12 design tips to pretty up your vege plot

My father would be turning in his grave if he saw my vege garden – broad beans, spring onions, parsley, marigolds and lobelia all planted closely together in colourful cacophony. Dad's generation favoured the utilitarian straight lines in their vege gardens without a thought for flowers or frippery. 

How times have changed. As there's less space for growing edibles in most properties now, the kitchen garden can no longer be kept out of sight at the back of a quarter acre section. It's often located right beside the deck and therefore needs to look good all year round. 

Landscape designer Jules Moore has designed many edible gardens and believes aesthetics are as important as practicalities. "You have to make those garden areas look really sharp. Invest a bit of time in the design of your edible garden with well constructed beds, espaliered trees, edible hedges and so on," she advises.  

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Many vegetables are as attractive as flowers, particularly if planted in big groups. Coloured beets, lettuces, red ...

Many vegetables are as attractive as flowers, particularly if planted in big groups. Coloured beets, lettuces, red cabbages, peppers and chillies, parsley, chives and many other herbs can be used to beautify your vege patch.

And the good news is that by making vegetable gardens pretty, you can improve their productivity. Tests have shown that planting the right flowers amongst food crops attracts pollinators and pest predators, which can result in increased yields. 

Whether you opt for Victorian obelisks, contemporary corten steel planters or espaliered apples, there are many different ways to beautify your vege patch. Still not sure if it's worth the effort? Here's another good reason – growing edibles can be hard work but if you make the vege garden as attractive as possible, you're more likely to want to spend time out there. The photo gallery below has all the tips.

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1. Change shape: Garden beds don't have to be square. "Get creative and think outside the box," says landscape designer Sandra Batley of Flourish Garden Concepts. "Circular, rectangular, even triangular gardens can look interesting. Decorate with additional elements such as large feature urns and pots, bird baths and garden art." If you need inspiration, look up images of English cottage style and European parterre gardens with their smaller plots planted with a diverse array of herbs, fruit trees, flowers and veges.

2. Raise it: Raised vege beds make sense practically for their ease of use, soil warmth and drainage. But they also add a strong structural dimension to the kitchen garden, particularly if they are painted or stained the same colour as surrounding fences or even the house. Some designers turn raised vege beds into sculptural features incorporating boldly coloured squares, corten steel rectangles or woven willow, and brushsticks cladding. Landscape designer Jules Moore specifies macrocarpa raised beds for many of the edible gardens she designs. "They work a treat but they have to be well detailed, and ideally waist height so you don't have to bend over when gardening. We also often incorporate wide capping that can double as seating," she says.

3. Add free-standing supports: Along with walls and fences, use free-standing vertical elements such as obelisks that will enhance the atmosphere of your vege garden while providing support for peas, beans, courgettes, tomatoes and other plants. Sandra Batley favours timber or iron arbours and archways for beautifying some of the vegetable gardens she designs. "Grow edibles or ornamentals up them to soften the structures. They can provide focal points and frame views," she says. "I also use bamboo canes to create interesting rustic climbing frames and teepees for plant supports." You can buy or make your own frames, teepees and towers from willow, bamboo or manuka poles, adding extra detail in crisscross or horizontal pattern.

4. Go up: Making use of the vertical space is a great way to add interest, and create extra growing spaces in small gardens. Sandra Batley recommends using existing vertical structures within the vegetable garden such as boundary walls and fences for this. "Dress them up with espalier fruit, wall-mounted vertical gardens, scented climbers and carefully placed wall-mounted garden art." Vertical wall planting systems are becoming very popular now for growing herbs and salad greens, adding a lush, verdant feel to courtyards and other small spaces. Landscape designer Jo Hamilton and husband Mark installed a Woolly Pocket green wall system on a north-facing wall of their inner-city Auckland balcony and plant it with strawberries, herbs and salad greens. "As well as saving space, the vertical garden adds an ornamental quality to this part of the garden," she says. "For growing vegetables, we use 10-litre black plastic pots (a good batch size for two people) raised up on tiers of timber and brick to capture more light and to save on space. We use square or rectangular pots for perennial veges, herbs and fruit trees as they take up less space than round ones." Jules Moore likes to use walls, fences and other vertical space around vegetable gardens to train bee-attracting flowering edibles or climbers. "We use stainless steel wire with tensioners and turn buckles to make big diamond shapes, then train edible vines like passionfruit to grow up them. There are lots of different varieties of passionfruit available now."

