Veteran vegetable gardeners take pleasure in tilling up long, straight row gardens with all the plants arranged in perfect, straight lines. They’re proud of their weed-free swaths of bare topsoil, maintained with hours of patient hoeing.
For the rest of us, this approach to vegetable gardening seems like a lot of work, not to mention that it doesn’t fit very well into most home landscapes.
Surely there must be another way!
We’ve written in the past about raised bed gardening. This approach reduces maintenance and gives gardeners lots of control over soil quality.
It’s also a good solution to soggy spring soil at planting time; raised beds drain by gravity. Still, it’s a rare raised-bed vegetable garden that could be called attractive landscaping.
One solution is to mix annual flowers, herb plants and vegetables together in your raised beds. Marjorie’s kitchen herb garden is an example (see photo); despite the unsightly propane tank behind it, her raised bed herb plot is a showy spot in our back yard (just a few steps from the kitchen door).
We saw the ultimate solution on a visit to Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania.
Longwoods’ “Idea Gardens” include a fenced-in vegetable plot that can only be called stunning (see photo). Winding gravel paths invited us to wander through vegetable plantings arranged in groups, not rows, or artfully supported by attractive trellises.
Annual flowers lined the curving walkways. This is the best example we’ve ever seen of vegetable gardening disguised as landscaping.
The only reason why edible plants can’t be mixed with ornamentals might be a loss of efficiency, if your goal is to produce vast quantities of produce.
For many couples and families, finding time to harvest fresh vegetables at their peak can be a challenge, so only a few plants of each variety are really required. Daily vigilance is still needed to spot pests and diseases before they spread, and to control weeds.
Mixing flowers, vegetables and herbs creates a soothing, restful beautiful environment, making gardening chores easier to manage.
Mulching is a terrific labor saver in vegetable gardens, and one more way to make garden beds into attractive landscapes. It’s important to use mulch that builds your soil.
We use pine bark nuggets in our asparagus bed, and mushroom compost makes excellent sterile mulch while feeding garden plants. Straw is a good solution for plants whose fruit lies on the ground, like squash and cucumbers. Spreading these mulches early in the season will save you hours of weeding.
Did you ever think of using natural stone borders around your vegetable beds? Besides being pretty, these stone borders allow you to pile up soil, compost and mulch in mounds. Vegetable plants love this, because the mounds are perfectly drained.
Here’s a technique my grandmother taught me.
She saved all her leaves and garden clippings in a large compost bin next to her garden. Each spring, after tilling and planting her vegetables, she spread the composted leaves generously around the young plants so that no bare dirt was visible.
This kept the soil moist on the hottest days, prevented the ground from getting hard-baked, and saved backbreaking hoeing chores. Each spring we simply tilled all the previous year’s compost into the soil before planting. My grandmother’s garden had the most beautiful soft black topsoil you can imagine.
Steve Boehme is a landscape designer/installer specializing in landscape “makeovers”. “Let’s Grow” is published weekly; column archives are on the “Garden Advice” page at www.goodseedfarm.com. For more information is available at www.goodseedfarm.com or call GoodSeed Farm Landscapes at (937) 587-7021.