As gardeners, we cast our plants in different roles. "Because you're so beautiful," we tell a rosebush, "I'm going to give you the best-dug bed I can, with loose, fertile soil." We offer a tomato plant the same cushy setting, "because you're going to taste so good."
Roses and tomatoes bear fruits that are rich in vitamin C. But should they be bedfellows? No.
It's tempting to add fast-maturing edible plants to existing ornamental beds, but unless you choose the companions carefully, the results can be disappointing all around.
The rosebush won't share its space well with the tomato plant, but you might underplant roses with forget-me-nots, sweet alyssum or some other shallow-rooted flower – maybe even a quick edible crop such as arugula. But nothing big and hungry.
Perennial fruit such as blueberries or a perennial vegetable such as asparagus needs its own space.
A mighty vegetable such as the stately, spiky artichoke might hold its own, but would the elegant, blue-green Tuscan kale? Maybe not. A frilly lettuce border would work if you aim to let it bolt, because the flower clusters it sends up are pretty in their own right. But the theft of heads for salad would leave empty spots. Maybe you could replace those with new lettuce plants, as do the dedicated gardeners that tend the legendary vegetable plots at the Chateau de Villandry in France. You, that is – not busy, overcommitted me.
Years ago my husband and I set about to plant a garden that would visually combine edibles and flowers. We put it in the middle of the lawn, between the food garden and the area where we grew most of our flowers – a bridge, so to speak.
One trick we used was to plant in parallel beds, each of which had either flowers or vegetables, but not a mix. There were two plots like that, with a grass path between them. Each plot had a peach tree at the far end, framing a wooden bench.
Our other trick in that little garden was to plant edible crops that would be in the ground all season and not harvested until fall. No need for replacements. They included storage carrots, celery root, beets, leeks, parsnips and red cabbage. There was a bed of strawberries, too, and although the fruits were picked when ripe, the foliage remained. We nicknamed our new effort Villandry.
I can think of other ways to introduce a flowery effect into your edible garden without compromising good growth. A fence or trellis around it could be festooned with vines such as morning glories, clematis and, yes, climbing roses. Edible scarlet runner beans, beloved by hummingbirds, are a great choice, with their brilliant red-orange blossoms. Sunflowers are fun along the edges, too, though it's best to stick to the north side to avoid shading crops – unless there are greens that need afternoon shade in hot weather.
Even if you are trying to get as much food as you can out of a small kitchen garden, it's tempting to tuck in a few blooms at the end of a row, especially if their petals are edible. Marigolds are a favorite. Their ability to repel pests may be overstated, but they can sure brighten up a salad.
Here's a radical idea: Allow some of your vegetables to bloom. Instead of yanking out the bolting broccoli, collards or dill, let them open their flowers to grateful bees, butterflies and other pollinators, for the good of the whole garden as well as your eyes.
Here's another oddball trick, one I'm trying out now. In the past, there have been a number of flowering annuals and biennials I've scattered around my herb garden, where they blend in wonderfully, and manage to coexist with well-established clumps of perennial herbs. Some become yearly volunteers, such as Shirley poppies and wallflowers. Portulaca works too. So this spring I gathered a bunch of old seed packets, choosing flowers that have performed well in that role, and flung them across the area. If any of them come up, they are all welcome.
* Damrosch is the author of The Four Season Farm Gardener's Cookbook.