Making a vegetable garden look good too

The vegetable garden may be the Cinderella of the gardening world. No longer left behind to do all the work while her flowery stepsisters become belles of the ball, this formerly unadorned, straight-rowed patch is finally taking centre stage donned in an array of ornamental finery.

It’s easy to make your vegetable garden decorative as well as functional. And there’s no need to sacrifice useful cultural practices such as interplanting and crop rotation. Ornamental vegetable gardening simply means designing the garden to make it more visually appealing. Here’s how to mix vegetables and flowers for a beautiful, bountiful garden:

Combine plants that have similar growing requirements. For example, eggplants thrive in the blistering heat, so they’d do well in a full-sun flower bed along with orange-hued cultivars of melampodium and Mexican zinnia (Zinnia haageana). Lettuces, on the other hand, prefer cooler conditions. Head lettuces make perfect companions for shade perennials such as astilbe and coral bells (Heuchera spp.), and romaine seedlings complement colourful pansies and columbines in a shade garden. Start lettuce seeds in trays so you can tuck each plant into position.

If you’re interested in growing just a handful of fresh tomatoes or want to experiment with a new variety, try mixing a few tomato plants among other sun-loving flowers such as zinnias, marigolds, or even roses—all have similar sun, soil, water, and fertiliser requirements.

Use the distinctive colours of vegetable leaves to add visual interest when combining vegetables and flowers. The feathery foliage of carrots and bronze fennel are striking amid large flowers and bold-leafed plants such as balloon flowers, cannas, and coleus. The colourful stems of ‘Bright Lights’ Swiss chard add a rainbow of hues to the front of a border.

Think about how the vegetables will change in appearance through the growing season. In some cases (such as lettuce), the entire plant gets harvested, leaving a gap where it was growing. In other cases (such as broccoli), the plant is attractive for just a few weeks, so be prepared to replace it with other vegetables or flowers when the time comes. In general, you’ll find that annual flowers and bulbs tend to be more companionable with vegetables than perennials, but experiment and see what appeals to you.

Create a series of framed beds laid out in geometric patterns intersected with narrow paths. Treat each bed as a work of art and have fun experimenting with combinations of vegetables, herbs, and flowers inside the frame. Nasturtiums, a favourite edible flower, will sprawl happily among melons, winter squash, and cucumbers. Sunflowers and corn make a great duo. Marigolds are a classic companion for tomatoes. Patches of zinnias, cosmos, and calendula germinate quickly for bright spots of colour.

Try mixing varieties of lettuce for some visual interest. Divide a square framed bed into quarters and plant each area with a different type of leaf lettuce, such as ‘Red Sails’ (bronze-red), ‘Buttercrunch’ (green outer leaves and cream-coloured inner leaves), ‘Red Deer Tongue’ (burgundy-tinted at maturity), and ‘Red Oak Leaf’ (deep burgundy at maturity). Or use one leaf colour as a background and let your children plant their initials in a contrasting shade.

Edge raised beds with ornamental plants to give them some extra flair. Almost any small mounding plant will work, as long as it doesn’t hinder the vegetables’ growth and production. Early in the season, plant the edges with pansies and violas. As temperatures climb, try globe basil or marigolds. Position a large container of flowers, an obelisk, or a tuteur in the centre of the bed to create a striking focal point. And for some vertical drama and support for vining crops, add trellises and archways at entrances to help define the perimeter of the garden.

Tips for better raised beds
Raised beds make it easy to “paint” a colorful picture with a mixture of vegetables and flowers. Here are some tips on getting the most from your raised beds:

• Build the beds so you can easily reach at least halfway across them from one side.

• Most vegetables require full sun for at least six to eight hours a day, so place your beds in a sunny spot.

• Framed beds look best if the tops of the boxes are level. If your yard slopes, dig the higher end of the bed into the ground.

• Look at various options for raised-bed materials. In my ornamental vegetable garden, the beds are made of 2-inch by 12-inch weather-resistant boards mitre at the corners and secured with wood screws to give the corners a finished look. There are also several types of pre-made framed beds that make it a snap to create interesting designs.

