Pretty up your potager
Adding flowers to the veggie garden is not as frivolous as it seems, writes Alice Spenser-higgs
WHY should vegetable gardens not be as pretty as flower gardens? The French got it right with the potager, mixing vegetables, herbs, flowers and fruit in a way that speaks to the senses as much as to the stomach.
Herb doyenne Margaret Roberts concurs. “A potager is meant to be beautiful,” she says, unlike the utilitarian vegetable garden that is planted in rows.
A lively mix of veggies and flowers encourages diversity by attracting pollinators, minimises pests and disease through companion planting and optimises scarce resources, such as water and space, to produce a garden that is both edible and beautiful.
Even if you don’t want to go to the extent of potager, just sprinkling a packet of marigold, nasturtium or alyssum seed — all the easy growers — among the vegetables is guaranteed to transform the veggie beds.
If you are feeling short of ideas, a visit to the spring festival show gardens at Garden World should offer inspiration, especially the Italian Edible Garden. Though the show is over, the garden is still being maintained. The plants are bigger, more established and in full flower.
Here are some of the combinations that caught my eye.
In a built up bed, artichokes have been planted as the main feature. Off-setting the spiky, silver leaves is an under-planting of pink verbena “Tuscany” which will eventually trail over the edge of the bed. The pink also contrasts with the blue-green ornamental kale and the red leafed lettuce that is planted in between the artichokes. Other colours that come into play are orange calendula and yellow-green butter lettuce.
The calendulas will soon be coming to an end, but can be replaced by yellow marigolds such as the Marigold “Janie”.
Besides adding colour, the flowers play the vital role of attracting pollinators, especially bees. Calendula (Calendula offic- inalis) is also an excellent winter herb. The flowers have anti-fungal properties and an infusion can be used as a mouthwash, gargle or eye-wash for conjunctivitis.
Marigolds are valued for their ability to repel nematodes that attack the roots of many vegetables. They are also something of a trap crop for snails. The pungent foliage can be chopped up and used with other pungent herbs in natural insecticides.
Another eye-catching combination was a small mixed bed of borage, rocket, and origanum with nemesia “Aromatica” at the back and “Sorbet” and “Delft Blue” violas in the front.
I had never thought of using nemesia in the herb garden, but with its contained, upright growth and small, serrated leaves, it fits right in. Like the herbs, it grows best in full sun and likes fertile but well drained soil.
The violas are long-lasting spring flowers that are also edible. The petals can be added to fruity desserts and salads. If planted in a position that receives morning sun or dappled sun, they will continue to look good until November or early December, depending on the weather. Don’t let them dry out and feed them with a liquid feed for flowers to keep up their flower power and remove dead flowers.
The blue flowering Borago officinalis is an excellent herb for the potager because its leaves are good compost activators, it repels tomato hornworm and is a good companion plant with beans, tomatoes, squash and strawberries. The flowers are a rich source of food for butterflies and bees.
The third combination was the planting of deep blue Lobelia “Curacao” around a pot of coriander; a perfect foil for the terracotta pot. “Curacao” is taller and more vigorous than other bedding lobelia. It grows into a well mounded plant, 15cm to 25cm high, and is heat tolerant. Besides the deep true blue, it is available in dark purple, blue with white eye and light blue.
Even when there is no garden space, filling a container with a mix of herbs, flowers and veggies creates an edible feature.
This return to an old garden practice can be made up-market with beautiful pots or kept simple with gravel paths. And it can be any size, either a small section within a large garden or an entire 4m by 4m townhouse garden.
Unusual combination: Globe artichokes and other gourmet vegetables with verbena ‘Tuscany’.
Nemesia and violas add colour to this mixed herb bed of borage, origanum and rocket.
Lobelia ‘Curacao’ perfectly complements the terracotta pot and paving.