Helen McKerralBeautiful vegie gardens

We all have our pet hates, and recently Catherine Stewart wrote eloquently about the current craze for edible gardens. I laughed out loud at it, and at some of the replies. A $25 cucumber? Meh –a bargain! I daren’t do sums on my efforts! The irrigation system alone accounts for at least two year’s supply of vegies (think not spuds, but black truffles!) even before adding fertiliser and water!

A beautiful mix of flowers and edibles in my garden

A beautiful mix of flowers and edibles in my garden

Catherine mentions gardening and cooking shows, and how they’ve influenced attitudes to both pastimes. Some years ago, the owner of a cooking school in Adelaide wrote she stopped running holiday classes for children because Junior Master Chef had brought all the pushy parents out of their woodwork-panelled kitchens, and she was teaching kids who didn’t want to be there and for whom cooking was just another vicarious achievement for their over-ambitious mums and dads. You can bet that even if those kids had enjoyed cooking before, they wouldn’t do so after the burden of performance was added to the cake mix.

Conversely, in my opinion, one positive development for children is the establishment of kitchen gardens in schools – not so much to promote gardening, but to promote healthier eating: the same kids who avoid greens on their plates will strip every sugarsnap from the vine before the pods can even ripen!

A mix of textures and subtle colour in my vegie garden

A mix of textures and subtle colour in my vegie garden

Colours, texture and form  from both ornamental and edible plants

Colours, texture and form from both ornamental and edible plants

I’ve also written about what I consider to be the scourge of “Garden Makeover” shows, and the way they turn gardening into an end, rather than a journey. Makeovers are completely unachievable for any gardener without a team to, well, do the makeover! And ironically, for any real gardener, the worst possible outcome is for your garden to actually be “finished”!
Another pet hate is designer gardens comprising acres of hard landscaping. Where are the plants? A border of mondo grass under a line of ornamental pears may be a designer’s joy, but it’s a gardener’s nightmare.

Equally annoying is being told my garden must follow this or that design principle, where every texture and colour MUST contrast or complement the other, or my garden will be an unmitigated failure. You’re certainly doomed if you’re one of those people who buys random things that catch your eye in nurseries! Of course, a large part of the reason the emphasis on the principles of design annoys me, is that I’m not very good at them!

Daisies (and uninvited guest) in my vegie garden

Daisies (and uninvited guest) in my vegie garden

There's always beauty to be found in a vegie garden

There’s always beauty to be found in a vegie garden

Fortunately, we can and should ignore the critics and crazes when they don’t match our tastes and we’re in our own back yards. Why feel guilty about it? As Catherine suggests, as long as people are planting and growing things – any things! – that’s terrific! So for me – and unlike Catherine – a garden that is purely for looking at is as unappealing for my own backyard as is a garden that is purely for eating. But who cares: your backyard isn’t mine, so do what you like in it!

My vegetable garden2. Photo Helen McKerralWhere would we be without collectors, whose gardens are filled with every variety of bromeliad, or fern, or obscure species of Amazonian rainforest liana? Not my cup of tea, but the magic of the internet means that, whatever your passion, you can find others to share it!

Where would we be without the gardens of famous designers, who use plants and landscape like an artist uses paint on canvas? As I said, those design talents are stratospherically beyond me, but I can appreciate them elsewhere.

I’m reasonably good at growing vegetables, and Catherine says she isn’t. But who promulgated the idea that growing vegies was that much easier than any other kind of gardening? Just like any other kind of gardening that people become good at, it requires certain skills, and knowledge, and a good dollop of microclimate luck.

For my back yard, I wanted a garden that was both productive AND beautiful; the idea that gardens are productive OR beautiful is arbitrary but strangely pervasive, and skews perception. Louis Glowinski writes in his excellent The Complete Book of Fruit Growing in Australia,

“For me, enormous pleasure is derived from fruit-bearing trees, with even the sight of a laden tree giving me the same aesthetic thrill that others derive from paintings in galleries or nature’s landscapes.”

Or from a flower garden? Glowinski’s inspiring book promotes the edible ornamental garden, focusing on fruit trees… but why stop there? Why not include vegies as well?

Rich leaf colour contrasts

Rich leaf colour contrasts


Compare the bold foliage effects of zucchini or rhubarb as landscaping plants, compared to, say, Gunnera. The beautiful foliage colours and textures of ruby chard, red lettuce, bronze fennel, purple sage, black cavolo nero and red Russian kale are equal to that of numerous purely ornamental plants. The flowers and fruit of citrus, or peach and apple blossom – glorious! When my radicchio came into bloom, I had no idea the flowers would be so stunning!

Stunning blue radicchio flowers

Stunning blue radicchio flowers

Lavender grows alongside the vegetables

Vegie gardens need not be rigid rows sown only for production, but can (gasp!) be planted so foliage textures and colours complement or contrast! Paths can be inviting and beds curving, not lined up like boxes of food on supermarket shelves. You can even mix in natives, or purely ornamental species, such as Gaura, daisies, roses, salvias, lavenders, and Alstroemeria as in a potager, so there’s always something flowering!

