In Fine Form -- and Function

By Barbara Damrosch
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, January 11, 2007

Any healthy, well-tended vegetable garden is beautiful, but some are works of art, and the one at the Chateau de Villandry in France's Loire Valley is considered the Mona Lisa of potagers. It forms only one part of the formal grounds that grace this Renaissance castle, but, on its own, it is a pilgrimage site for kitchen gardeners. More than 40 kinds of vegetables, from peppers to pumpkins, are set out in tidy square plots edged with boxwood, each a flawless composition of complementary textures, forms and colors that change with the seasons. Inspired by gardens of the 15th century, it is like a 100,000-square-foot bejeweled altar cloth, spread over the land in homage to the fruits of the earth.

Dazzling as Villandry may be, its perfection is intimidating. I keep imagining some hapless serf marring its geometry by the theft of a single cabbage, then cast into the dungeon for his crime. I wonder how much of the gorgeous bounty is used for food today. I salute the influence the garden has had on current garden style, but the late Rosemary Verey's legendary English potager at Barnsley House in Gloucestershire is more my cup of tea. Though an estate garden, it has a domestic scale. Its clever bamboo vine supports look doable. Its patterned arrangements of brightly colored vegetables are as glamorous as Villandry's when caught by a photographer's eye, but I can picture them being gathered later for supper -- whether this in fact happened or not.

Engineering a decorative but functional vegetable garden is tricky. It shouldn't be like making a holiday gingerbread house that's too pretty to eat. Here are some ways to make it work:

· Keep transplants in reserve. If you always have some lettuce seedlings in various colors, you can keep the scheme intact, even if some are a bit smaller than others.

· Interplant early crops with late ones. Let's say you've edged a plot with dill or arugula plants that will go to seed before summer's end. Sow a row of carrots next to them. The leafy carrot tops will help disguise the earlier planting's decline, then take over after its final fall from grace.

· For beds that must look and stay pretty, choose crops that can be picked leaf by leaf and maintain their integrity, such as beet greens, turnip greens, Swiss chard and spinach.

· Have some late-summer stand-ins. Fruiting crops such as tomatoes, eggplant and zucchini grow and bear for a long time, but the quality of their foliage may suffer in late summer. When aesthetics wins out over appetite, pull these out and replace them with ornamental cabbages or parsley.

· Use flowers to add color, definition and permanence. A dwarf marigold edging around a bed keeps it respectable even if the burgundy okra inside it has seen better days. Sow a sprawling annual such as vining nasturtium to fill a bed that has been vacated by bush beans or early peas. Rosalind Creasy, in her groundbreaking 1982 manual "The Complete Book of Edible Landscaping," suggested sowing sweet alyssum in spring to gradually grow as an understory in a bed where beets will later be harvested. Verey under-sowed cabbages with sweet peas.

· Grow perennial crops. A planting of asparagus makes a handsome backdrop, its ferny foliage a beautiful green in summer and gold in fall. Jerusalem artichokes, with their yellow flowers, also might work well. For a permanent low edging use Alpine strawberries, sorrel or perennial herbs such as lavender, sage and thyme. Rhubarb makes a good accent plant. Though not reliably perennial, artichokes and cardoons, with their spiny grandeur, lend drama. So do sunflowers. Even their scarecrow look in winter is striking.

· Finally, here's a trick that served me well in an edible garden I once planted in the "flower" part of the yard. It comprised two rectangular beds with a path between them and two peach trees with annual flowers planted beneath at the far end. Each of the long beds contained vegetables planted in short rows, running crosswise. In choosing these crops I required that they look beautiful during the entire growing season, then be harvested all at once for fall storage, so I wouldn't see any gaps. Those included carrots, beets, leeks, red cabbage, parsnips and celery root. Nicknamed "Villandry," the plot was consistently lovely from spring through fall. When winter came, we ate every bite.

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