Is there anything better than garden fresh vegetables? How can you beat a sun warmed tomato eaten out of hand? What about exactly the kind of lettuce you like best, ready when you are, for a luscious salad? Why can’t foliage from beets, carrots, or parsley be used as an ornamental edging before it makes it into the kitchen?
I left a regular small vegetable garden in Heath, but my first garden work in Greenfield was on ornamental gardens. I immediately needed to change the expanses of lawn into something more interesting. And so began the South and North Borders, and three amoeba-like lawn beds. The Hugel at the back of our lot was not far behind.
But something was missing. Vegetables. I am a cook as well as a gardener and while I have never really had any interest in trying to grow, harvest and preserve everything, I love being able to go into the garden and harvest tomatoes, lettuce, sugar snap peas, broccoli, and more. How was I going to get vegetables into my garden which was so definitely arranged as an ornamental garden?
A quick survey of the garden reminded me that there are still planting spaces. First of all, the Lawn Beds, intended for trees, shrubs and perennials, most of them native varieties, still have a fair amount of bare ground because it will take a while for those plants to mature and cover that ground themselves. Vegetables are annuals and they could take over that space, at least for a year or two.
I even have a relatively large space that has perplexed us. What can we do with a spring flooded area in front of the stone wall? We will be raising the level of that space, as we have with the Lawn Beds, and this year we will use that space as a vegetable garden. I just want to come up with an interesting layout to make it an integral part of our ornamental garden, and not like a complete afterthought. When the harvest is completed this year we can assess the garden and our own reactions.
The idea of trying to incorporate more vegetables into the garden has been fed by my return to Ivette Soler’s book The Edible Front Yard: the Mow-Less, Grow-More Plan for a Beautiful, Bountiful Garden. Soler lives in California so I’ll forgive her for including bay trees, artichokes and guava, in the section of cultivation information. I’ll concentrate on her design advice. She says edible gardens can use the same techniques garden designers use to make “fancy gardens” look great. She talks about structure, form, repetition, texture and color
I don’t often think of structure and texture when I think of the vegetable garden but given this push the little gray cells are beginning to light up. I turned to Fresh from the Garden: An Organic Guide to Growing Vegetables, Berries and Herbs in Cold Climates by John Whitman. He says I can grow cardoons, known for their sculptural leaves, not unlike those of the artichoke which he also says I can grow. Given the push I remember that cardoons were fairly common on the menu when we lived in Beijing for a year. Beijing is nothing like California where Soler grows her artichokes and cardoons so I am ready to give them a try. The spiky leaves of these plants are full of structure.
Whitman not only opens his book with 120 pages of extensive and excellent advice about The Basics of Gardening from choosing a planting site, planting with seeds, transplanting, and routine care from watering to fertilizing, mulching, pruning and more, he goes on to solving problems, harvesting and culinary uses, and finishing up with tools and materials. The 375 pages of Part Two give information about 150 vegetables, herbs and berries (1700 varieties) in their particulars.
Whitman’s photographs are beautiful and the book is a veritable encyclopedia. The publisher is the University of Minnesota Press knows about cold weather. I can highly recommend it for all its instruction, and because carrying it around the house and taking it on and off the shelf has improved my muscle tone.
As for texture Soler reminds us that tomatoes are silken and smooth, sage is velvety and carrots are lacy. It’s all about looking at the vegetable palette through a different lens.
Color. Red chard with purple sage? Add some nasturtiums? What pleasing or striking color combinations can I come up with?
With all this advice, I still have limited space. How will I choose what to grow? Obviously I will plant my favorites like cherry tomatoes which come in different colors. I must have leafy and crispy lettuces, crunchy radishes, beets for greens and roots, Harukei turnips, sugar snap peas and green beans.
I have already planted an herb bed next to the house with oregano, thyme, sage, chives and garlic chives, but will plant basils, parsley, borage, dill and cilantro. I will never have a garden without dill.
When I asked a friend how to choose what to plant she said plant those things that are expensive to buy – like shallots. Good advice.
It won’t be long before I can follow all John Whitman’s advice in preparing the garden site. Piles of compost and soil are waiting to create a new Lawn Vegetable Bed. I can almost taste the first radishes of spring.
Between the Rows April 8, 2017
I will be giving an illustrated talk on The Sustainable Garden on Sunday, May 23 at 1 pm at the Franklin County Fairgrounds during the Eco-Living program. This is a two day event with lots of informative and fascinating talks. Hope to see you there.