tuteur in the center of the bed to create a striking focal point. And for some vertical drama and support for vining crops, add trellises and archways at entrances to help define the perimeter of the garden.
Tips for better raised beds
Raised beds make it easy to “paint” a colorful picture with a mixture of vegetables and flowers. Here are some tips on getting the most from your raised beds:
• Build the beds so you can easily reach at least halfway across them from one side.
• Most vegetables require full sun for at least six to eight hours a day, so place your beds in a sunny spot.
• Framed beds look best if the tops of the boxes are level. If your yard slopes, dig the higher end of the bed into the ground.
• Look at various options for raised-bed materials. In my ornamental vegetable garden, the beds are made of 2-inch by 12-inch weather-resistant boards mitered at the corners and secured with wood screws to give the corners a finished look. There are also several types of pre-made framed beds that make it a snap to create interesting designs.
• To create the perfect soil for your raised beds, blend 50 percent garden soil, 25 percent packaged manure, and 25 percent compost or humus. Fill beds with this mixture to about 2 inches from the top so you can tuck in plants and add a layer of mulch. If you have several beds, ask local nurseries to deliver the soil, manure, and compost by the cubic yard. One cubic yard covers about 100 square feet to a depth of 3 inches. My raised beds are 4 feet by 4 feet and 12 inches deep, so I used a little over half a cubic yard of soil for each bed.
• When temperatures drop in the fall, throw protective covers over the raised beds to extend your growing season.
P. Allen Smith (www.pallensmith.com) is a professional garden designer, host of two national TV programs, reporter on The Weather Channel, and author of the Garden Home series of books (Clarkson Potter, 2004 to 2006).