Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont
Dedicated vegetable gardeners of course consider these food plants beautiful. Flower gardeners, on the other hand, may not give vegetables a second thought for their ornamental qualities. Yet many vegetables are quite ornamental, and may be combined with flowers quite effectively.
Such combinations of flowers and vegetables also help if you want to grow some of your own produce, yet don't want a separate vegetable garden or have space for one. Here are five ways you can use vegetables in the flower garden.
Use low-growing vegetables to edge the front of the flower garden. One of the most effective and often used is parsley, especially the moss-leaved variety. Space the seedlings ten inches apart, and the mature plants will merge to form a bright green line around the garden. These plants last well past first frost into the fall.
The globe basils are not frost hardy, but provide perfect low mounds of green through the season. I especially like fragrant herbs near fronts of beds where they can easily be appreciated.
Chives, with their upright onion-like leaves and light purple flowers in summer, can be spaced every six inches or so to edge a bed. They'll grow together over time, forming a dense planting. Cut the flowers off after bloom though, or you'll have chives seeding all over the bed!
Use vegetables to provide vertical accents in the garden. Vertical lines stop the eye, demand attention, and allow the eye to linger and appreciate the view. Just as flowers such as hollyhocks and delphiniums can do this, so can some vegetables. Some garlic varieties can reach four feet in height in mid-summer, with unusual flowers. Its relatives of onions and leeks also provide a vertical effect, just lower.
Corn of course creates a vertical effect, bold texture, and is a conversation point in flower gardens. There are even forms with purplish or slightly variegated leaves. Planted singly or in small groups in a flower garden, they may provide more ornamental effect than food, not having a sufficient mass planting for effective cross pollination.
Vertical effects of other vegetables such as beans, peas, even indeterminate tomatoes (those that keep growing from their tips) can be created by training onto trellises or other upright supports. In your garden planning, consider the colorful effects created by the red or yellow small fruits of some tomatoes. Scarlet runner bean has bright red flowers, and there is even a new variety with yellow leaves. Consider planting some peas with your clematis.
Vegetables and herbs can be used for color and texture. Use carrots near the front of borders for their fine-textured leaves, especially in contrast to coarser leaves such as of basil. The bright green carrot leaves also contrast nicely in color with the dark leaves of the purple basils such as Purple Ruffles.
Use vegetables and herbs for the middle areas of beds. They may be effective in filling gaps left by perennials that die back such as poppies and trollius, or even spring bulbs. New varieties of Swiss chard have quite colorful leaves and stems to a foot or more high, cover large areas quickly, and last well into fall. Consider planting some red chard with red celosia for a bold effect, green chard with dill for a textural contrast, or yellow chard with orange zinnias for a color contrast.
Masses of dill with its heads of small yellow flowers in summer, or the dark-leaved fennel, add very fine texture. Rhubarb can add a tropical look with its large leaves. Ornamental cabbages and kales also have large leaves, and are especially nice in the fall to fill in gaps left by annuals once frosted and gone by. These crucifers last well into fall, even through some snow, usually until Thanksgiving at my home.
Whether looking at vegetables in gardens, catalogs, or books this year, keep these design ideas for edges and middles of borders, vertical accents, color, and texture in mind. Consider which may be effective in your own flower gardens.