I just discovered a new and beautiful book called “Outstanding American Gardens.” It celebrates 25 years of the Garden Conservancy, established to prevent important gardens from fading away. Most people may know the group for its Open Days Program, which gives the public a chance to see hundreds of private gardens around the country.
Leafing through the book, which is edited by Page Dickey, I kept looking for edibles among the flowers, having grown up in a family that gave them equal status. And edibles there were — at least a quarter of the 50 gardens include fruits and vegetables. My favorite, created by landscape designer Bill Noble, has two gorgeous plots, one with flowers, one with veggies, sharing a place of honor on a gently sloping hill.
Recently, I chatted with a garden designer while waiting in line for a buffet. “My clients never want vegetable gardens,” she said, “unless they’re a restaurant or B&B.” That’s odd, I thought. So I phoned three of my favorite designers, who told a different tale.
Heather McCargo, who now runs the Wild Seed Project in Portland, Maine, is best known for her work with native plants. In her own charming and colorful organic garden, “all the plants are native, edible or — in the case of nodding onion — both.” She grows lettuce but also loves unusual edibles such as the spinach-like green named Good King Henry, and Painted Hill corn (“great for polenta”). People often ask her for advice in putting in a kitchen garden. Why? “To grow healthy food for their kids,” she says.
Ellen Ecker Ogden is a Vermont-based author and landscape designer who specializes in kitchen gardens. She’s known for small, colorful, tidy gardens that are pleasant to spend time in. “Not just a workhorse garden,” she told me, “but a place to grow things that you can’t get at the store. It should be close to the door, with a bench. Your garden evolves over time, and changes your vocabulary. Work becomes play.” Like me, she includes flowers, close enough to attract pollinators that veggies need, but in separate beds so that they don’t encroach on growing space.
Deborah Nevins, a high-profile designer based in New York, creates expansive, classic landscapes for clients throughout the United States and abroad. Known for the brilliant way she organizes spaces, often defined by monumental hedges, she speaks with special warmth about three large food gardens that have now been part of the owners’ lives for about 20 years — one in Los Angeles, one near Chicago and one in Roxbury, Conn. “There’s nothing like having your own lettuce and tomatoes to pick. These people are into old varieties too, and committed to organic gardening, to compost.” All have a formal, decorative structure, with flowers judiciously mixed in.
I was jealous when she told me the one in California has bay hedges and grows four successions of corn each year. Deborah grows lemons at her own Long Island house by bringing them indoors in winter. Her secret: a cool but sunny room.
These days she has requests for small potagers, but “now that there are such good farmers markets and CSAs, there’s less need to have a big vegetable garden.”
I say, that’s fine. Your “own” local farmer might be just as handy as that archetypal, tweed-vested estate gardener, with his trusty spade.
Damrosch is author of “The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook.”