Day 8: Vegetables in the Ornamental Garden

While many people like to place their vegetable garden in a separate space designed just for growing and harvesting food, others either lack enough space for dedicated vegetable area or aren’t sure they want to commit to a larger vegetable garden. Still, there are many ways to grow vegetables in an ornamental garden — and lots of vegetables offer shapes and colors that are beautiful as well as delicious.

Combining food plants with flowers is a long tradition. The old-fashioned cottage garden is a combination of vegetables, herbs and flowers, all placed near the house for easy harvesting. The French potager uses formal design and a combination of vegetables and herbs along with flowers to create order and beauty.  But you don’t have to follow a set style to add vegetables to your ornamental beds and borders.

cabbage edger

Cabbage and greens make a pretty edge.

Here are just a few of the ornamental uses of vegetables we’ve seen in northern gardens.

Why not edge a sidewalk with greens and tiny cabbages? We saw this in a garden in Rochester, where the homeowner placed the vegetable plants like edgers along the walk. The shape of the cabbage along with the texture of the greens made for a lush border.

Or, how about using fruits and vegetables in baskets and containers. We’ve seen herbs, strawberries and greens that add great color and texture to container plantings. The trend toward container and patio gardens has been around for several years and more plant companies are responding with vegetables bred to be compact enough for pots or even hanging baskets. One gardener in Red Wing planted a dainty cherry tomato plant in a hanging basket, and it was bearing fruit in July.


Chard adds drama to this late season flower bed.

There’s no reason not to put vegetables right into your ornamental beds. Swiss chard with its dramatic leaves and brightly colored ribs looks great surrounded by nasturtiums, marigolds and other flowers. The chard offers height and texture to a garden. If you have a trellis or an obelisk in your ornamental garden, why not grow pole beans on it? The broad leaves of the bean plants are pretty and will quickly cover a tall structure. The bean flowers and pods are an added bonus.

A few tips to keep in mind in mixing vegetables with ornamentals:

  • Most vegetables need full sun — six or more hours a day, so choose ornamental beds with ample light. Some greens will perform decently in part shade beds, however.
  • Because you are growing edibles nearby, you will not want to use pesticides or other dangerous chemicals on your ornamental plants to avoid contaminating the edibles.
  • Since you will be harvesting the vegetables, you may want to plant them near ornamental plants that will fill in, so spinach and lettuce can be planted with annuals, such as nasturtiums or marigolds. By the time the greens have been harvested, the annuals will be bigger.
  • Start small — maybe with a container of greens or a pot with a pepper plant in it. You can always add more vegetables and herbs next year.

Follow Notes from Northern Gardener throughout January as we offer our series on 31 Days to a Great Northern Vegetable Garden. Tomorrow: Starting Seeds Indoors, Part 1.

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