We’ve all seen them, admired them, but were relieved they weren’t the view from our bedroom window. I’m talking about vegetable gardens. Tidy rows of corn, tomatoes, onions, carrots, and pepper plants; carefully arranged straw beneath the plants; mulched paths between each row, and chicken-wire barriers guarding those tender plants from rabbits and deer. Yes, vegetable gardens are to be admired, but admit it–they’re not very attractive! Who wants to look at the neighbors’ staked tomato plants and rangy rows of corn stalks, no matter how delicious the produce will taste, or how many bags of vegetables are left at your door?
Do not despair. If you want to provide your table with fresh vegetables all summer long, but you don’t want to lose your neighbor’s goodwill; if you want healthy, ripe tomatoes for your summer salads, and you think vegetable gardening is a labor of love, but you dread the no-nonsense appearance of rows of vegetable plants, I have a solution for you. Veggies can contribute to a lovely, lush garden as well as a delicious, inviting meal.
Here’s how: Take a hint from our friends, the French. They are renowned for their potagers, commonly known here as kitchen gardens. A traditional kitchen garden contains some combination of four types of plants; vegetables, herbs, fruit, and flowers. (Yes, I did say flowers; remember, you can eat marigolds, pansies, nasturtiums, and sunflower seeds, among other lovely flowers.)
The kitchen garden is a bit less formal than our workman-like vegetable gardens. The secret is design. It’s all about appearances. You can still have your lettuce, your tomato plants, your beans, and carrots. Just consider grouping your plants in such a way as to produce an inviting sight for passerby and next-door neighbor.
First, color. Of course, in the height of summer tomato plants are stunning with their inviting red-orange fruit. Peppers add red and yellow to the garden, too. Red cabbage, scarlet runner beans, red leaf lettuce, and ruffled arugula are impressive when they mature. Now add to your kitchen garden color palate some nasturtium. These small-blossoms in mighty gold, orange, and red are popular in salads and as garnish; they’re also rich in vitamin C. And fellas, eating nasturtium blossoms is believed to help control hair loss.
After you’ve considered all the edible colors, think about adding a few annuals to fill-in the beds while your vegetables are growing and ripening. A few geraniums and some impatiens can liven up the beds for the early part of the summer.
Think of your veggie beds, like your flowerbeds, in three dimensions. Use some graph paper to work out your color and height design. (We’ve all seen those very professional diagrams in gardening books, but ours need not be quite so tidy.) Keep in mind the amount of sunlight and, if necessary, wind likely to affect each bed. Plan for your watering system too. Hopefully, you’ll be able to water all your vegetable beds, but if not, do a bit of research on which vegetables need less water.
There are three secrets to a beautiful kitchen or vegetable garden, according to Fine Gardening’s Jennifer Bartley
Let’s consider these three guidelines individually.
1. Include color and flowers in your garden layout plan.
2. Choose an attractive enclosure. It will keep unwanted visitors from taste testing your garden’s bounty and provide a sense of serenity and sanctuary.
3. Keep your garden’s vegetable beds crisp and tidy.
Kitchen gardens usually include herbs such as lavender, basil, sage, chives, lemon balm, and oregano. Herbs are hardy plants, and they’ll take over any flowerbed in time, given a chance. To keep your herbs in check and easily available to you, potting is a great solution. Gather a number of clay pots, and set your herbs. (You may want to label the pots, but the herbs appearances are quite distinctive as they grow.) These herb pots can make a pretty patio border, or you can place them randomly throughout the vegetable beds. Move them about based on which herbs you’re cooking with or what needs more or less sun.
Grouping your vegetables by height, size, and color doesn’t mean you must put all your carrots in one bed, or that those gangly corn stalks must stand together. You might have carrots or parsley as edgings of two or three beds. Interior to the edging plants may be several clumps of lettuce in a variety of colors and leaf formations. Farther in may be just the place to plant and stake a couple of tomato plants. You’ll want them in far enough so they don’t spill onto the path, but close enough, so you can reach to pluck those ripened tomatoes; and don’t we know, they all seem to ripen at once. Three or four corn stalks might anchor the middle of beds, or those stalks may grow nicely near the privacy fence and beside the garage—assuming there’s sufficient sunlight. One added suggestion: Keep your perennials in beds separate from your annuals. That makes fall and spring clean-up much simpler.