• To create the perfect soil for your raised beds, blend 50 percent garden soil, 25 percent packaged manure, and 25 percent compost or humus. Fill beds with this mixture to about 2 inches from the top so you can tuck in plants and add a layer of mulch. If you have several beds, ask local nurseries to deliver the soil, manure, and compost by the cubic yard. One cubic yard covers about 100 square feet to a depth of 3 inches. My raised beds are 4 feet by 4 feet and 12 inches deep, so I used a little over half a cubic yard of soil for each bed.

• When temperatures drop in the fall, throw protective covers over the raised beds to extend your growing season.

Bird Facts

Turkey

With Christmas in the air, let’s celebrate Englands wild turkey! This handsome game bird has defied all odds by thriving in places previously thought unsuitable for such a large and wary bird. Today, it frequents gardens, yards, suburbs, and rural areas.

LOOK for a tall, slender bird (36 inches for toms, 26 inches for hens) that appears black to brown-grey. A closer look reveals iridescent green, purple, blue, russet, and bronze feathers. Toms’ bare heads are usually pink; hens’ are blue-grey.

LISTEN for the soft putts and clucks of content turkeys. Turkeys yelp and cutt (cackle) to get each other’s attention. Toms gobble heartily in spring to summon potential mates.

OBSERVE turkeys’ pecking order as birds jockey for position and dominance while feeding.

THRILL to the display put on by a strutting gobbler as he fans his tail and puffs his chest. Strutting activity peaks in spring, but toms will display any time of year.

ATTRACT wild turkeys with ear or shell corn on the ground. In winter, build an elevated feeder to keep the corn accessible.

Waxwings

Unmistakable in their colouring, cedar waxwings have silky brown feathers above and olive-yellow below, with a black mask, yellow tail tips and crest, and red, waxy-looking wing tips. Bohemian waxwings have grayer bellies, white wing patches, and rust colour on the tail.

  • According to Tom Carpenter, author of NHGC’s The Gardener’s Bird Book, cedar waxwings were almost exterminated in the late 1800s because their cured, feathered skins were popular ornaments on Victorian ladies’ hatbands.
  • Waxwings like to travel in flocks of a dozen to a hundred. They will line up on limbs or power lines and pass fruit down the ranks till one eats it.
  • Waxwings nest later than most songbirds. This is probably connected to the availability of ripening fruits.
  • Although they eat insects, waxwings love fruits and berries, especially red ones. Cherry trees, currants, chokecherries, and other fruiting plants may bring a flock of waxwings to your yard. Raisins, currants, or chopped apples or figs may attract them to feeders. But be aware of gustatory overload: Waxwings are known to gobble so much fruit that they can’t fly!

Robins

Don’t expect to see many robins eating at your bird feeder in spring (although they do like suet). They prefer a diet of worms, grasshoppers, termites, and grubs, and will be looking for them in lawns and leaf litter. In autumn and winter they like fruit and berries.

In early spring, robins usually build their nests in evergreen trees. Later, they nest in deciduous trees. The females build the nests from mud and grass.

The American robin was (mis)named by early English settlers, probably because it has the orange-breast of the robin of England. Although both are members of the thrush family (you can see the resemblance in the speckled-breasted youngsters), they’re not closely related.

In the wild, robins can live well into their teens-if they can avoid cats, their main predator.

 

Orioles

The flutelike song of bright-orange orioles can bring smiles to any gardener. If you live in the eastern part of the continent, you’ll see Baltimore orioles; in the western part, look for Bullock’s orioles.

  • Orioles make fascinating sock like nests woven from plant fibres, cloth, string, and hair, and lined with grasses. Attract orioles to nest by putting out short (less than 6-inch) pieces of yarn, hair, horsehair, or string.
  • Orioles like to nest in shade trees near open areas. Good habitat plants include blueberries, wild cherries, mulberries, serviceberries, plums, hawthorns, and elderberries.
  • Caterpillars make up one-third of an oriole’s diet. Other foods include aphids, ants, borers, moths, beetles, and scale insects. They also eat berries, wild fruits, and garden peas. Attract orioles with oranges or apples cut in half, or nectar feeders with perches.

