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!