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Archive for Sunday, August 24, 2003

Gardeners focusing on visual appeal

August 24, 2003

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— Back during my childhood days on a Minnesota farm, we'd head to the vegetable garden by way of the kitchen.

That weatherworn screen door was the shortest route to dinner. It led to a backyard bounty of cucumbers and cabbage, tomatoes and potatoes, onions and carrots.

Life has come full circle now, nearly five decades later. Except the vegetables we're tending on our Shenandoah mountainside grow gloriously in full view. They've become first-class citizens of the flower garden -- producing proudly among clumps of pansies, marigolds and snapdragons.

Landscape architects and gardeners are reaching back in increasing numbers to elaborate examples from China's Ming Dynasty or 17th-century Europe, where vegetables were treated as equals in flowerbeds.

Pioneering Americans busy with nation building dulled that colorful kind of plant fraternization through the decades. Vegetables became simply the utilitarian stuff of fall harvests in workaday, small-town America.

Vegetables were little more than wallflowers banished to banality somewhere within the Back 40.

Then, however, came urbanization and the arrival of high-speed technology with their attendant losses of yard space and leisure time.

"There's been a real sea change in how people think about gardening," says Susan Pennington, author of "Feast Your Eyes: The Unexpected Beauty of Vegetable Gardens."

"We have an entire generation that doesn't know anything about the traditional vegetable garden," she said in a telephone interview from Washington. "They live a frenetic lifestyle. They see gardening the European way. They're not interested in industrial growing or canning their produce.

"They want fresh food with more diversity and quality in their diets. And they don't see anything wrong with growing vegetables that are pleasing to the eye while at the same time (being) edible."

It isn't difficult to find colorful vegetables these days. Potatoes, for example, are being propagated in red, yellow and blue varieties. There also are white pumpkins, orange watermelons and purple asparagus. And those are just the edible portions.

Think of the entire plant when you envision adding ornamental vegetables. Look at the colors of the leaves, the blossoms, the fruit and the stems.

Consider...

  • letting some of your broccoli go beyond fruiting. They'll develop blooms that can be great for attracting pollen-seeking honeybees. Asparagus, left untended, will grow to resemble ferns. Artichokes eventually develop huge purple flowers.
  • growing a few vining plants like snow peas, climbing spinach or beans. Their leaves and blooms make eye-catching focal points when wrapped around tripods or arbors.
  • adding some ornamental herbs. Basil, Mexican marigold mint, oregano and rosemary are colorful, flavorful additions to flowerbeds.
  • texture as well as color for your floral borders. Ornamental cabbages and kales fit that bill and do double duty when served up in salads or as garnishes.
  • developing color themes by blending vegetables with flowers. Dwarf marigolds are striking when placed alongside pepper plants. Or try some deep purple eggplants against silvery stands of lavender.
  • planting cherry tomatoes, which resemble Christmas tree bulbs. But dress up the plants by tying them to bamboo poles or with something other than the standard wire cages before adding them to flowerbeds.
  • adding a little fruit to the mix -- Alpine strawberry plants, for example, which work well around the edges and bear fruit throughout the summer.

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