An edible beauty is born
GARDENS:THERE USED TO BE an idea that vegetables were utilitarian-looking, and that they should be hidden away in the back garden, along with various unmentionable items of clothing on the washing line. To my mind, however, all vegetables are decent, fine-looking things. Instead of being banished out of sight, they should be celebrated by being given a prime position (and then eaten), writes JANE POWERS
Many are boldly shaped and beautifully coloured (leeks and ruby chard, to mention just two), and can fill the same role that is traditionally played by annual bedding. I know that not everyone will agree with me on this one, but I do happen to be in some very good company. If you’ve been to Château de Villandry in the Loire valley, you will have seen the idea of edibles as ornamentals carried to the extreme. There, vegetables are neatly enclosed in sharply geometrical, box-edged beds, so that they make a multicoloured patchwork quilt. It’s rather a large quilt: its ribbed and bobbled fabric stretches over three acres (1.25 hectares), and contains more than 50,000 plants of 40 varieties of kitchen produce.
Seen from a distance, these well-ordered crops lose their individuality. But up close, the effect is theatrical. Imagine a company of carrots hoisting their grass-green fronds aloft into the breeze, or a platoon of leeks standing stiffly to attention in identical blue-green uniforms. When grown like this, vegetables, because they are practical as well as handsome, have a charming probity that you’re not likely to find in a petunia or a lobelia. Or that’s how I feel about it anyway.
Of course, few of us have three-acre front gardens (or a squadron of gardeners), but you can still emulate the Villandry look on a small scale. I don’t recommend box as an edging, however, as that plant can act as a daytime billet for snails. At night the hungry hordes will come oozing out to feed upon the produce that you have thoughtfully provided for them. Instead you could plant margins of an edible species: rosemary, thyme, alpine strawberries or chives, for example. The last is not evergreen, but it disappears for only a couple of months in winter. Or, if you are a systematic person, you could have low “step-over” apples, which must be carefully trained in their first two years in order to achieve the desired shape.
A good-looking vegetable garden doesn’t have to be geometric. A more free-form design can be just as gorgeous – and will better suit some plots. Years ago I saw a serpentine procession of plump brassicas meandering across a friend’s country lawn, and the picture has stayed with me since. The main thing is to incorporate into the garden as many things as possible that you can eat. In other words, you are aiming for an “edible landscape”, a term that was coined more than 20 years ago by Californian gardener and writer, Robert Kourik. Edible landscaping can take the place of the front lawn, and will probably take less maintenance.
The best book that I know of on making your food crops look aesthetically pleasing is Joy Larkcom’s Creative Vegetable Gardening, first published in 1997, and revised last year (Mitchell Beazley, £14.99). It is visually stimulating – with plenty of beauteous plots and potagers – but it is also filled with boundless expertise. Larkcom (who now lives in west Cork) tells you everything you need to know about making your patch both decorative and productive. Among other things, she explains how to train those step-over apples (mentioned above), how to plan a year’s cropping, how to grow dozens of edibles.
Even if you don’t want to go the whole hog and frighten passers-by with beds of turnips and spuds, there are still many useful plants that can be craftily incorporated into a conventional garden. In fact, one of the prettiest vegetables was introduced to Europe (more than 500 years ago) from south America as an ornamental plant, rather than as a useful one. Yes, our good friend the runner bean was originally grown for its pretty leaves and scarlet flowers. It is still one of the most versatile of climbers, quickly covering a tripod, obelisk or fence. Besides traditional red, there are now varieties with white, peach and bicoloured flowers. And there are climbing French beans (which are a little more tender) with purple flowers and pods: Blauhilde is one of the better-known, but there are several.
Other eatables that one can unapologetically insert into the front garden include Bull’s Blood beetroot (compact, dark red leaves), Swiss chard (glossy, puckered leaves and ribs of white, yellow, orange, pink or red), dark-leaved kale (Redbor, Cavolo Nero or Black Tuscan, Red Russian, Curly Scarlet), leeks (leave a few to flower, so that the tennis balls of bloom attract bees), trailing marrow (such as Long Green Trailing, which can be trained over an arch), and tree spinach (Chenopodium giganteum). Several perennial vegetables are also very personable: asparagus (lovely ferny foliage in summer and autumn), cardoon and artichoke (both are silvery and stately), seakale (hundreds of pearly, honey-scented flowers). There are also herbs in plenty that sit easily into the garden, especially in a dry, urban space. Bronze fennel is elegant and airy, and combines well with pink or orange flowers, such as dianthus and nasturtium – the petals of which are edible, in both cases.
If you don’t have a garden, you can still grow fancy-looking foods in pots. Red-leaved lettuce and oriental mustards can be cultivated as baby leaves on a balcony or windowsill. And if you have a conservatory or a sunny window, you can grow perfect chillies and miniature aubergines.
This Week's Work
This week’s work can wait until next week, or next month, or the one after that. But if you leave it too late, there may be no garlic left for sale at the seed merchants. It is possible to grow garlic from heads bought at the supermarket or greengrocer, but the variety may not suit our climate, and the bulbs may be diseased or tired. Split the head into individual cloves and discard the smaller ones. Plant 20cm deep (10cm on heavy soil, and incorporate some grit), making sure that the base of each clove is facing down. Be sure to keep the soil around the plants weed-free for the full growth period. Harvest in mid-summer. Garlic needs a month, at least, of cold weather, which is why it is planted in the dark months.