Elegant Edible Garden Design

Get garden design inspiration with these expert tips from Barbara Pleasant and lovely images from botanical gardens.

banana trees at Powell Gardens

In Kansas City’s Powell Gardens, banana trees offer a bold contrast with lower-growing flowers.

Photo courtesy Powell Gardens

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If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, every veggie and herb garden is a marvelous sight. At the same time, we tend to regard our food gardens as utilitarian space, planned to produce good things to eat rather than delighting the senses of every visitor. Why not have it all? When we looked for inspired ideas for food gardens, we found plenty—some from designers, and many from resourceful gardeners like you.

Define the Bones

In landscape design lingo, structural elements such as walkways, fences or permanent raised beds are often called a garden’s bones. The easiest time to see and analyze your garden’s bones is in winter. The bones bring a sense of organization to the scene; as you consider yours, keep in mind the practical—for example, how a path will give you access to pick peppers in August—and the design elements, including shape, placement, repetition and materials. Make sure to check out the views you see most often with a critical eye. What you see from your kitchen window is just as important as the view from the street.

Foot-friendly walkways, low retaining walls that turn slopes into terraces, or gates or archways that structure the space will make any garden more inviting. Where they are practical, gentle curves help offset the straight lines that define most houses and yards. Summer brings endless possibilities for camouflaging flaws in your home or view, whether you grow a tall hedge of corn or sunflowers to hide an ugly air-conditioning unit, or smother a chain-link fence with robust raspberries.

Unify with Color

Every veggie garden needs flowers to provide nectar and pollen for beneficial insects, and a defined color palette will give a jumbled vegetable garden a stronger sense of unity. For example, if you buy one six-pack each of white sweet alyssum seedlings and pink petunias, and plant them in visible spots throughout the garden, the repeating cushions of white and explosions of pink will tie the scene together into a cohesive whole. The effect is even more focused if you use a single color, which can be played out using a mix of flowers, for example marigolds, celosias and zinnias, all in shades of yellow.

Which colors you choose will affect the mood of your garden. High-energy colors such as red and orange are easily seen from a distance, and tend to evoke a festive atmosphere. Light pastels fade out in bright sunlight, but set a more relaxing scene during the morning and evening hours. In addition to using flowers, consider how you might use painted fences, arbors, outdoor furniture or birdhouses to further define the season’s color scheme.

Viva Verticals

The majority of food plants grow to two feet tall and stop, so looking at the garden usually involves looking down. Upright plants or tall structures draw the eye upward, which instantly adds visual interest to the scene.

Trellises and arbors offer easy ways to introduce vertical elements, and they are also functional, allowing you to grow more food in less space. These elements play important roles in the “edible estates” created by artist/designer Fritz Haeg, who would like to see front-yard lawns replaced with edible gardens the world over. Haeg often uses wood teepees to add height in his designs, or overhead arbors when they’re practical for supporting grapes or other vines. In a hard-working veggie garden, scarecrows are vertical accents, too.

Elegant Edges

If you want your garden to look well-groomed, even when it’s not, one trick is to trim the most visible edges with clean and simple edging plants that naturally stay small—for example, globe basil or small kitchen herbs such as winter savory and thyme. A neat edge serves as a visual frame for the garden while defining its boundaries. Haeg often trims the edges of his front yard gardens with fragrant herbs, so passersby can enjoy them and even help themselves to a sprig or two.

Tweaking Textures

If you were to group plants by the texture of their leaves, you would have a few plants with fine, feathery foliage such as chamomile or carrots and a lot of medium-textured plants such as beans and tomatoes, but very few with big, coarse leaves. Introducing plants with big, bold leaves instantly draws attention, as landscape designer Chip Callaway discovered when he featured dinosaur kale and artichokes in a front-yard garden in Greensboro, North Carolina. Other eye-catching texture plants on Callaway’s list include chard, rhubarb and cardoon.

Sweet Spot Slopes

Hard-to-mow slopes are ideal spots for strawberries, which grow together into a tight ground cover, and can be mulched with pine needles when they become dormant in winter. Less bending and squatting is required to harvest strawberries growing on a slope, too. In warmer climates, sweet potatoes make phenomenal plants for covering space you would rather not mow during the hot summer months.

Sweet Scents

We humans tend to use our eyes more than our other senses, but when the nose picks up a message to come closer, we are often powerless to resist. Superfragrant plants are worth squeezing in wherever they fit—they’ll give you a whole new kind of sensory pleasure. Try vanilla-scented valerian in a moist, sunny spot, or use nicotiana (flowering tobacco) as a decoy planting to lure tomato hornworms. Plant herbs with fragrant foliage where you will brush against them. When bruised accidentally or on purpose, the leaves of lemon balm, basil, catnip and most mints release compounds that make it harder for mosquitoes and other biting bugs to find you. Crushed leaves from lemon or rose geraniums, which are easy to grow in pots on your deck or patio, can work similar wonders.

Awesome Accents

A garden comprises its own small world, which takes on a distinct personality when cultivated by its keeper. An outdoor mirror can create the illusion of a window into another garden room—a great special effect in small gardens. Simple stone sculptures are fun to build if you are rich in rocks, or you can incorporate actual pieces of art into your garden. Edible landscaping expert Rosalind Creasy loves chickens, so she enjoys the company of a 3-foot-tall wooden rooster in her superproductive veggie garden. The gardens of garden blogger Mavis Butterfield are home to several pink flamingoes, while other gardeners hide fairy scenes set with doll furniture in secret spots, or plant flowers in old shoes.

Whether you go whimsical or elegant, make this the year you indulge your creativity in your garden.

Barbara Pleasant is a renowned garden writer. Find her book Starter Vegetable Gardens in our store.