A well-designed vegetable garden is a wonderful source of fresh produce for the chef, but it can also be a favorite garden destination, a place to retreat to and relax. If you plan it right, a kitchen garden can be the prettiest planting on your property.
Start by choosing a site that meets the requirements of the plants. Vegetables of all kinds flourish in sun, so find a spot that gets a good eight hours of direct sunlight. Your site should be level, on a part of your property that you walk past every day, and convenient to the kitchen. It's important to have a nearby source of water so you don't have to drag a hose or carry watering cans too far. These are the basics. After that, let your imagination go.
"Design is often what is missing from the vegetable garden, yet it is the most important element to enjoying the garden," says Ellen Ecker Ogden, who recommends including a bench, table, pergola or arbor in the design to make it more inviting. "It's a nice way to say, 'I like it here. I don't just come here to work and pull weeds,'" she says.
Ogden, the author of "The Complete Kitchen Garden," went to art school, but "then I turned into a gardener," she says. She balanced her interests by becoming a kitchen-garden designer. Her four-square garden in Vermont is as pretty as it is productive, with lettuce and greens growing in sweeping curves, lozenges and circles instead of traditional rows. "It's really a visual thing for me as much as it is a food thing," she says.
Most people start with a space that's too big. "They have an appetite to grow everything," Ogden says. Instead, pick and choose your crops just as you would at a market. The selection of fresh produce at local markets expands every year, so maybe you don't need to grow your own eggplant or zucchini. Instead, you might want to concentrate on salad greens, Ogden says, especially if you're a new gardener. "They grow fast, there are not many pests and they have really high nutrition per square foot," she says.
Instead of growing six tomato plants, you might decide to make room for just one or two, perhaps a cherry tomato and one other. That leaves room for herbs, such as basil and oregano, to help those tomatoes taste even better.
Color should also play a role in your choices, just as it does in flower beds. Plant a mixture of red and green lettuces, or train golden wax beans up a tepee. Flowers grown right alongside your vegetables not only fill the garden with bright colors, but also attract pollinators and beneficial insects that help manage pests in your vegetable beds. Ogden loves to plant nasturtiums in her kitchen garden. She likes calendulas and marigolds, especially the little signet marigolds called "Lemon Gem." She also relies on the flowers of some vegetable crops to add a flourish. Scarlet runner beans have bright red blooms that attract hummingbirds. Okra flowers look like sunny yellow hibiscus.
Texture is a big element in interesting gardens, too. Frilly lettuces look like a luxurious ruffled petticoat around the edge of a vegetable garden. Shiny red and green peppers sparkle among the foliage. The feathery tops of carrots and the spiky foliage of onions and leeks give the eye a lot of contrast to enjoy. Herbs of all kinds add still more texture, as well as fragrance.
To give a vegetable garden even more character, build upward. In Ogden's garden, an arbor lifts pole beans up into the light. Peas, cucumbers and even melons can be grown on a sturdy trellis. Just remember, tall elements should be placed toward the back of the garden (which should be on the north side) so they do not shade out crops in front.
Sprawling plants may need a place of their own. Especially if you have a small garden, pots are a great way to grow more crops without giving up much space in the ground. Ogden plants pumpkins in half a whiskey barrel near her driveway instead of giving them space in her kitchen garden. Last year, she also grew tomatoes, summer squash and potatoes in pots.
Vegetable gardening doesn't have to be hard or expensive, Ogden says. Start small, with beds no more than 4 feet wide. Sketch out a pretty planting plan on paper, and leave plenty of room for generous paths. Make liberal use of steppingstones so you don't compact your soil while working in your beds. Sow seeds or plant transplants of a good variety of crops you can harvest over a long season. Then, look forward to spending some time in your garden every day, inspecting its progress, thinning and weeding if necessary, and harvesting a few leaves of lettuce or fresh tomatoes for your dinner salad. And don't forget that garden bench. "Food is important and functional, but it's important to me to have the garden look nice, too," Ogden says. In a well-designed kitchen garden, you can count on a bumper crop of satisfaction.
Getting It Right
A great design is just about all that separates a vegetable garden that's a chore from one that is a pleasure, says Ellen Ecker Ogden. Here are a few of her tips:
-- Don't overwhelm yourself. Start small. A 4-by-4-foot or 4-by-8-foot bed may be just right.
-- Look for ideas everywhere, then come up with a design that works in your space.
-- Don't plant in rows: Embellish the layout by making a big "X" with lettuce plants, or plant a checkerboard pattern of greens and flowers. Try planting radishes in a diamond shape. "It's a lot more fun," Ogden says.
-- Make wide paths. The main path through your garden should be 4 feet wide, Ogden says. Secondary paths can be narrower, but they need not be.
-- Make room for garden furniture or art. "Put some personality" out there, Ogden says. "I love art in the garden."
-- Choose plants wisely. Ogden advocates what she calls her "80-20 rule." Plant 80 percent of the garden with things you can't do without, and 20 percent with crops you haven't tried before. This may be your summer to try artichokes, for example, or cinnamon basil. "You should always be learning," she says.
-- Place the garden close to the house. "People say they have a problem with deer, or with groundhogs," she says. "It's usually because the garden is too far away."
-- Go up: A trellis for crops or flowers will make the garden more interesting, and it will use the available space and light more efficiently.
-- Ogden considers color, texture and height when she makes her designs. "One of my favorite combinations is artichokes with Empress of India nasturtiums and purple basil," she says.
-- Spend time in your garden every day, but don't call it work. "Tell yourself, 'I'm going to go out and play in the garden,'" Ogden says. "It will give you some light-heartedness."
Books, magazines and garden websites are full of inspiration to help you design a pretty, successful vegetable garden. Ellen Ecker Ogden's book, "The Complete Kitchen Garden," includes recipes for kitchen gardens with different themes. You don't have to choose just one -- flip through, pick out elements you like and combine them in your own design, she suggests. Check her website, ellenogden.com.
-- Gardener's Supply Co. (gardeners.com) has a free online planning tool to help customers design their own vegetable gardens. The tool is especially helpful for raised-bed gardens and square-foot gardening, which concentrate on making efficient use of space. The company also has several preplanned designs and sells the seeds to help you turn the plan into reality.
-- Mother Earth News (motherearthnews.com) has a vegetable-garden planning app to help readers design, plant and maintain a vegetable garden. You can experiment with designs, generate a planting guide and make notes to remind yourself to rotate crops from year to year.
(For editorial questions, please contact Clint Hooker at email@example.com.)