You can grow organic fruits and vegetables and still have an enjoyable, attractive garden year round with the help of The Beautiful Edible Garden (Ten Speed Press, 2013). Authors and landscape design team, Leslie Bennett and Stefani Bittner give you great container garden ideas that are beautiful as well as edible. In this excerpt from chapter five, “Beautiful Edible Containers, Window Boxes, Side Yards and Other Small Spaces,” learn which plants are best for container gardening as well as for your kitchen.
You can purchase this book from the Mother Earth Living store: The Beautiful Edible Garden.
Your space is limited, so you’ll need to use it wisely and grow plants that are really transformative to your eating and cooking experience. You’ll also want to choose plants that are well suited to containers. This criteria can yield any number of combinations of plants for your garden — here are a few that no cook should be without:
• A full range of culinary herbs, including herbs for teas and cocktail infusions
• Salad and braising greens
• Citrus, especially lemon or lime
• Easy-to-grow, highly productive annual vegetables such as bush green beans, peppers, cherry tomatoes, chard, and kale
• Harvest-as-you-need-them annual vegetables such as scallions, shallots, and celery
As you can see, this list of indispensables focuses on ingredients that are used often or regularly in most kitchens, and also on plants that do not need a lot of root space or heavy feeding. It does not include a lot of larger annual vegetables because, for the most part, vegetables like broccoli, carrots, cucumbers, squash, and beefsteak tomatoes do better in the ground where they are assured of plentiful root space and nutrients. If you do want to give one of these a try, though, choose smaller, less sprawling varieties of annual vegetables. Determinate, small-fruited, or cherry-size tomatoes are best. Be sure to use a teepee-style trellis that will not only support the plant but also keep it tidy. Likewise, look for smaller growing bush varieties of vegetables like summer squash and cucumbers. It can be convenient to separate your perennial and annual plantings so that you have some containers that can be left alone and counted on to look good while you spend time maintaining the others.
As you would in a planting bed, your first step is to place your large anchor plants, keeping plant height in mind as you place them. Set the larger plants in the back of the container or, if the container is accessible from all sides, in the center. A dwarf citrus, such as the versatile Meyer lemon, ‘Bearrss’ lime, or kumquat, is a fantastic place to start. Unlike other dwarf fruit trees like apples or figs that can be suited to container growing, citrus is evergreen and thus is a great anchor or screening plant for any outdoor space.
Citrus is susceptible to frost damage, so place it in a protected area against a wall. If you live in a colder climate, growing citrus in containers is probably the only way to include them in your garden. When you’re setting up your garden and you know winter is going to get frosty, be sure to place your citrus planter on a wheeled base so that you can roll it inside for the cold months.
Other evergreen perennial edibles that look beautiful in container gardens include lavender, rosemary, culinary sweet bay, scented geraniums, and lemongrass. Lemon verbena is a wonderful deciduous perennial herb for tea; because it is tall with bright chartreuse green lacy leaves, it is perfect for placing in the rear of a larger ornamental planting container.
Once you’ve chosen the larger anchor plants, you’ll be ready to start mixing in some medium-size ornamentals and edibles, such as lettuces and colorful chard, around them. Don’t forget flowers here, too, because every garden, no matter how small, should have some. Plant edible flowers, like scented geraniums, nasturtiums, agastache, or Viola odorata, and let your herbs go to flower.
Fresh salad greens are a delicious addition to your meals. Lettuces and salad greens are also beautiful accent plants that can be grown in smaller containers, even shallow tabletop planters. Use them for annual color; they also look pretty grouped together in colorful masses. You’ll really notice the difference in flavor, especially with spicy greens like arugula and watercress, whose profile fades quickly in grocery stores. If you’re not yet familiar with cut-and-come-again salad greens, the speed at which just a few plants will grow back and provide you with yet another delicious meal can seem like a small miracle. There are also many unusual, beautiful, or especially tasty lettuces such as ‘Freckles’, ‘Black-seeded Simpson’, and ‘Red Galactica’ that grow well in containers. Even kales, mustards, and chards can be grown in small containers if you plant them close together and harvest as baby salad greens. If you want to plant salad greens like lettuce or arugula for daily use, just make sure that you save some space to do some succession plantings.
Annual vegetables such as scallions, shallots, bulbing onions, celery, chard, kale, lettuce, peppers, and bush green beans can all be included in a mixed ornamental plant container. If you choose edibles with long harvest seasons (like onions and shallots) for container plantings they will last for six to nine months; celery, kale, and chard, if placed in a shadier spot, will last through the growing season, making them great choices if you can’t harvest them right away. The wide green leaves of green beans are pretty and serve as a lovely backdrop for surrounding flowers in an ornamental planting; just tuck them in a sunny spot and harvest in a couple of weeks. Hot and sweet peppers are a beautiful addition to any ornamental planting too, and will hang around ripening and getting spicier until you need them.
Lastly, finish off with low-growing edibles in the smaller spaces next to the container’s lip. Herbs like groundcover thyme or oregano, or edible flowers like nasturtiums, will cascade over the container’s side, creating a beautiful arrangement. You can also tuck colorful, variegated sage into any number of small spaces. If you want to soften up the look of a planter with a dwarf tree in it, add an underplanting of mint, viola, and dangling strawberries. For a modern look, a simple underplanting of groundcover chamomile, succulents, or gravel mulch does the trick.
Reprinted with permission from The Beautiful Edible Garden: Design a Stylish Outdoor Space Using Vegetables, Fruits, and Herbs by Leslie Bennett and Stefani Bittner and published by Ten Speed Press, 2013.