Amongst the flowers

Sunday, 21 October 2018

Decorative lettuce grown in a flower border in a Sydney garden

When I first started gardening, more than 35 years ago, the 'cottage garden' style was very popular. The concept was promulgated in many beautiful books from England, where the idea of a garden combining edible and ornamental plants had evolved from medieval times to its peak in the 19th and early 20th century, then revived in the 1980s as a sort of nostalgic, romantic ideal, to which I and many others tried to aspire. I soon, however, became so enchanted with all the gorgeous ornamental 'cottage-y' plants that grew in these gardens (mainly herbaceous perennials), that I soon forgot about the edible ones that had formed part of the classic cottage garden!

Red-veined beetroot leaves mingle with flowers in a Sydney garden

As I have previously described, I never did achieve the dream of creating an English-style cottage garden in Sydney with those wonderful perennial plants, because our climate is totally different from England (a point I had considered irrelevant at the time), and most of the plants just faded away. I have since developed a style based on the profusion, colours and textures of those gorgeous gardens but using warm-climate plants that flourish in our mild winters and hot, humid summers in Sydney. But still I never got back to including edible plants! And I have never had an area for a separate kitchen garden devoted just to these.

Ferny carrot foliage in a flower border in a Sydney garden

However, in recent times I have been yearning more and more to grow some of our own food. Partly this is because it gives control over how crops are grown and allows us to avoid horrible chemicals being used. We can also grow our food in organic-rich soil and use organic-based fertiliser to maximise the health and nutrients of our crops. Growing one's own crops also reduces 'food miles' to a matter of a few metres, saving on all the environmental cost of produce being transported across the countryside to our shops, plus lets us avoid all the ghastly plastic packaging that seems to be wrapped around fruit and veggies these days. Also, home-grown produce is super-fresh - just picked! - rather than having been hanging round in boxes and in shops for ages. There is less of the food wastage that occurs when we buy bunches of herbs and bags of salad greens, half of which often end up mouldering away at the bottom of the fridge. And, of course, there is the satisfaction of eating something one has grown oneself - which can kind of seem surreal at first! Up till now, I have grown most of my crops in large pots or as temporary fillers in the gaps when my Dahlia tubers are dormant over winter. But I feel ready to take the next step, which is to incorporate herbs and veggies into my actual flower borders on an ongoing basis.

Lush leaves of silverbeet in a Sydney garden

In the past few weeks, I have seen some fabulous vignettes in the gardens of friends where edible plants are grown right in amongst ornamental plants. Seeing these gardens made me realise that of course herbs and veggies are plants like any others, not needing to be herded off into separate areas or tubs out of the way of the rest of the garden. Many of them have beautiful foliage, which is capable of providing contrast of form, colour and texture to neighbouring plants.

Broccoli grown amongst roses in a Sydney garden

Vegetables interspersed with ornamentals rather than in a separate kitchen garden means that the bad bugs are not being provided with a mass-planted monoculture banquet of crops, and instead can get a bit bamboozled and distracted. Providing a diverse array of ornamental plants that attract beneficial insects such as hoverflies that can potentially vanquish the baddies means that the edibles have a better chance of surviving. Many herbs, when allowed to flower, are particularly attractive to these beneficial insects, particularly parsley and coriander. Growing edibles amongst flowers also offers opportunities for specific companion plantings, such as marigolds deterring whitefly from crops and garlic warding off aphids on roses. The strongly scented foliage of many herbs can also discourage a variety of pests.

Self-seeded lettuce growing in the lawn, garden of Linda Macaulay in Sydney

Examples of edible landscaping that I have seen include leafy silverbeet and chard, and the striking red-veined foliage of beetroot nestled amongst spring bulbs and annuals; broccoli interspersed along a magnificent hedge of crimson roses, the bold foliage of the vegetable providing a foil to the blooms; the ferny leaves of carrots adding texture to a perennial border; and curly parsley grown as an attractive edging along a pathway. In one garden (pictured above), lettuce had self-seeded into the lawn, giving a delightful whimsical effect! In my own garden, I am now enjoying the dramatic foliage and ruby-red stems of rhubarb growing with flowers, and an interesting silvery form of kale nearby Salvia plants. Citrus trees grow well in Sydney, and are decorative small trees in the garden. Climbing edibles such as passionfruit, nasturtiums, beans and snow peas can be trained on fences and over arches. Including edible flowers in the mix adds another dimension to the garden.

