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New Zealand Home & Building, October-November 1998

bedding beauties — No longer confined to the kitchen garden, vegetables are a decorative feature of many border or pot

page 146

bedding beauties
No longer confined to the kitchen garden, vegetables are a decorative feature of many border or pot.

For years banished to the kitchen garden while flowering and ornamental plants took pride of place, the humble vegetable is now enjoying a renaissance. Brassicas, aubergines, capsicums and many other vegetables are being used for a variety of decorative plantings, whether in a carefully defined potager or amid the lush foliage of a tropical garden. Meanwhile, their miniature cousins are thriving in containers and pots on decks and in courtyard gardens.

Centuries ago, vegetables and herbs, grown purely for their culinary or medicinal value, were the dominant plants in European cottage gardens. Only the wealthy could afford the luxury of growing plants with no practical or utilitarian function. But, as ornamental plants grew in popularity, vegetables and herbs became confined to the kitchen garden.

Here in New Zealand, with space and a benign climate on our side, the vegetable garden has remained a domestic institution. With a history dating back to before European settlement, its popularity only began to diminish as residential properties became too small to accommodate the traditional large vegetable plot.

Hence the rise of the potager. Its elegant layout fits in well with most urban gardens and planting can be a combination of both annual and perennial flowers, fruit trees, herbs and vegetables - anything that takes your fancy. Surrounded by formal edgings of herbs, box or brick, even the lowly cabbage can look stunning planted in rows or groupings, while the new 'designer' vegetables - such as variegated kales, red and gold stemmed silver beets or red chicory - add dramatic foliage colour to any style of garden.

But it's not only the new cultivars that have ornamental appeal. Many of the more traditional vegetables, such as rhubarb [Rheum x cultorum) and globe artichoke [Cynara scoly-mus), have superbly sculptural leaves and look impressive when planted in rows, large groups or as edging plants. Herbs look great as edging plants too, particularly chives, different coloured basils or purple sage (Salvia officinalis).

As well as decorative foliage, many vegetables produce fruit of vibrant colours and forms, like the beautiful glossy, purple-black fruit of the aubergine - or its new cultivars 'Turkish Orange', 'Easter Egg' (white with a rounder shape) or the Italian violet coloured 'Deperanzi'.

For the vegetable enthusiast with a limited amount of outdoor space, there's a fantastic range of miniature cultivars on the market now - mini pumpkin, scallopini, aubergine, carrots, cauliflower, tomato, capsicum. The list keeps growing. All you need to produce these gourmet vegetables is a sunny location, good soil and a reasonably large container.

If you enjoy salads, space can usually be found on the tiniest deck for an elegant tub of frilly lettuce, such as 'Lollo Rossa', a pot of chives or basil, or a cherry tomato plant. The young leaves of many lettuce, kale or rocket cultivars can be harvested without having to use the entire plant, and all these plants will grow well in pots.

Some gardeners prefer not to eat their decorative vegetables at all. One friend of mine abhors eating silver beet and capsicum, but is happy to grow the former for its foliage and the latter for its bright colour among her flowers and shrubs.

When planting decorative vegetables it's important to select both winter and summer types so your garden page break page 148or containers will look attractive throughout the year. For summer colour try planting capsicum - available in green, gold or red - or chillies, which also come in many shades including the orange 'Bulgarian Carrot', 'Yellow Banana' or the multi-coloured 'Marbles'.

Tomatoes are another summer favourite, ranging in shape and size from the enormous bright red fruit of the 'Beefstake' varieties ('Fantastic' is well-recommended) down to the tiny bite-sized fruit of the prolific 'Sweet 100' or the equally abundant 'Yellow Canary'. As its name suggests, this is a yellow tomato that adapts well to containers, growing to only 20cm high.

The Brassica genus has been the source of winter 'greens' for centuries including cabbages, broccoli, rocket and cauliflower. Kales, a cultivated form of European wild cabbage, also thrive in cold weather and flowering varieties, such as 'Nagoya Mix', are often used as a substitute for bedding annuals during autumn and winter.

Experiment with cultivars such as the red cabbage 'Rookie F1 Hybrid', the lime green broccoli 'Romanesco', or broccoflower 'Alverda', a cross between broccoli and cauliflower. Then there are the Chinese brassicas, including pak choi, wong bok and a non-heading form of broccoli. And let's not forget the coloured stem varieties of silver beet, which can also be grown throughout the winter in mild climates. HB

gardeners' notes

  • • Virtually all vegetables prefer well drained soil and as much light as possible.
  • • Raised beds or mounding soil 15cm above ground level around plants can reduce problems with cold, wet soil.
  • • Sowing small groups of plants at regular intervals helps to ensure a continuous supply throughout their growing season.
  • • Soil needs to be well prepared, regularly fertilised and irrigated during dry seasons. Feeding is especially important with container grown vegetables which should have a slow release fertiliser added to the potting mix.
  • • Tomato plants need to be planted in spring so they have plenty of warm weather to mature, as do artichokes, aubergine, capsicum, pumpkin and most other vegetables.
  • • If planted in containers, cherry tomatoes will need the support of a piece of trellis or a bamboo teepee.
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