Thinking about things you do need to plan for brings us to the issue of supporting the stalks as the plants mature and the vegetables ripen. Of course, we all know we can rely on those wire-plant cages available at every hardware store. They’re efficient, and if you’re lucky, the plants will be lush enough to hide the wire corset beneath the foliage. Ah, but why not try something a bit more interesting?
There are some old-fashioned, fairly simple and interesting methods for staking your vegetable plants. Start with the tepee. (Here’s a great task to assign any little people in your family or curious, young, neighbor children.) Collect strurdy, straight sticks—perhaps three or four feet long. You’ll need three for each tepee, plus some sturdy cotton or hemp twine. Or, for a very authentic look, gather wild grape vines for the ties. Over each small tomato, bean, or pea plant, position three twigs, crossing one another in a three-dimensional “X” design, like the supports of a tepee. Lash the mid-point of the tepee with the twine or vine. There you have it. Pretty supports for your growing plants. (If you have engaged the help of children for the tepee making, you may want to construct the tepees away from the veggie beds, perhaps on the lawn or patio. That way, careless feet won’t trample the young vegetable plants. You can later place the tepees over the plants yourself.)
Another attractive approach to the stick supports is a dome of supple branches. Instead of stiff sticks, look for supple ones. Find three or four of the same length, probably three or four feet long if you’re supporting tomatoes. Bend the supple twigs so they arch over the young plant, forming a dome. Each end of the twig will easily poke down into the soil. It won’t take long for the vines to grow up and drape over the twigs.
Carry on the natural theme in your garden by devising a “wattle” fence at some appropriate point or around the veggie beds to keep out hungry wild things. Here too is a chance to use the skills of your young Girl Scout or Boy Scout. Choose sturdy, reasonably thick and straight fence posts, approximately 36 inches long. But the height will depend on your needs and aesthetics. Set the posts into the beds equal distance apart, perhaps two feet. Next, collect supple, fairly thin branches. Forsythia and willow twigs make great weaving material, with the added advantage that you’re trimming the shrub, another useful garden task. Weave the long, flexible branches between the two-foot posts, in and out. You’ll find it fairly easy to move around the flowerbed’s curves and irregular shape. When the wattle, aka willow or forsythia branches, begins to dry, the wattle fence will remain sturdy and amazingly effective for discouraging rabbits, cats, dogs, and other small invaders.
You may find your use of natural elements for staking and fencing adds a softening effect to the veggie beds, particularly as the plants begin to fill-in. Another way to naturally delineate portions of your garden is with hedges. The only caution is that they’ll take a long time filling in. You’ll need a long-term vision for hedges. Maryland is a perfect climate for boxwood hedges. They’re easy to grow and trim. Berry bushes are another subtle fencing approach. They’re harder to keep in check, tending to throw out long, spindly, sometimes prickly branches. If you’re very brave or have an experienced gardener, espaliered apple and pear trees, trained along a wall or fence, create an elegant, striking border. Espalier is the training of fruit trees to grow in only two dimensions, usually supported by a trellis or against a wall.
These complex growing projects bring me an easy solution to one of our vegetable garden’s awkward elements. What do we do when we start to harvest that tasty lettuce, carrots, and cabbages? Our vegetable gardens begin to look rather tired. Those unsightly vacant spaces where plants have been harvested can be dealt with. Pick up a few pretty flowers or use some of your herb’s pots. As you harvest vegetables, fill the empty spots with pots of bright petunias or daisies, or move some of your now-flourishing herbs from the patio into those bare spots.
Like its sister the flower garden, the vegetable or kitchen garden can be attractive as well as a useful element of our landscaping.