Friday, 2 June 2017

Can a vegetable garden or allotment be beautiful?

For many years I've thought that growing your own fruit and veg was more or less incompatible with having a stylish and beautiful garden. Vegetables just aren't that pretty to look at. But after seeing vegetable gardens at Westbury Court Garden in Gloucestershire and at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show recently, I think I might be starting to change my mind.  

Whilst I am a keen supporter of the grow your own movement, and love being able to get my own food from plot to plate in a few minutes, I have mostly disagreed with those who say that you can incorporate vegetables into an ordinary garden and they will look good. There are few edible plants that will add anything visually appealing to an ornamental garden. They are just not as exciting or colourful to look at. By all means sneak a few into your borders - we cant all have enough space to grow them in a separate area. I have tended to grow crops in containers away from the main part of my garden.

Fruit trees are a good example of my views on this. Whether as a stand alone specimen or grown espaliered against the wall (which does look very attractive) they can make a useful addition to any garden. But an apple tree will never look as pretty as a purple leaved acer, or a tulip flowered magnolia. Peas growing tall will not look or smell as good as their sweet pea cousins. Do you agree? Leave me your comments at the end of this article.
When I started my allotment however, I saw no reason why a vegetable plot couldn't be designed to look attractive, so I attempted to avoid the standard rows growing the whole way down the plot. I had a vision of something more like a potager designed with 4 beds around a central axis. The idea was that the plot as a whole would look good, even if cabbages and broad beans themselves don't. It also had a practical purpose of supporting a rotation of crops.

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My rather scruffy allotment
But once underway, the necessities overwhelmed the aesthetic, and to facilitate nets and plant supports, and with constraints of time and budget, and the desire to use recycled materials where possible, I just wasn't concerned with how it looked. In my third year the allotment is very productive, and cheap, but also  rather scruffy. And I didn't mind. Until recently.

The Radio 2 Chris Evans Taste Garden at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show demonstrated how impressive a vegetable garden can look, how good looking the plants can be in their own right, and how a vegetable plot or allotment can designed in a similar way to any other garden, with different plants complimenting each other, such as lettuce with leaves of varying shades of red cleverly juxtaposed. But it's a show garden. On the allotment plants would need to be differently spaced and grown together in groups by preferred conditions rather than by appearance. I remain unconvinced that a vegetable garden can look good by being put together in the way an ornamental garden would be designed.

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My allotment neighbour
But there's no denying that veg can look good. My allotment neighbours have exceedingly straight lines across there plots, making them look very smart and formal, and basically, good to look at. The regimented rows down the length of the plot look rather austere for much of the year but now that everything is growing well, I am developing plot envy of those that look so tidy compared to mine.

But it seems to me that it looks good because of the way it is planted rather than because of the aesthetic value of the plants themselves, which are still much plainer to look at than a typical flower border or shrubbery even. 
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The Old Vegetable Garden at Westbury Court Garden
This is also true of Westbury Court Garden, a National Trust property with a restored 17th century Dutch style garden, including a long vegetable plot. It reminded me of an allotment, with numerous beds lined up one after the other, filling a long narrow space. Again the various cabbages, gooseberries, onions and peas do not look very special in their own right, but each bed is immaculately cut out from the surrounding grass, and has a pair of sentinel yew cones at each end. This not only fits with the formal topiary theme of the surrounding garden, but gives an otherwise ordinary veg patch a sense of style in it's own right.

This is something anyone can do. How about finishing off your veg patch with some clipped box, or alternatives to box, on either side?

So it can be done. I still think an allotment or veg patch won't match a border full of colourful flowers for visual appeal, but it can look good in a different way. Vegetables may never look that beautiful, but a vegetable garden can. I had better tidy my allotment up before my plot envy gets out of control.
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  1. I think a lot depends on your budget. If you are cultivating an allotment to produce cheap veg to feed a family, then "functional" is the best approach. If on the other hand you have loads of money, the ornamental aspects can come to the fore - and those beautiful terracotta rhubarb-forcers cost a bomb, don't they?

  2. Hi Mark, Thanks for commenting. Yes I believe they do cost a bit, though I'm sure you can cheaper versions of the same sort of thing. As with most things in life, the more you can spend, the better you can make it look, but The Green Fingered Blogger will carry on looking for solutions that are practical, stylish and cheap!