I am hoping that I will be able to add other edibles into my garden, inspired by the gardens of my friends. I'd love to hear your ideas on this subject!

Reader Comments

  • By Shaun 2075 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 22 October 2018

    Wonderful creative gardening, Thanks Deirdre. Thanks for your feedback! Deirdre

  • By Peta 2758 (Zone:9 - Cool Temperate) Monday, 22 October 2018

    Hi Deirdre. Isn"t the rain amazing? Must be quick as I have a friend coming to walk around the garden. I"ve just made a new garden in dappled shade and all along the path edge have planted what I call, "Lettuce Lane". Amazing! The Wood Ducks had a chew a month or so ago but they"ve now gone. The edible planting includes Bok Choy, pick again lettuces, Basil, Coriander, perpetual spinach, silver beet and beetroot....oh Parsley and Dill. I"m addicted! The rain has saved our gardens! Your edible planting sounds wonderful. It is good that some edibles can grow in dappled shade. Deirdre

  • By Lynne 2479 (Zone:11A - Sub-tropical) Monday, 22 October 2018

    Hello Deirdre, I have found it is nice to include some indigenous food plants amongst the garden beds too. Midyim berry bush for example. I hope to learn more about these plants and to incorporate more into our garden, for food and for their often lovely looks. A great suggestion. I would like to know more about this subject. Deirdre

  • By Sue 2074 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 22 October 2018

    The true Ozzie cottage garden really, love to mix them up even though I have two raised beds I include flowers in them. I sowed lots of leeks a couple of months ago and am aiming to plant them around a couple of roses- will be using coloured chard as well. There are so many lovely coloured lettuce, one is the Australian yellow - very limey green worth growing with flowers. Picking your own is so satisfying and bug confusion even better. Thanks, Sue. Your edibles sound delightful. Deirdre

  • By Maureen 2118 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 22 October 2018

    The lettuce in Linda"s garden looked great (as did so many of her ideas) and I shared it with friends in Newcastle this weekend who have downsized so looking for ideas now to incorporate vegies - the lettuce and parsley another friend has in the lawn are certainly starting points! Yes, the lawn lettuce was a great feature of Linda"s garden! Hope your friends can find ways to add edibles to their new garden. Deirdre

  • By Sue T. 2566 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 22 October 2018

    Red sorrel, Rumex sanguinea, would look good in a flower bed. Also Broccoli left to flower adds a touch of bright yellow. I really like that red sorrel and have just added some clumps to one of my borders. I like the idea of the broccoli being left to flower. I am sure those flowers would attract many beneficial insects! Deirdre

  • By Priya 2126 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 22 October 2018

    I second Lynne. I too would love to know about native veggies and herbs. I remember in Cumberland State Forest they used to have talks on bush food and I kept meaning to go and the next thing I heard, they didnt have these talks anymore But in the meanwhile, I liked your ideas on combining flowers and veggies/herbs. Thanks, Priya. I hope to find out more on the subject. Deirdre

  • By margaret 2122 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Tuesday, 23 October 2018

    Really enjoyed this blog. Mixing veg with flowers is an excellent idea, as many vegies are colourful and attractive. Years ago, I used the curly parsley as an edging in one of my flower beds, and it caused many comments. When it and the carrots produced seeds, the number of beneficial insects they attracted was unbelievable - the bees especially liked the area. Insects do seem to love the tiny flowers of herbs and veggies when they flower. I think the flowers look pretty too! Deirdre

  • By Simon 2126 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Tuesday, 23 October 2018

    Hi Deirdre, Not sure if it qualifies but I grow chillis in the summer for long lived colour and use not only the traditional red but also orange and purple ones mixed in with my other plants for dry sunny areas. Regards, Simon Your chillis sound wonderful, Simon! Deirdre.

  • By Gaynor 5044 (Zone:10 - Mediteranean) Wednesday, 24 October 2018

    Hi Deidre, the following ideas I have tried. Instead of a decorative cardoon, I grow a giant artichoke bush, very spectacular. Instead of decorative bronze fennel, I am trying Florence fennel. Instead of just Queen Anne"s Lace, I am also letting some parsley go to seed (for the ladybugs). Chilli plants and capsicums were once thought to be decorative only, but now we enjoy adding them to recipes. Strawberries are a good groundcover and I have rows and rows of onions mixed in with my anemones. That all sounds fantastic, Gaynor! Thanks for your ideas. Deirdre

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