Salvia is part of the vegetable garden

Lavender and salvia are part of the vegetable garden





As replies to Catherine’s post suggest, yes there’s justification in growing your own food for sustainability (if not financial!) reasons, although even this message gets annoying if we’re bludgeoned on the head with it – Gardening Australia Live – why did it fail and Garden Religion).

However, for me and, I imagine, many others, productive gardening springs from complex motivations arising from childhood memories and from family relationships. It’s immensely satisfying to go into the patch to pick the evening meal, and I reckon my baskets of produce and (very first) garden stir fry of onion, garlic, sugarsnap peas, broccolini and zucchini are as beautiful as any vase of freshly-picked flowers!

Stir fry of onion, garlic, sugarsnap peas, broccolini and zucchini

Stir fry of onion, garlic, sugarsnap peas, broccolini and zucchini

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Helen McKerral

About Helen McKerral

Horticultural journalist, photographer, contributor to many garden magazines, and author of 'Gardening on a Shoestring'. Adelaide Hills, South Australia

11 thoughts on “Beautiful vegie gardens

  1. Beautifully put Helen. I agree I strive to have a beautiful and productive garden though apart from hardy herbs I’m struggling with the productive side. Gardening is a process not a destination. A sometimes frustrating and challenging process but overwhelmingly a wonderfully creative meditative replenishing and satisfying journey to something that’s not quite finished…

  2. Hello Helen.

    Your vegie garden is absolutely pumping! It’s come such a long way.

    I think a great way to get more beauty into the vegetable garden it to let as much go to seed as you can stand. The the radicchio in your picture is an excellent example – who wouldn’t love that blue popping out at the from behind a tomato plant?

    I let most leafy things go to seed after I’ve eaten well from them, but as they’re beginning to flower I strip off the lower leaves and plant the next crop. It’s a good way of getting a head start while the old crop flowers and seeds.

  3. Thank you, James, though of course the garden ebbs and flows with the seasons and now on the fourth day over forty degrees I can see the plants gasping along with the magpies and birds sheltering in the shade with beaks open :-(. But vegies grow so quickly any gaps don’t last long.

    Planting the next crop like that is an excellent idea! Though I always dig in a bit of compost as well, this should still be possible next to the existing plants and I’ll definitely try it.

    • And further to the above video, the fascinating backgrounder http://www.ij.org/flveggies- by the Institute for Justice, which is taking the case to overturn a council’s ban on growing vegies in front yards, includes these very relevant paragraphs:

      “Simply put, government has no legitimate interest in preventing people from seeing vegetables. And there is no rational relationship between the vegetable garden ban and any purported interest in aesthetics. After all, a yard does not become unsightly just because you can eat some of the things you grow there; aesthetics does not turn on edibility.[23]

      The fact is, Miami Shores is not rejecting the physical appearance of Hermine and Tom’s garden at all. Rather, it is misusing its regulatory power to prohibit a certain lifestyle, one in which responsible property owners put their property to productive use—in a way that harms no one—in order to become independent and self-sufficient. It is utterly irrational that Hermine and Tom could have flowers, fruit or flamingos in their front yard, but not vegetables.”

  4. Ah – long live The Good Life!
    Harking back to the Miami Shores comment above may I add my pennyworth to say that gardening eccentricity, and the freedom to express it, is still alive and well in England in spite of Government cutbacks!
    I’m new to Garden Drum, love reading all the contributions …

  5. Well done Helen! I agree completely. These damn Gardening makeover shows are a joke. Folks get the idea that their garden can be transformed in a weekend. When we built here and knocked down our old house, we gradually transformed the area into a wonderful veg and fruit patch, plus a chicken run. All this is still ongoing 4 yrs on, it will never be finished as we discover what does well, what prefers more shade etc. Friends thought we were mad at our age ( heavens above we are only in our 60’s and 70’s, still youngsters) tackling such a huge job. We don’t see it as a job, it is an absolute delight and there is nowhere I’d rather be than out in the veg patch, in daggy clothes, digging the soil, reaping the rewards. Some friends did suggest we get in landscapers, shock, horror, then it wouldn’t be our garden, but the creation of someone else. We are definitely living The Good Life ( that was one of my favorite programs and it is still showing on Foxtel!)

    • Too old to garden? Bah – 60s and 70s are just spring chickens as far as I’m concerned! And somewhere on GD in the past was research linked to longer, healthier lives for people who gardened – so plenty of years left for you both!

  6. The main reason I grow fruit, vegetables and herbs, is the flavour of the food, Tasting anything straight from the garden is a far cry from what you buy at any shop or market.

  7. I also agree. As a professional gardener I enjoy designing highly ornamental edible gardens for clients. My challenge in Brisbane is that so much of what we eat here is best grown further south, or else needs too much care for a clients garden. Instead I try to use as many sub tropical plants as possible and in particular perennials. This opens up a whole new world of easy edibles suited to our climate. For those also interested, look into 2 of my favourites: Talinum paniculatum, and the cranberry hibiscus for edibles that are right at home in an ornamental garden

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