 

Helping your plants grow

When the subject of staking plants comes up in gardening circles, there are two extreme reactions: Cinch every plant to within an inch of its life or leave everything to depend on its own strength. But between these two extremes lie the majority of gardeners—people who want to give their plants just enough support to stand up straight and look attractive, but not so much support that the stakes and wires detract from the garden.

A good staking system does more than simply make plants look better. It allows them to grow and bloom without flopping excessively, breaking, or smothering nearby, smaller plants. And the better the air circulation, the less likely plants are to suffer from common fungal diseases like powdery mildew.

Choose the right support

The good news about staking is that most stakes and cages are inexpensive. Some, in fact, are homemade. They come in an array of shapes and sizes—as a general rule of thumb, buy a support that’s about half the height of a plant’s ultimate height.

If you know which plants need which types of stakes, it’s easy to keep your garden looking tidy and attractive.

Clump–forming plants. Perennials that have been bred to produce double flowers often end up top-heavy, sinking to the ground at the least provocation. For example, double peonies packed with petals are beautiful in bloom, but they can go from heavenly to heartbreaking with one June rainstorm. Likewise, a good-looking stand of Shasta daisies loses its appeal when it suddenly splays out to expose a mass of bare stems in the middle, leaving the flowers to hang remorsefully in a huge ring.

Plants that grow in clumps and tend to flop—such as Shasta daisies, peonies, balloon flowers, and salvia—are best staked with a grow-though support. When set up in early spring, these supports allow the plant to grow through a circular loop, sometimes crossed with additional supporting bars, so plants won’t lean to the sides.

To build your own grow-through support, drive twigs into the ground in a loose circle around the plant at the appropriate height. Next, weave a web with sisal twine or string across the opening. Stems will grow up through the web. If you have a loosely woven basket in the back of your closet, poke some extra holes in it and put it upside down over emerging plants so they can grow through it.

Long-stemmed plants. Plants that hold heavy flowers on single stems include delphinium, giant alliums, and lilies. Look for single-stem supports that have an open circle at the top that can gently hold the stem against the wind. Y-stakes work well for long-stemmed plants, too—they give the stem support without making it look like the plant has been lassoed.

Tall, clump-forming plants. For taller clump-forming plants such as New England asters, foxgloves, and tall annuals, it’s best to use extra-tall support hoops (see illustration, page 50) or a linking system (see illustration, this page). When mature, these plants are too tall for shorter supports such as grow-through rings. Creative plant-support options

It’s difficult to hide the support systems for some plants, such as long-stemmed flowers supported by a tall stake and loop. But if you make the stakes a form of garden art, you’ll be proud to show them off. Check garden-art shows and nurseries for rusted metal supports, rebar or copper tubing bent into spirals, and other inventive and fun stakes.

You can learn to make your own supports, too. Check local nurseries, public gardens, and extension offices to see if there’s a class scheduled. Artistic plant supports add a bit of whimsy and flair to your garden, while still keeping plants in good form.

For a more natural staking system, look to the materials you have on hand. In Britain, gardeners use what are called pea stakes to hold up everything from clematis to bee balm. These rustic cages and teepees are made from cuttings of hazel, twiggy dogwood, willow, or even fruit trees. The twigs and branches are fairly flexible, so you can bend them into the desired shape.

Bamboo is another great material for garden supports. Use just one stake to support a long-stemmed plant or tie together several stakes to create a teepee for vegetables or flowering vines.

When not to stake
Some plants look better with a bit of support, but many of them don’t need our help. Refrain from staking interweaving plants, such as hardy geranium (Geranium ‘Ann Folkard’ and G. ‘Rozanne’, both Zones 5 to 8) and herbaceous potentillas such as Potentilla ‘Miss Willmott’. If you leave these plants alone, they’ll send out a long stem here and there, grow through their neighbours, and create interesting new plant combinations that would never occur to you.

