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The “Extended Family” Garden

The hot‚ new trend in home gardening is to treat vegetables as decorative plants and mingle them in beds and borders with flowers. Since each plant‚ like a person‚ belongs to a family‚ growing many diverse plants together in a bed creates an “Extended Family” garden. This extended botanical family garden challenges the age-old tradition of separating food crops from ornamental ones. Vegetable breeding companies have focused on the ornamental qualities of food crops. As a result‚ many vegetables look as good as they taste. There are lots of reasons why blending them in the landscape is a great idea.

After all‚ in the beginning there were simply beautiful plants. Then‚ when it was discovered that some were good to eat — their fruit‚ foliage‚ roots or flowers providing the calories and nutrition required to assure mankind’s survival — it made sense to grow them in special protected areas to guarantee an adequate‚ convenient supply. Ever since‚ with a few exceptions‚ food gardens have been distinct from the natural landscape.

In today’s deliberately landscaped yards edible plants are still relegated to the wings‚ center stage being reserved for decorative plants. Until relatively recently space seemed unlimited‚ so combining practical and ornamental plants seemed unnecessary. Thus‚ food gardens followed the agricultural model‚ designed to be easy to tend and to harvest. These utilitarian gardens were kept out of sight in the backyard‚ deferring to the ornamental plants that were on view from the street.

Changing Garden Styles

There are several reasons why this garden tradition is changing and American residential landscapes have a new look.

First‚ home gardeners have redefined what is ornamental. They have a new appreciation for foliage‚ fruit‚ seedpods‚ habit‚ and bark. They recognize that many food plants have ornamental features. What can be lovelier than a lush okra plant with deeply cut decorative leaves and a creamy yellow hibiscus-like bloom?

Second‚ space for both edible and decorative plants is at a premium now that residential yards are shrinking. Since 1980 the typical backyard food garden has shrunk from about 800 square feet to about 200 square feet. This has spurred the search for a new way to organize plants in the landscape to enjoy growing both food and beauty. Suddenly the practicality of combining edibles and ornamentals all over the yard to take advantage of the limited space is popular. Gardening in containers has also become popular‚ so blending both types of plants in even more confined spaces such as windowsills‚ porches and balconies can produce food as well as flowers.

Third‚ we have rediscovered herbs‚ especially culinary ones. Both beautiful and flavorful‚ they are at home in both the veggie patch and the ornamental bed. They are leading the way to integrate the two worlds as we discover how to edge a flowerbed with neat clumps of basil. It is but a small step to incorporate the marvelous blue flowers of borage or tall bronze fennel into a bed of traditional decorative annuals. Then it is easy to include anise hyssop in the butterfly garden.

Lastly‚ there are the new‚ gorgeous varieties of food plants. They beg to be on display‚ destroying the rigid distinctions between edible and ornamental. ‘Bright Lights’ Swiss Chard stems are so beautiful they grace calendars and magazine front covers. The tiny colorful fruits and rich purple foliage of some pepper cultivars are the subjects of fine art. New dwarf forms of food plants make it easier to grow them in containers among the traditional geraniums and petunias.

Extended Family Garden

All plants belong to a botanical family that contains plants resembling each other in general appearance. It doesn’t make sense to limit the plant palette to one family when enhancing the beauty of home landscape. Why arbitrarily discriminate against plants that provide food? Because they‚ too‚ come in all kinds of sizes‚ shapes and textures‚ edible plants make wonderful specimens‚ focal points‚ groundcovers and screens. They offer wonderful color too. They look just as terrific nestled in charming pots‚ clambering on decorative arbors‚ or skirted by special fencing as traditional ornamentals. Take advantage of the colors of mixed lettuces‚ purple basil‚ red rhubarb‚ red‚ yellow and orange peppers; yellow and orange tomatoes; pink eggplants; red cabbages‚ scarlet flowered beans‚ speckled watermelons and savoy cabbage. Celebrate the shapes of pear tomatoes‚ skinny eggplants‚ marble-sized tomatoes and yard long green beans.

“Extended Family” gardening makes more efficient use of available space and light and increases the number of different crops you can grow. It also maximizes production by extending the space for food crops. It eliminates the struggle to decide which gets the best sun in the yard‚ the roses or the peppers. Put them both in the sunny spot‚ even if it is the front yard. If the best sun is over the porch‚ plant tomatoes or strawberries with flowers in hanging baskets off the porch roof.

Plant a patio type tomato in a container surrounded with French marigolds on the balcony. Prune the tomato’s lower branches to make room for the marigolds to bush out. Other combos might be eggplants with petunias‚ peppers plus red salvia‚ salad bush cucumber and calendulas. Plant squash or sweet potato vine in a window or railing box and let it trail over the edge. Then fill in the box with a more upright annual such as geraniums.

Combining families of edible and ornamental types of plants improves their health and the overall environment. As the diversity of plantings in all parts of the yard increases‚ so does the diversity of beneficial insects‚ the first line of defense against pest insects. Blending more species in various ways rotates your food crops more effectively in new‚ smaller yards. “Extended Family” gardens are beautiful‚ bountiful‚ and enhance the environment.

Ornamental Edibles to Consider for a Decorative Garden

A Bit of Garden History

The practice of growing edible plants in special areas segregated from plants in the natural landscape has been around for literally ages. With a few exceptions such as the early Egyptians who combined practicality and beauty and mingled edible and ornamental plants‚ food plants were usually grown separately. This continued to be the case when ornamental plants were also cultivated and introduced in home landscapes by design. For example‚ the Romans created extremely ornate‚ ornamental gardens‚ but they banished edible plants from these aesthetically composed landscapes. However‚ during the Middle Ages when life was extremely precarious‚ food gardens regained primacy‚ now including among the edible plants herbs for flavoring‚ preservatives‚ and medicines.

The first priority of colonists in New England was to eat‚ and food and herb plants were the only ones they had time for. Because these early vegetable gardens were carved from the forest‚ they had to be protected from the critters. They were concentrated in a relatively circumscribed space that could be fenced. By the 18th century‚ plants selected for their beauty‚ as well as turfgrass lawns were cultivated on the property of the affluent. The food garden was secondary and generally out of sight‚ although‚ simultaneously in England‚ France and Scotland planting gardens with edibles and ornamentals combined in elaborate geometric patterns and sheltered by walls or clipped hedges was in vogue.

We credit Liz Ball as the author of this article

Credit National Garden Bureau