Stir some veg into your garden

Busy times in the polytunnels at Manea School of Gardening
Busy times in the polytunnels at Manea School of Gardening

It can be tempting, when thinking about growing vegetables, to set aside an area of the garden which is largely out of sight, tucked away almost apologetically.

Sometimes vegetables are even banished completely from the garden and grown only in the allotment. However, this segregation does not appreciate the attractive colours and forms of veg, or how they can work with other plants.

So why not try bringing vegetables into the heart of your garden, and mixing them in with decorative plants?

Vegetables can be very aesthetically pleasing. Artichokes are a great place to start for attractive veg; the Jerusalem artichoke, Helianthus tuberosus, is very closely related to the sunflower, Helianthus annuus. With large yellow flowers, they will reach a height of over 1.5m and make a substantial wind-break or productive back-of-border plant.

Similarly, the globe artichoke Cynara scolymus, is a silvery architectural thistle-like plant with purple flowers in summer.

The large yellow blooms of cucumbers and courgettes can be lost if planted singularly, but they can contribute to a sunset colour scheme. Courgettes and cucumbers are monoecious, meaning they have separate male and female flowers on the same plant, but only the females produce fruits – so we may as well put the male flowers to good use by showing them off in the border!

Peas and beans are also rather decorative, but have the additional bonus of being able to fix nitrogen. All plants require nitrogen for leafy growth, though they cannot access it from the air – but peas and beans (along with some bacteria) are able to fix nitrogen into usable soil-based nitrates. Rather than hastily constructing a flimsy support, they can grow happily up large shrubs and trees where they can return their thanks by fertilising the soil!

A typical system of growing vegetables in rows can lead to compaction or erosion of the soil between lines and may generally make poor use of space, but by mingling with other plants, veg can benefit from the shelter of a mixed planting scheme.

Towering plants such as broad beans can share the same area as low-growing salad leaves, maximising space. Mixing plants can help prevent the build-up of residual diseases (such as onion white rot, which can live in the soil for many years) and confuse pests such as the cabbage white butterfly.

Winter crops, including Brussels sprouts, can provide interest and prevent soil erosion, compaction and nutrient loss during times when most herbaceous beds are resting.

On the RHS courses here at Manea School of Gardening, we have been examining how to maximise fruit and vegetable yield on a small scale, including extending the season using our individual plots in the poly-tunnel and companion planting.

We have been looking at the traditional crop rotation systems and how a cottage or potager garden effect can offer simple solutions to nagging problems associated with veg growing. Mixing up vegetables and decorative plants can work wonders, so why not stir in some vegetables to your borders?

P.S. If you have a question on growing vegetables, decorative plants, or a mixture, we are able to give advice.

- Manea School of Gardening (RHS Approved Centre). Book now for RHS courses in September.

Plant sales Saturdays 10am to 4pm.

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