Although traditionalists may argue that there is nothing more attractive than a vegetable plot planted in straight rows like a production line, they are much more versatile than that, all you have to do is to change your perception and think of them as both ornamental and practical and your vegetable garden will be transformed! You only have to look over the channel to the French who pioneered the idea of vegetables as ornamentals to see that the potager has become an art form. The classic example is at Chateau de Villandry with its formal beds of vegetables but it is possible to plant ornamentally on a smaller scale and still make an impact, as the vegetable garden at the Eden Project proves. Colour schemes at Eden tend towards eye-catching colours like orange, red or mauve and it is surprising how ornamental some varieties can be for their flowers, fruit and the texture of the leaves.
You only have to look through the seed catalogues or visit the garden centre for the evidence. There are purple flowered and podded peas like ‘Ezetha‘s Krombek Blauwschok‘; an exceptionally tall ‘mange tout‘, ‘Carouby de Mausanne‘ with purple flowers reaching 1.8m tall, and the Borlotto bean, ‘Lingua di fuoco‘ with its cream and pink blotched pods – all with their origins in Europe. Lettuces can be planted close together to create a carpet of colour – even fresh green, ‘Tom Thumb‘ can be considered as ornamental, add deep red ‘Revolution‘, blotched and speckled ‘Freckles‘ and ‘Concorde‘ a massive oak-leaf type and you have the basis of a highly ornamental scheme that will brighten up your salads too. Rather than lifting whole plants at harvest time simply pull a few leaves from several plants. One of the most dependable vegetables, valued for providing several seasons of interest and that lasts through the winter, is ‘Rainbow‘ chard add companion plants like orange or lemon ‘Tagetes‘ and nasturtiums like the non trailing ‘Empress of India‘ with dark bluish green edible foliage and crimson scarlet flowers adds another dimension too. The key to success is to ensure that you have seedlings standing by to replace crops that start to fade so good organisation and planning is essential.
If nasturtiums are planted in early spring, by mid summer the self-seeded specimens will be developing in the surrounding soil at the time when mature plants are usually infested with black fly, so the old plants with accompanying pests can be removed and younger self-seeded plants will take their place. If you have not bought your vegetable seeds yet, then why not try an ornamental theme? Or simply experiment by using vegetables to fill gaps in the flower border. The ornamental approach to vegetable planting can be successful for anyone, try planting in blocks and curves and create bold colour schemes; all it takes is some careful research, a little artistic inclination – and a massive dose of courage!
Matthew Biggs‘ latest book, Gardening at Eden – and how to do it at home is published by Eden Books, RRP£25.