Considering the superior flavour of fresh-picked vegetables and the choices you get when you grow your own, it's a wonder that more people don't have vegetable gardens.
Even a local farm or farmers' market can't offer vegetables as fresh as those straight from the backyard.
Perhaps if vegetable gardens were more ornamental, they would be more popular, not relegated to the far corners of backyards. With a little planning, a vegetable garden can be pretty enough to set out in the front yard.
A sense of order
A vegetable garden that satisfies the eyes as well as the tongue must have a sense of order that is both pleasing and lasting. An expanse of dirt streaked with straight rows of vegetables – the traditional vegetable patch – does have order, but it's more functional than attractive. And after the fall, it's not much more than an expanse of dirt.
Instead, why not lay out the garden with permanent beds and paths in an arrangement that, while functional, also creates a design?
Picture a neat arrangement of rectangular beds or beds radiating out to form a wheel.
Be deliberate in your choice of materials to cover the paths for your design. The paths, after all, will highlight the shapes of the beds. And it's much nicer to walk on flagstones, pebbles, wood chips, sawdust or lawn grass than in mud.
Beyond two dimensions
Adding a third dimension – height – turns a vegetable garden into a sculpture. And this third dimension can be a year-round feature, unlike the vegetable plants themselves, most of which are annuals that dissolve into the soil in winter.
A fence is perhaps the most obvious third-dimensional feature: Not wobbly chicken wire tacked onto wooden stakes all askew, but a fence of substance as well as function – perhaps something informal crafted from cedar or locust posts, or something formal created from sawn lumber. Pay attention to the gate, too, again combining function and appearance.
A bench, birdbath or gazing globe are other features that can help a vegetable garden look good through the year. Besides adding a third dimension to the lines created by beds and paths, features such as these can create an enclosure, or act as visual focal points – a bench at the end of a path, for instance, or a birdbath at the intersection of two wide main paths.
Plants themselves can also add sculptural mass to the scene. Hedges that are evergreen or densely twigged are best for creating a bold 3-D effect. To keep them from hogging the scene and robbing the vegetables of food and water, keep them proportional to the size of the garden. Even a small garden can have some beds or main paths bordered by such plants as dwarf boxwood or germander shrubs.
Include some ornamentals
No need to exclude purely ornamental plants from your vegetable patch. Currant bushes are both small and ornamental, their lacy flowers morphing into berries that dangle like red jewels. Roses would enjoy the high fertility of a vegetable garden; how about two compact bushes flanking either side of that bench?
Weeds are mostly non-ornamental, especially the way they appear willy-nilly, so try to keep them in check.
Let's not forget about vegetables themselves in the design of this ornamental, edible vegetable garden. Visually, they offer a range of textures and colours, and, with their rapid development, add a dynamic quality to the scene.
Peppers and eggplants, purple basil and some of the Swiss chards with colourful stalks are among the particularly ornamental vegetables. Asparagus creates a ferny backdrop from July onward; parsley could become a low, verdant hedge.
The many colours, textures and shapes of lettuce make it one of my favourite ornamental vegetables. One year, I juxtaposed blocks of red, green, frilly and smooth-leaved varieties to create a beautiful patchwork quilt. The only problem was that eating the lettuces eroded the design.