March 2009 © Janet Davis
Do you love garden-fresh vegetables and herbs, but own a property that seems too small to devote space to their needs? Are you fond of fruit and berries, but not ready to give up your sunny flower beds in order to grow them?
The good news is that most vegetables, herbs and fruits don’t need to be segregated in a suburban-style vegetable plot. Even in a small city garden, tomatoes and turnips are content growing alongside peonies and petunias, provided they receive sunshine and a little timely attention. Besides, many edibles are as beautiful as they are nutritious so it’s a shame to hide them away in the “back 40” when they can contribute their own charm to an informal border.
While medieval monastery gardens and ornate potagers such as France’s Château Villandry are the inspiration for using vegetables as ornamentals, today’s gardener is less concerned about geometry and decoration and more about functionality and integration. Where space is not a consideration, of course, a formal potager is a delightful way to grow vegetables, herbs and edible flowers mixed in with perennials and flowering shrubs.
But in a small city garden, it’s easy to assimilate edibles into a mixed border too.
The trick is to consider their requirements for soil, moisture, temperature and sunshine, then match them with perennials, annuals (including edible flowers like pansy, nasturtium and calendula), shrubs and vines that share those cultural needs. As to functionality, food crops are meant to be eaten when they’re ripe, so mixing edibles with ornamentals might mean the gardener learning to overlook a few bare spots in the border, come harvest time.
Finally, as with traditional plots, it’s important to know the rules for crop rotation, moving vegetables around from season to season to discourage disease and insect pests.
Here are some ideas for mixing-and-matching:
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- Salad greens such as leaf lettuce, mesclun and spinach are easy to grow in rich, moisture-retentive soil and make decorative front-of-border plants or leafy fillers between low perennials and annual flowers. They’re even great in hanging baskets! Their preference for cool growing temperatures and their tendency to bolt in hot weather means they’re best seeded in early spring (for summer harvest) and late summer (for fall picking). So think about sowing them with seeds of hardy annuals that enjoy the same cool temperatures, e.g. corn and Shirley poppy (Papaver rhoeas), larkspur (Consolida ambigua) and backelor buttons (Centaurea cyanus). Pansies and forget-me-nots also look lovely growing with salad greens.
- Peas enjoy cool spring weather, making them an excellent companion to their flowering cousin, the sweet pea. By growing them side-by-side on string trellises or attractive bamboo teepees at the back of the border, you’ll have tender peas for eating and sweet-scented blossoms for the table.
- Vining tomatoes and runner beans can be eye-catching when grown on artful tripods or trellises. But they’re even more beautiful in the company of an annual vine like ‘Heavenly Blue’ morning glory, hyacinth bean (Dolichos lablab) or delicate canary creeper (Tropaeolum speciosum).
- With their colorful, sturdy leaves and long growing season, kales, cabbages and other brassicas add drama to the border. Especially impressive when sited among airy flowers -- think baby’s breath or any airy flowering tobacco – is tall (3-4 feet), dark-leafed Tuscan black palm kale, considered by many to be one of the tastiest kales, especially when sweetened by a light frost.
- Swiss chard and beets have prominently-veined, shiny leaves that rival any hosta or coleus. The vibrant red, orange or yellow stalks of ‘Bright Lights’ swiss chard look gorgeous mixed with hot-colored marigolds and ‘Profusion’ zinnias. And the reddish-black foliage of ‘Bull’s Blood’ beet (grown more for its edible leaves than its roots) contrasts nicely with ornamental foliage plants like ‘Margarita’ sweet potato vine and phormium.
- The leaves of onions, garlic, chives and leeks add a vertical or fountain-shaped accent to the garden that’s equal to any ornamental grass – and they can be tossed into a stew or salad too! Think of pairing the zingy flowerheads of garlic chives (Allium tuberosum) with a sturdy perennial such as purple coneflower or summer phlox.
- Herbs often have attractive flowers that look right at home in a border. Consider mixing airy dill with gloriosa daisies or drought-tolerant rosemary and lavender with perovskia (Russian sage) and yarrow. Sedums such as ‘Meteor’ or creeping ‘Angelina’ are good companions to edible sages, especially those with colored leaves. And pink-flowered thymes look delightful with creeping sedums such as gold-flowered Sedum acre.
- Berried shrubs such as black currant, gooseberry and Saskatoon berry (Amelanchier alnifolia) bloom alonside forsythia, lilac and spirea while lending structure to a border’s all-season “bones”. But they also provide a bounty of tasty fruit for jams and pies in late summer. (Non-running fruits like these are better for a mixed border than raspberries.)
- The compact habit of dwarf fruit trees makes them suitable to the rear of larger borders, especially when espalier-trained along a sunny wall or fence backing the border. Be sure to give them lots of air circulation, and leave a little room in front to access them for pruning and care. And add a few trellised clematis or honeysuckle vines to lend floral interest as the trees form fruit in summer.
Adapted from a story in The American Gardener