When I began my initial foray into the world of vegetables, I was a weekend gardener with limited time and no garden education. My only knowledge of vegetable gardening was definitely of the big-square-plot-of-dirt, row-each-of-tomatoes-beans-lettuces-etc. school of kitchen gardening. That was how I thought all vegetable gardens looked. Big. Plain. Rectangular. Aggressively functional with a nodding proximity to Tobacco Road.
Since then, I've learned that this strictly utilitarian model was a 19th-century invention. It developed as people moved away from rural life and home gardens to the cities, as production became centralized on industrial-size farms, and as machines that worked best when moving straight ahead replaced human labor. Then the whole thing got retranslated back to the backyard. The older, far more pleasing, approach, which reigned in backyards across the globe as long ago as the pleasure gardens of Babylon and right up through the 18th century, was based on smaller, more intimate plots, often divided into garden "rooms," incorporating a scheme of multiple raised beds planted with a diverse mixture of herbs, vegetables, fruit trees, and flowers.
Start with Design
Do you want to create a kitchen garden that's as beautiful to look at as it is productive? Start by banishing the idea of a single, vast patch of upturned earth with regiment after regiment of linearly disposed vegetables marching across it. Instead embrace the idea of growing vegetables in a decorative, multiple-parterre planting within a fenced or walled space. You have now opened the door to a far more pleasurable experience on every level. More soothing to be in. Far easier to work.
The first step on this journey is to eliminate the prototypical rectangle from your vocabulary and let your mind wander freely over all the other geometric possibilities. Picture an octagonal garden. Or a square one with semicircular island beds, or one further divided into pie-wedged beds, or even a quartet of rooms. How about an enfilade of smaller plots linked by fruit trees trained into arbor form, chaining across a lawn or encircling a central water feature?
Raise your beds
Once you've imagined the exterior shape possibilities of your space, consider the dual concepts of "raised" and "multiple" bedding plans as the interior design ideal. Early gardeners, from the Aztecs at Tenochtitlan to the ancient Egyptians to 9th-century Swiss monks, recognized that a bed raised even a scant 6 inches above path level provided infinitely better drainage than a bed built flush with the soil. Gardeners today also find that raised beds heat up faster in spring, adding days (or even weeks) to your growing season. Raised beds allow for far easier soil amendment, too. Build up a bed 12 or 18 inches above path grade, and you can fill it with the ideal mix of topsoil and other amendments. And when the soil is at shin level, weeding and harvesting are less of a strain on your back.
Vegetable gardeners across every continent have learned that beds built no broader than 4 to 5 feet, separated by paths, allow you to reach into the middle of each bed without stepping into it. This keeps you from ranging through your seedlings, compacting the soil and crushing plants underfoot. Moreover, you can work with your feet planted in a nice, clean path rather than in the middle of a muddy bed.
Plant a Tapestry
Once you have this marvelous pattern of multiple raised beds around you like a huge Turkish carpet, you can plant it just as you would a decorative flower border. You can select from literally thousands of kinds of vegetables, born in all corners of the globe: some nearly as old as time, others introduced yesterday, in every shape and coloration and savor imaginable. Think about height and texture and leaf form and foliage color. Think of contrast and juxtaposition and vegetables that will reward you with flowers, as well.
I suggest you begin by planting a layer of perennial softscape: a quartet of box balls or a border of boxleaf honeysuckle (Lonicera nitida) to ensure evergreen interest. Then add the "upholstered" plants: the handsome brutes you can rely on all season to fill their space. Corn and tomatoes. Peppers, eggplants, and leeks. Artichokes and cardoons. Celeries and chards. Then the handsome, early-season "furniture": carrots, beets, lettuces. Kales, cabbages, and greens. And the later-season accessories, like beans, okra, squashes, and melons. Then on to the fall crops: more lettuces and brassicas and leafy greens. There is no right answer or right mix, and every year is a new opportunity to trial some winning new cultivar or combination.
Think About Trellises
Finally, many vegetables need your support, which presents yet another chance to elevate your kitchen garden beyond the merely functional. Pole beans, cucumbers, and winter squashes climb tuteurs. Tomatoes grow best with trellising or caging. Height is one of the great aesthetic opportunities of the potager, and all of these forms, from a classic bamboo tepee to an imposing central gazebo, can be visual delights while they enhance your yields by adding vertical growing space and help minimize ugly diseases. In almost every instance, you can see that if you approach essential tasks with an eye on invention and creativity, the results will be as lovely as they are practical.
5 Simple Changes
Try any of these easy alterations to your vegetable garden, and you'll add to its visual appeal. Apply them all, and your plot will be one of the highlights of next summer's garden club tour.
Think outside the rectangle. Rebuild your plots into circles, triangles, or octagons.
Frame it finely. Just as the right frame enhances a painting, attractive materials beautify your raised beds. Naturally rot-resistant cedar weathers nicely. Or consider stone or brick to enclose your planting areas.
Mix and match. Combine vegetables with flowers, herbs, and shrubs, as well as birdbaths, sundials, or your favorite decorations.
Say no to rows. Plant in patterns, and your beds become a quilt of colors, shapes, and textures.
Grow up with style. Basic stakes and cages are so prosaic. You can build a more eye-catching structure out of bamboo or look for unique uprights at estate sales and the like.
Jack Staub is the coproprietor of Hortulus Farm, a nursery and display garden in Wrightstown, Pennsylvania.