Some tall plants can depend on sturdy neighbours. Small shrubs, for example, can lend their support to perennial neighbours, and shrub roses do double duty as support and flowering plants. Tight balls of shrubs, such as Hebe buxifolia , or a boxwood such as Buxus ‘Green Mountain’ , will hold up delicate flower stems. More open shrubs, such as winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata, support tall perennials that grow through them.

Reduce the need to stake
Don’t overwater or over fertilise flowering plants—this leads to rapid growth and weak stems that have trouble holding up a flower of any weight. Strong, sturdy hollyhocks that grow along the side of the garage are good examples. They stand well on their own because no one is making them weak from tender care. A plant is more likely to hold up its own head if you plant it in the right spot. If a plant needs full sun but gets only three hours a day, it will develop long, lanky stems that can’t stand upright. Every summer I trip over the stems of Japanese anemone (Anemone x hybrida, Zones 4 to 8) in my shady side garden, while a large clump in the sunny front garden stands tall.

 

Type of Support: Grow-through support

What it’s for: Plants that grow in clumps and tend to flop, such as Shasta daisies, peonies, balloon flowers, and salvia

Grow-through supports allow plants to grow up and through a circular loop sometimes crossed with additional supporting bars. Buy them at a nursery or garden centre, or make your own by driving twigs or stakes into the ground and circling them with twine.

Type of Support: Linking stakes

What it’s for: Clumps of plants that are too big for other support systems

If some of your flowering plants have formed clumps that exceed the size of any hoop, ring, or grow-through support, try a linking-stake system. These are fairly expensive and a bit tricky to fit together, but they have great flexibility. You can hold up a group of lilies in a straight row, encircle a grand old peony that you’re loathe to divide, or tame an unwieldy bunch of yarrow that’s gone a bit wild.

Type of Support: Single-stem support

What it’s for: Plants that hold heavy flowers on single stems, such as delphinium, tall dahlias, and giant allium

Look for supports with an open circle at the top that gently holds the stem against the wind. Some single-stem supports have one loop on either side of a stake, and some have loops that open and close to make them easier to install after the plant is mature.

Type of Support: Support hoop

What it’s for: Tall, weak-stemmed plants that grow in a clump, such as New England asters, foxgloves, and some tall annuals

These plants are too tall for shorter grow-through supports. Look for hoops tall enough to accommodate these lofty beauties.

Timing

Timing is essential when staking perennials. Set out plant supports in early spring, when the plants are just nubbins sticking out of the cold earth. A plant that grows through its staking will take on a natural appearance—the supports will “disappear.” If you wait to stake, you may break fragile branches or end up with awkward-looking bundles of stems instead of natural-looking clumps. Gathering rings, which allow you to carefully place open rings around long-stemmed perennials, are an exception.

Support your Local Vegetables

When it comes to staking vegetables, the most important rule is to put your staking system in place before the plant gets too big for it—and that means right after you plant it. Here are some suggestions for staking vegetables:

Beans and Peas

These twining plants need something to grow around. Build a teepee of bamboo or taut string attached to a ring at the top. Or use a row system so that you can harvest from either side of the plants.

Cucumbers

Keep fruit off the ground with a cage system. You may need to help the vines get started by guiding them onto the cage as they grow.

Squash

Most gourds and squashes produce fruit that is too heavy for a staking system, but you can still grow them vertically if you support the ripening fruit with stretchy mesh fabric (such as nylon stockings) attached to the trellis.

Tomatoes

Use tomato cages that sink into the ground around the plant. You can build your own by buying wire fencing that has square holes big enough for you to reach in and harvest. Or tie the main stem of a tomato to a wooden stake using green plant tape that expands with the stem.

Peppers and eggplants

Use the same system as foryour tomatoes. Other products that work well for these vegetables include ladders and spirals, available at nurseries and garden centres.