Interplanting Edibles in the Garden

Black Hungarian Chilies with Echinacea ‘Harvest Moon’

Almost everyone thinks when raising vegetables they need their very own spot in the yard.  A Pea Patch, a raised bed, a piece of ground where nothing else is planted except edibles.  Why?  Is this practice something we all were raised with?  Did our grandparents practice this technique?  Was it written in our 5th grade science books?  I don’t think so, but somebody sold us that idea and we have embraced it.

Let me introduce another alternative for those of us who have city sized lots and precious little room to devote a patch of the garden for only vegetables.  What about planting edible plants in between and along with our ornamental plantings? Picture it…tomatoes as a background planting to Dianthus (Pinks) or red leafed lettuce edging the deep green of a lawn or even more bold, scarlet red peppers planted beside sunny yellow Echinacea (Cone Flower)?  A veritable riot of color, texture with good eats sprinkled in.  It makes a person swoon, doesn’t it?

For years now I have interplanted food with flowers and it has brought me the best of all worlds.  Vegetables planted in the right places for their sun and water requirements–not just in the spot where the vegetable patch happens to be.  Vegetables companion planted with plants that attract bees, birds and other insects creates a richer environment for pollination which gives bigger yields. Companion planting can also attract beneficial insects which can cut down on pests. AND when the harvest is done there are no bare, muddy, unsightly “parking lots” in the yard for the duration of the winter.

The tricks are few but important to pay attention to:

Pick your vegetables as much for the tastiness of the harvest as for the beauty of the plant.  For example, I happen to love eggplant.  There are many, many varieties out there on the market.  Some are large, heavy bearers of the traditional purple bulbous, egg-shaped fruit, some have furry leaves, some are tall or short.  But my choice is a variety named “Ichiban”, a Japanese eggplant which is the most lovely plant with nearly black-purple stems, bright green leaves and star shaped purple-blue flowers with yellow centers.  You (almost) don’t care that the fruit is long, narrow, delicate and does not require weeping when cooked.  THIS is what I plant in my garden because the plant is as valuable for its contribution to the garden as the fruit.

Give equal consideration to a plant’s habit as you do to its cultural requirements when locating a vegetable in the garden.  That is, the height and spread of a veggie is as important in the placement as is its the sun (or shade) and water needs.  For instance, tomatoes will grow 3′ to 5′ tall and should be located towards the back or midpoint of your beds NOT front and center, while small and fluffy radishes can be used as edging material at the very front of a bed.  Leaf vegetables (spinach, lettuce, chard) cannot take a hot, bakey location, they will bolt, so choose a spot with dappled sun or very little afternoon sun.  When planting also consider the water requirements a particular vegetable has and plant it near perennials with the same needs.

Treat vegetables as annuals in your garden and you won’t be disappointed.  Let them fill in the holes and give fullness to your existing beds. At the end of the growing season, when the harvest is done and you clean out the vegetables, the loss will be nearly unnoticeable.

This spring, don’t let the fact that you have not created raised beds or cannot devote the space to a Pea Patch stop you from growing your own food.  It’s all about being bold and using your garden to its fullest potential.

Purple Peruvian Peppers with Trachelium caeruleum

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