Choosing Beautiful, Edible Plants

Bernadette Brady talks about creating art with vegetables at Heronswood

Kitchen gardens and vegie patches; usually an oasis of edible delights, not necessarily a pretty picture!
The French mastered the art of decorative vegetable gardens back in Renaissance times. Commonly referred to as a potager, these were really the French counterpart to the English kitchen garden .
The garden at Chateau Villandry in the Loire region of France is a fine example of a potager garden. Here vegetables are grown in a parterre – a formal garden consisting of planting beds typically in symmetrical patterns edged with stone or hedging which incorporate internal paths.
The vegetables are carefully selected and planted in a series of interesting patterns within the beds. These beds are edged with clipped English box and are set in gravel paths.
This gives shape, form and colour contrasts. To add extra dimension and form, Villandry’s garden beds include topiaries of rosemary, standard roses and espaliered apples, pears and plums.
At Heronswood we have our own interpretation of a vegetable parterre; ours is a ‘Cut Turf Parterre’. Instead of using box hedges for contrast and colour we use turf which contrasts the six wedges of the circular design. Inside these wedges we design various patterns depending on the seasons.
Three times a year the Heronswood garden team put together a parterre plan using seasonal vegetables that have interesting colour and form that combine well together.
Depending on the time of year we choose from a range of vegetables that exhibit certain form, height and colour. For example, we use feathery vegies such as fennel, carrots or parsley combined with vertical plantings of onions, leeks, spring onions or chives.
Vegetables that have good form and shape such as cabbages, kale and silverbeet are often included in our designs. Strong colours give a lift to what would be a boring palette so choosing vegetables like beetroot (particularly Bull’s Blood with its solid, deep, dark red-purple leaves), coloured lettuce and even common curly parsley to create wonderful colour combinations within the parterre. Of course flowers give a pop of colour to the tapestry so we try and use edible flowers such as nasturtiums, violas, calendulas, chives and garlic chives. Marigolds in their many shapes and sizes, being a wonderful beneficial plant, are a worthy inclusion also.
If you are keen to make an aesthetically pleasing display then avoid making a feature of the untidy sprawling growers such as pumpkins and melons – they do however make a wonderful productive backdrop!
Perennial vegetables are worth considering too. We have rhubarb and cardoons in the parterre and they provide an architectural accent against the ordered symmetrical plantings that they stand amongst.
Herbs such as thyme, oregano and marjoram come in many varieties and colours and can be used successfully as weed suppressing ground covers, while the larger rosemary and sages can be clipped into desired shapes.
This year’s spring parterre is an example of how we select combinations. We used both Bronze and Florence fennel (feathery leaves), Golden Sunrise and Flamingo silverbeet (solid leaves and colour), Red and Green spring onions (verticals), and Golden Burpee and Bull’s Blood beetroot (shorter solid leaves and colour), combined with the viola Heartsease and Thumbles Gold oregano for colour and height contrasts.
To provide an extra dimension to the parterre, an outer ring has trellising where we grow climbing vegetables usually brightly coloured peas in spring, this spring it was Golden podded and Purple podded peas.
In the home garden all this is possible. Perhaps not in a such a formal sense, but by selecting vegies that exhibit interesting form and colour and planting them beside other contrasting vegies you have begun to paint your picture.
Try incorporating some permanent or semi-permanent features such as teepees and trellises to give height and interest along with some quirky artwork or ‘found’ objects to make your garden your very own space.
Consider including some espalier fruit trees and don’t forget to include perennial vegetables in your overall plan as well.
Before you know it you will have grown a kitchen garden, full of goodies, that is a picture worthy of a frame!

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Bernadette Brady

Bernadette is an experienced gardener with a long term involvement in Community Gardens and a keen interest in growing "all things edible"!

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