5. Create patterns: Rather than randomly planting flowers and vegetables together, you can make more impact with a tapestry-like effect in different colours and textures as the French do with their potager gardens. "Mix and match edibles with pretty flowering ornamentals and plant in interesting combinations," says Sandra Batley. "Play with colour. Think purple cabbages planted next to bright yellow Hemerocallis 'Stella Bella' (day lily). Plant in blocks of colour for maximum impact."

6. Grow espaliers: The ancient art of espaliering is enjoying a renaissance in contemporary edible gardens, as it's a great way to grow fruit trees in small spaces and espaliered fruit trees make very striking design elements. But you have to know how to prune, warns Jules Moore. "It's a very nice look and for tiny townhouse backyards, they are fantastic. Rather than starting from scratch you can buy espaliered trees and fans at nurseries like Black Bridge in Manukau. If you choose a variety that doesn't need spraying, even better."

8. Add flowers: A tried and true method of dressing up vegetable gardens is, of course, to plant flowers amongst the edibles. Joanna Hamilton even did this on her balcony garden despite the space constraints. "I love flowers and was determined to have them here," she explains. "We planted a lot of blue flowers to attract bees which of course you need to pollinate the fruit and veges." When planting flowers in your vege patch, decide whether you want to use perennials or annuals. Use perennials as semi-permanent anchor plants with other perennial vegetables rather than annuals so their roots are not disturbed too frequently. Annuals need to be replanted regularly but bloom for long periods, providing plenty of pollen and nectar for visiting pollinators. These work well with annual vegetables. Consider edible flowers such as nasturtium, calendula, marigold, borage, chamomile, cornflowers and zinnia.

7. Define paths & edges: Creating well-defined pathways between your vege beds improves accessibility and gives it a crisp, finished look. Materials can range from inexpensive bark, straw and gravel to recycled brick, granite setts and concrete pavers. Strong edges add definition to low garden beds whether you use timber, brick, steel, willow, bamboo, stone or other materials. Take into account the materials and colours used in the rest of the garden when choosing your paths and edges.

9. Add decorative touches: These can be practical as well as ornamental. Birdbaths and feeders, for instance, to encourage birds into the garden for slug and snail duty. Or try a scarecrow to do the opposite. Think about placing a gorgeous big container, planted or left bare, in the centre of your vege patch. Hanging baskets of chillies or strawberries, mosaic or shell pavers, recycled wheelbarrows or wash tubs planted with bee-attracting annuals, even small decorative details such as cute herb labels will personalise the garden, making it a pleasing place to be throughout the year.

10. Plant pretty veges: Many vegetables are as attractive as flowers, particularly if planted in big groups. Coloured beets, lettuces, red cabbages, peppers and chillies, parsley, chives and many other herbs can be used to beautify your vege patch.

11. Plant edible screens: Enclosing your kitchen garden with hedges, walls and fences enhances the space by creating a sense of intimacy. This is also a practical move as it provides protection from weather extremes and at the same time, screens the vege area from other parts of the garden. Jules Moore likes to use edible hedges for this purpose. "It's certainly the way to go if you want to add structure and screening. We do it a lot," she says. One of her favourite plants for edible hedges is Myrtus ugni (Chilean guava, often called New Zealand cranberry). It flowers in summer and fruits in March. The Maqui berry (Aristotelia chilensis) from Chile is an absolute beauty as a hedge. "It's a fast grower and the small pea-like fruit are amazingly good for you, very high in antioxidants," Jules adds. "It's so hardy, both wind and frost tolerant, even OK in damp ground." Jules is also a big fan of mandarins, using them as an informal hedge, pleached or as standards. "They're small trees and there are several varieties so you have fruit throughout the winter from May to October. From a health perspective, having more than three varieties of an easy peel fruit high in vitamin C in the garden has got to be good for you." For taller edible screen options, consider feijoa, strawberry guava or rose apple (Syzygium jambos), a Southeast Asian tree which produces fruit that smell and taste like rose water.

12. Plant close together: Treat your vege garden as you would a pot of flowering annuals, grouping plants closely together to minimise gaps and create a lush, full look. This helps to reduce weeds too. As plants mature, you can thin them out and leave the rest to grow to full size. After harvesting your plants, take time to fill the gaps with fast-growing crops, including radishes, lettuces, rocket and basil.

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 - NZ Gardener


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