How to get the most from your vegetable garden

When we think of homegrown food crops, many imagine tidy rows of vegetables hidden away in the backyard. Others have never associated vegetable plants and gardens for their beauty. But if you consider those same edible plants from a design standpoint, and look at their colors, shapes and textures, they are just as valuable as any other landscape plant -- even more so, because they can provide both beauty and flavor at the same time.

Today, more gardeners are designing landscapes with food-producing plants, and one woman is credited with making this trend a growing revolution. To many, Rosalind Creasy is considered the guru of landscaping with food. She first popularized the concept over 30 years ago with the publication of "Edible Landscaping" (The first of many books on the subject).

There's no law that says a vegetable garden has to be boring and utilitarian and Creasy has been proving that point for years. She's a living testament to the fact that with a little imagination and the right techniques and plants, your food garden can pull double duty as attractive landscape as well as functional grocery store.

"Beauty is great in a landscape, but it's the food that is the common link to building community," Creasy said in an interview.

Start with the "bones" of the design, the hardscape features that form an unchanging foundation of the garden's style throughout the year. Walls, walkways, fences, trellises, arbors and statues will work as background elements in the summer and fall, then become focal points when the vegetables are finished. Fences, berms and walls can help set the theme: sophisticated wrought iron or classic brick with manicured hedges for a more formal look; or ground cover sprawling across a stone wall or vines spilling over a rocky berm for a rustic feel.

Edge formal beds with clipped boxwood, or informal beds with Japanese barberry, for example. Anchor the corners of the garden with dwarf fruit trees underplanted with herbs. Evergreens, ornamental grasses and shrubs with decorative bark will add interest in all four seasons. Creasy added in the interview: "Even if your edibles don't always look their best, having a well-manicured hedge or roses nearby is a great trick to signaling this is an attractive garden."

The style itself depends on your personal taste, and the architecture of your house. Modern homes may call for a contemporary theme, while relaxed, informal rustic looks are more appropriate for a rural setting. Match hardscape items to the style of the garden -- weathered wood in a country plot or painted metal for a contemporary theme. Keep them in scale with the garden's size, too. Contrast tall and short features to provide variety across the seasons, especially in the bleak, gray days of winter.

Raised beds are appropriate for any garden style. "But keep your ornamental vegetable garden to a manageable size," cautioned Creasy. It can become overwhelming to take care of a garden that's bigger than what you actually need. As for siting, edible plants need a lot of full sun to produce their fruits, roots and shoots. Find a spot that's sunny yet easily accessible.

What to plant depends on what your family will eat. Many popular vegetables are available in ornamental colors, like red lettuce, rainbow chard and yellow tomatoes. Even common varieties can look great paired with the unusual. How about the puffy pink blooms of chive bursting up from a bed of bright chartreuse lettuce or blue-green broccoli?

Most vegetables are annuals, so pair them with other annuals like zinnia, snapdragon, marigold and nasturtium. Fill in the blank spots when cool-season crops give out in the heat of summer, or replace with classic warm-season crops such as tomatoes and peppers.

Whether you choose a formal European-style knot garden or a rustic truck patch, you can appreciate the beauty and bounty of an ornamental vegetable garden all season long from your kitchen window and your kitchen table.

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