Designed to feed

By Anna Celliers

Few gardening experiences are more rewarding than picking home-grown edibles, and the ways in how they are produced are always changing. In simple terms, you don’t need much to start a veggie patch. The basic requirements are fertile soil, good drainage, full sun for at least five hours a day, water, a few basic gardening tools, packets of seed, vegetable seedlings, fruit trees and potted herbs. But why not venture a little further by also focusing on strong design?

It is all in the detail

Modern vegetable gardens are not merely functional, but are also designed with care and thought and meant to be seen as elegant and highly ornamental. They often boast ornamental hedges of perhaps lavender or rosemary, are filled with flowering plants between leafy vegetables, and are rounded off with espalier or topiarised herbs and fruit trees. Strong structural elements like fountains, birdbaths, lattice trelliswork, sundials and obelisks for climbing vegetables are often incorporated to provide interesting vertical detail and focal variety. Move away from the old-fashioned vegetable gardens with their rustic, angular beds and functional access paths, as you should not limit your creativity – feel free to choose any design for the layout of your home harvest, be it formal or informal. Your tomatoes, for instance, are not going to mind which design style you choose – they will rather respond to good food-gardening practices like healthy soil, companion plants to protect them, and enough water and food. To help you plan, we showcase scenes from different vegetable gardens and add some pointers to think about when planning a new kitchen garden.

Perfect places to plant

Soil preparation is very important if you want to grow vegetables successfully. There are different ways to go about it, including the conventional way where beds are marked out to the desired shape and size, dug over to spade depth and enriched with generous amounts of compost, bone meal and a general fertiliser. Another preparation technique is the ‘no-digging method’, where about 10 layers of newspaper are spread over the area in which the vegetables are going to be planted. They will smother and kill germinating weeds by depriving them of light. Next come a layer of straw, a layer of compost, a layer of granular fertiliser with chicken manure as a base (such as Bounce Back), and a layer of bone meal. These layers are repeated until the bed is about 30 cm deep, topped off with a final layer of compost 15 cm deep. After thorough irrigation, the bed will be ready for planting. Alternatively, use built-up beds formed with either treated timber or bricks. This method is suitable for areas where the soil is very poor and sandy.

The built-up beds can then be filled with a better soil over which the gardener has control, like commercial potting soil enriched with additives like compost and kraal manure. Built-up beds are also much easier to maintain for gardeners suffering from backache or sore knees! Pots are a boon! If space is at a premium, remember that you can grow almost any vegetable or herb very successfully in pots, as well as some fruits. You can choose different pot sizes, but it is best to stick to one simple design style. Place them in strategic areas as added focal points. We love (Img_9152 from 66 Valley Drive) On a pretty shelf, rows of terracotta pots house small veggie seedlings still needing some growing up to do before being planted out into the garden. This is functional, and normal procedure for a food gardener raising plants from seed. In this case it was done in a visually pleasing manner. So, when you are designing your own food garden, remember to include a pretty ‘nursery area’ as well, as you will always have baby plants to nurse along.

Easy and comfortable access

Pathways can be as simple as putting down a thick layer of bark mulch, gravel or straw, or they can be more sophisticated, such as paving with bricks, pavers or tiles. What they look like isn’t too important, as long as they give you easy access to weed, feed and harvest your home-grown edibles. Do not make them too narrow, as a food garden requires more

maintenance and attention than other part of the garden.

Support structures to please

It is inevitable that every bean should be given a pole to lean on, but it need not be a boring stick. If you know you are going to be planting beans, peas (and sweet peas, which should be growing next to beans and peas!) every year, plan for pretty and sturdy removable structures like obelisks and tepees. Also think about pergolas, arches or other support structures that will allow permanent plants like grape vines and granadillas to attain their full glory. It is also important to erect and plant the latter in a setting where the shade they might cast will not harm seasonal vegetables that need sun.

Other focal points

Adding a large central focal point like a ‘fountain of life’ centres the design of any garden and adds an ethereal and mystical quality. From a purely aesthetic point of view, it also makes it easier to plot out a formal planting bed design around it. If you do not want to go this big, try something smaller, like a central bird bath or perhaps a pretty container with a lemon or bay leaf tree planted in it, or just a large rock or a sundial.

Thinking about the harvest. The difference between an ornamental garden with a variety of perennials growing permanently in one spot and a vegetable garden is crop rotation. With the exception of certain edibles, you cannot plant the same crops in the same spot year after year. A practical way to help you decide where to plant what is to divide the vegetables into three basic groups and regularly alternate the areas in which you plant them. This will ensure that your garden soil remains healthy, and will prevent pests and diseases that target a specific host from becoming too much of a problem.

Root vegetables such as carrots, turnips and beetroot require light feeding and can grow in relatively poor soil. The bean family, which includes peas, requires more food in the form of compost and fertiliser, but at the end of the growth cycle their root systems return nutrients to the soil. Leafy and fruit vegetables such as lettuce, tomatoes, mealies, sweet peppers, spinach and cabbage need very fertile soil and regular feeding in the form of liquid fertiliser.

Slow-growing crops such as rhubarb, asparagus and artichokes remain planted in the same spot in the garden permanently and do not need to be moved around.

How to add colour in a vegetable garden

Over the years gardeners have realised that vegetables grow well when accompanied by certain herbs and flowers, which is called companion planting. This concept allows the designer of a modern food garden the freedom to be creative! The beauty about pretty plant companions (including useful herbs) is that not only are they an environmentally friendly way of keeping harmful insects out of your veggie garden, but they can also help to prevent most plant diseases. It is also a design ploy used to add colourful flowers and different leaf textures to a conventional food garden. Insect-repellent plants with aromatic foliage or flowers include lavenders, scented geraniums, lobularias, wild garlic (Tulbaghia violaceae) and catmint. One also wants to attract pollinators like bees, moths and butterflies by planting sunflowers, roses, cornflowers and sweet peas, to name a few. And then there are those, like nasturtiums and violets, that lure harmful insects away from vegetables. Ornamental garden plants can also be used to ‘doctor’ the soil, the best known of which is marigolds. Another useful way of adding pizazz to a food garden is planting ornamentals

with edible flowers, such as daylilies, hibiscus and pansies.

Protection against wind

A food garden needs protection from the elements, and first prize is to enclose it with walls. If this is not possible you will have to think about other means of protection, especially in dry and windy areas. One way is to fence your vegetable garden with quince trees. These can be pruned into a hedge and their golden-yellow fruit will ripen in late autumn, when it can be canned or used for delicious quince jam or jelly. Another good fencing option is pomegranates, which are once again available in nurseries. The plants are hardy, easy to grow, tolerate heavy pruning and will supply you with ample amounts of beautiful, juicy fruit.