Beauty and bounty meet in the vegetable garden

There is a common perception that flower gardens are planted for looks, vegetable gardens for utility. But in fact, vegetable gardens are the place where beauty and bounty meet, and flower gardens have a higher calling to promote botanical diversity and sustain pollinators.

The American home vegetable garden was once a farm in miniature, a long rectangle striped with parallel rows. It now embraces a wide range of styles, from tidy patchworks of raised beds, to free-form edible landscapes, to clusters of planters on city terraces. The line between ornamental and food gardens has blurred, especially in small yards where there is room for one but not both. As you plan your spring garden, here are some tips for making such a merger pay off:

Put food first. Give hungry crops their own beds with plenty of root run. Don’t let trailing nasturtiums swamp the beets, or giant sunflowers shade the beans.

Use the fence. Roses, morning glories and, better yet, edible scarlet runner beans with their gorgeous flowers, can share the fence with cucumbers, pole beans and cherry tomatoes.

Find a spot for a fruit tree or two, as long as they don’t shade other crops. A farmer might not do this, but a small tree makes a great focal point.

Marigolds won’t deter pests, as is often claimed, but they make a beautiful edging for a path, along with lavender, winter savory, calendulas and other plants with edible flowers.

Think of contrasts when you plant vegetables. Red cabbage heads look stunning next to ferny carrot foliage, or fennel.

Straight lines work best, and make it easier to sow, hoe and space crops correctly. Keep in mind that rows viewed lengthwise are more striking than those viewed horizontally. (Picture driving past a cornfield where the road is perpendicular to the row ends.)

Most important of all, grow good crops. A rich, dark soil loaded with organic matter is not only beautiful to look at, but it will also give your vegetables the glow of health. Their stems will be strong, their leaves richly green, their fruits unblemished. Our eyes instinctively respond to the phytonutrients in well-nourished food. Colorful zinnias, herringbone brick paths, and English-style arches can only make a poorly grown garden the now-proverbial pig with lipstick. Compost comes first.

Last but not least, keep the garden well maintained. Nobody wants to visit a garden with weedy beds and paths, tools lying about, spent crops that have not been pulled out, leaning towers of tomatoes, or squash vines run amok. Especially the gardener.

Barbara Damrosch

Barbara Damrosch

Barbara Damrosch’s latest book is “The Four Season Gardener’s Cookbook.”
Barbara Damrosch

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