When Veggies Mix with Flowers

Vegetable beds traditionally come in rows for a practical reason. This timeless design is intended to weed and harvest as efficiently as possible. But as suburban plots shrink so do wide open spaces for vegetable gardens. That’s when it makes sense to look at vegetables in a different light—as ornamental plants as well as practical food producers. We plan flowerbeds to buffer a sidewalk, surround a building or line a path. Those places may be the sunniest, or best drained. Why not locate vegetables where they will be happiest, even if it’s among the bearded iris or roses?

Potagernewgardenlettuce187I’ve discovered that eggplants grow vigorously in my south-facing garden next to a blistering sidewalk. They love the heat and exposure nestled among my drought-tolerant plants. Eggplants are among the most ornamental of vegetable plants themselves, so their purple-tinged leaves and lime green veins appear exotic tucked between Jupiter's beard and penstemons. What eggplants won’t appreciate is the lean soil and lack of water--the hallmarks of a drought-tolerant garden. But a generous handful of compost and hand watering can make up for that shortfall. Since I need only a few plants to provide plenty of perfect globes for ratatouille, tending to them is easy. No other garden can guarantee such warmth throughout the day, which is of prime importance to this finicky vegetable. My conclusion: find what is most important to the vegetable you love and supply what may be lacking.

Lettuces are a study in contrasts. They prefer a bit of shade in mid-summer and bolt quickly once summer arrives if left in the spring bed. But plant new romaine seedlings in a shade garden alongside columbines and Johnny-jump-ups in the heat of summer and they’ll happily extend the season for you. Consider the lettuce bed for loose-leaf lettuces that are easiest when the seeds are planted in neat rows. Add beautiful head lettuces here and there among the shade perennials, and plant the head lettuces in seed trays rather than directly seeded into the garden so that you can tuck in each plant wherever you choose.

I’ve taken a closer look at planting an extra tomato vine or pepper variety in other places throughout the front and back yards. Tomatoes and peppers grow well with roses, requiring similar soil, water and fertilizer. As they set fruit, ease away from water and both tomatoes and peppers develop flavor. Tomatoes may vine up a climber rose. Peppers, like eggplants, have beautiful leaves and fruit that mix well in a sea of flowers.

Even green beans, which never shine as individual plants, can be an effective border along a pathway. They offer an additional boon by adding nitrogen to the soil. Carrots, too, with their feathery-fringed leaves decorate an ornamental border in front of perennials or annuals. Carrots will need more water than beans so it’s best to match carrots to your delphiniums. Beans could be companioned with bachelor buttons, or cosmos.

For many gardeners, it pays to rethink placing vegetables in unexpected spots because it opens up the vegetable garden for plants that take up room. The sprawling winter squash or melons, both top choices for gourmet gardeners, often are deleted from the seed list. These larger and more expansive vegetables may gobble up space, but are worthwhile. Let them trail across a lawn, alongside a fence or wind around a tree.

Other fruits and vegetables can double as ornamentals, too. Raspberries might be great as a hedge you’ve been intending to plant against the garden wall. Small cherry tomato vines climb up a grapevine. Strawberries make a fine groundcover.  Once you’ve moved the vegetables into the flowerbeds, it only makes sense to move some of the flowers, especially annuals, into the vegetable beds. Pansies enjoy the same rich, moist, semi shade characteristics that we save for spinach and lettuces. Nasturtiums, always a favorite edible flower, will sprawl happily among melons and winter squash or cucumbers. Sunflowers and corn mix well for height. Marigolds are the classic accompaniment for tomatoes. Zinnias, cosmos and calendula germinate quickly alongside your rows.

By this time, vegetables and ornamentals no longer require rigid boundaries. Just keep one thing in mind. Many vegetables need to be rotated each year so that pests and diseases don’t build up in the soil and return the following year to lay waste to your eggplants or tomatoes. With this system, it’s far easier to prevent disease build-up because you’ll be moving the plants around. Make sure you don’t continue to plant eggplants and other vegetables in the same family (tomatoes, tomatillos, potatoes, peppers). Perennial vegetables and fruits escape this requirement, so leave your strawberries and asparagus as long as you like. Experiment with your new garden approach each year and before long, you’ll forget what it was like to banish all the vegetables to only one area of the garden.

Suggested flowers among the vegetables:

Sunflower family (Asteraceae): lettuces, chicories, calendulas, artichokes, celtuce, endives, marigolds, and tarragon violas with early lettuces, larkspur, poppies, forget-me-not, sunflowers with artichokes
Cucumber or gourd family (Cucurbitaceae): melons and winter squash, cucumbers, summer squash, pumpkins nasturtiums with sprawling squash, morning glories on trellis with sprawling squash
Nightshade family (Solanaceae): peppers, eggplants, potatoes, and tomatillos marigolds, zinnias
Mint family (Lamiaceae): basil, mints, oregano, rosemary, sages, summer savory, and thyme lavender with oregano, rosemary, sages, thymes, cherry tomatoes with basil and mints
Lily family (Liliaceae): onions, shallots, garlic, asparagus, chives, leeks ornamental alliums
Mustard family (Brassicaceae): arugula, broccoli, cabbages, cauliflower, collards, cresses, kale, kohlrabi, komatsuma, mizuna, mustards, radishes, and turnips ornamental kale, cool weather bloomers like pansies for broccoli, hot weather bloomers like zinnia for collards
Parsley family (Apiaceae): carrots, celeriac, celery, chervil, coriander (cilantro), dill, fennel, lovage, parsley, and parsnips Cosmos
Pea family (Fabaceae): beans, cowpeas, fava beans, lima beans, peanuts, peas, runner beans, soybeans, sugar peas decorative beans like the scarlet runner bean
Fruits: grapes, strawberries, raspberries consider tiny spring bulbs for strawberries like snowdrops or species tulips. Raspberries may be too vigorous to share space with flowers. Clematis companions with grape vines.