Garden writer Valerie Easton, long reluctant to make room in a showstopper garden for vegetables, started growing them for the first time. She finds it's not easy to blend good looks and good taste in a small space — but she's reaped great rewards in taste, freshness and peace of mind.
I’d never grown vegetables except for a token tomato or two in a pot and a pumpkin vine if I could spare the space. I couldn’t bear to give up a single perennial, rose or shrub to ground-gobbling squashes, let alone all the staking, trellising and sequencing involved in growing edibles.
When I downsized to a new garden a few years ago, I was excited to make it productive as well as flowery. I was enchanted by Christopher Lloyd’s book “Gardener Cook,” plus I relished the idea of taking on a new gardening challenge. My childhood dinners featured frozen peas and canned-fruit cocktail — growing your own was a whole new thing.
An unexpected side benefit is that for the first time ever my grown kids are interested in the garden. Turns out that if you can’t eat it, they don’t see it.
In this tiny garden there’s no room for a hidden-away vegetable patch that looks bleak much of the year. The edibles needed to hold their own visually. So I started looking for models. Impressive French and Italian potagers (ornamental kitchen gardens) feature the right mix of plants but are too formal and labor-intensive.
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While I admire the environmental manifesto expressed in Fritz Haeg’s new book “Edible Estates: Attack on the Front Yard,” I think in the heat of his argument for replacing lawn with vegetables, he’s forgotten the visuals.
Symmetry in nature
I found inspiration in the local gardens of artist Johanna Marquis and landscape architect David Pfeiffer, both of whom loosely and artistically combine flowers, herbs, fruits, lettuces and vegetables in raised beds. Their gardens are as gorgeous as they are productive.
So now I mostly have raised beds and pots, planted in an overblown, colorful mix of flowers and vegetables and herbs. The hard edges of the beds bring symmetry and discipline to the scene, the plants are easier to reach, the soil better and the plants protected (somewhat) from slugs, snails and a rambunctious puppy.
I grow a row of raspberries right down the center of one of the raised boxes, surrounded by aggressive flowers like love-in-a-mist (Nigella) and California poppies that hold their own with the raspberries. A neat edging of Spanish lavender brings a little order to that bed.
Round galvanized feed troughs are centered with a bay tree, dwarf pole apple and tomatoes, and each is trimmed out with strawberries, pumpkins and nasturtiums.
Choosing what edibles are worth growing in such restricted space is a challenge. And I thought it was hard to select just a few hydrangeas, a single rose, one color of poppy! That’s nothing to salivating over the Raintree or Nichols Garden Nursery catalog and having to reject juicy heirloom tomatoes and chocolate mint.
Here’s the drill: Which ones will we most enjoy eating, which are beautiful, which less a priority because they’re so available at local farmers markets? I’ve found lettuces, berries, tomatoes and herbs to be the most rewarding. Also pumpkins and pea pods and arugula.
Trickier than you think
Perhaps the most important criterion of all is how easy an edible is to grow. If you think perennials are high-maintenance, wait until you start growing veggies and herbs. They peak quickly, flop, bolt, need more space than you’d ever imagine, require supports, irrigation, regular picking, fertilizing and rotations. Bugs love them.
Part of the trick is to expand your notion of ornamental. I love the edible pea pods I’m growing this summer, even though they’ve wildly outgrown the ornamental cages I’d so naively planted them in.
One is prettily entwined with a stand of alstroemeria, the other has climbed up to colonize a bronze fennel. I’ve learned to accept such happy coincidences, and next year I’ll plant my pea pods against a fence.
I suggest you don’t spend too much time thinking about what each bean or tomato actually costs, because it’s probably not an encouraging equation. Growing your own is all about the beauty and sensuality of it, the taste, freshness and peace of mind that comes from harvesting organic veggies out of your own garden.
I still have much to learn about how to sequence crops, and I never seem to give any plant quite enough room. Veggies don’t acquiesce to crowding like ornamentals do. But they’re so worth it. I never could have guessed what a pleasure it is to snack on sweet, crisp pea pods or sun-warm raspberries as I weed.
I haven’t come close to getting over the gratification of planning a dinner around what is ripe in the garden. Such a simple pleasure as stepping out the door with colander and scissors in hand to snip lettuces, lemon verbena, basil and mint never pales.
I admire the checkerboard effect of chartreuse and purple lettuces as much as any clematis or lily, and I could never have believed that picking fragrantly ripe strawberries for breakfast is such an entirely different sensory experience than buying them at the store.
Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer and author of “A Pattern Garden” Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Jacqueline Koch is a Seattle freelance photographer.