It used to be that vegetable gardens were stuck in an out-of-sight corner of the backyard. Flower gardens occupied the high profile spaces around our homes.
Not any more. Plants are busting out of their traditional roles and growing together - wherever - in harmony.
“We’ve been boxing things up too much,” said horticulturalist Erica Shaffer, “ Why do we have to have a perennial garden, or vegetable garden? Why can’t we just GARDEN?”
This isn’t a new idea. For centuries the French have had formal decorative and functional potager vegetable gardens. In medieval times, wealthy Englishmen added herbs and flowers to their kitchen gardens.
Interplanting flowers and vegetable does more than pretty-up the veggie patch. Integrating flowers into your vegetable gardens or growing vegetables in with your flower borders can be fun and beneficial.
“Flowers bring in the pollinators and beneficial insects,” said Shaffer.
Pollinating insects like butterflies and bees are crucial for vegetable development. With squash, for instance, you can have lush vines and leaves topped off with stellar large flowers, but if those flowers aren’t pollinated, no squash will develop. Beneficial insects are also important because they target and organically control many pests, like the tomato hornworm for example.
Shaffer also says adding flowers and herbs to your garden, repels some pests.
“While I have yet to see a nose on any insect,” Shaffer said, “Mixing flowers and herbs up with vegetables, confuses critters.” Different smells camouflage each other and fewer pests are drawn to your garden, she said.
As interest in growing our own food increases, many gardeners are adding vegetables to their borders and flower gardens.
Vegetable plants rival ornamental plants in their beauty. Delicate white snap pea blossoms sit on top butterfly-shaped leaves as wispy tendrils curl and dance. There’s added benefit in that pea tendrils are edible and an attractive addition to salads.
Exotic looking kale with tall, sturdy, yet ruffled leaves could substitute for elephant ear or banana in a landscape. Yet, you can’t add elephant ear to a stir-fry. Kale is jammed packed with vitamins and minerals. Dill or fennel foliage is feathery and delicate. Fine foliage herbs are comparable in texture to ornamental grass and would be perfectly at home in a perennial border.
While some veggie plants are easily seen as decorative, Shaffer says beauty is in the eye of the beholder with some veggie plants.
“If you’re still harvesting tomatoes in September from a plant in your front yard,” said Shaffer, “ maybe you won’t judge the plant so harshly if it’s beginning to look a little ragged.”
There are things to consider when adding vegetables to flower gardens. Shaffer said she would think about how many rabbits are in your neighborhood. Planting vegetable among ornamentals provides more hiding space for rabbits making it easier for them to wipe out your harvest.
It is also necessary to match vegetable and ornamental plants with the same growing requirements. Vegetables need six or more hours of sun and they need good soil.
If you aren’t interested in sequentially planting vegetables in your flower beds, choose vegetables with a long growing season. Peas and some leafy greens, while attractive during the cool seasons of spring and fall, don’t handle heat. That might be fine in a perennial bed that fills out in summer, but if you need summer interest, beans, corn or melons have longer growing seasons.
To keep things pretty while growing flower and food together, Shaffer suggests pondering some classic landscape design rules. Cluster plants in multiples of three or five and vary height and textures of the plants your choosing.
Remember that beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder. So just garden. If growing food is the most important thing to you, express yourself and go nuts with veggie plants in your landscape. If flowers are your thing, train morning glories up your cornstalks. The most beautiful thing of all is finding your personal vision in the garden. Chaotic or not.