How to combine edibles & ornamentals in your garden

by | Jul 7, 2021

How to combine edibles ornamentals in your garden

Over the years we have written many articles regarding edible herb, vegetable and fruit gardening. We also covered ornamental gardening and landscaping. Never have we written about these two gardening worlds and principles, meeting and becoming one. This blog will be exactly about this. A how-to guide for combining edibles & ornamentals in your garden. We’ll view the topic from both angles: introducing edibles into your ornamental garden, and bringing ornamentals, preferentially beneficial ones, into your practical, edible garden.

INTERESTING HISTORY FACT

Combining edibles and ornamentals in one garden is not a new concept and has, in fact, been around for many centuries, from the Middle Ages. In medieval France amongst monasteries, flowering annuals, herbs, and medicinal perennials were mixed amongst vegetables and fruits. The reason this was done was to allow for maximum use of space. This type of garden is called a ‘Potager’ and in essence, is a domestic utility garden done on a modest scale. The English Cottage garden is another example of this type of landscaping where informal gardening is encouraged and ornamental and edible plants are mixed.

This blog will cover:

  • Why would we want to combine edible & ornamental gardening?
  • Introducing edibles into your ornamental garden
    • What to take into consideration when adding edibles to your ornamental garden.
    • Practical tips to produce edibles into your ornamental garden.
  • Introducing ornamentals into your edible garden
    • What to take into consideration when adding ornamentals to your edible garden.
    • Edibles as pollinator attractors
    • Edibles as beneficial insect attractors
    • Edibles as companion plants

Why would we want to combine edible and ornamental gardening?

There are many reasons and pros as to why we should try your hand at combining these two types of gardening, and below are just a few of our favourite reasons.

Companion planting is the concept of planting combinations of specific plants for their mutual benefit. Companion planting can be a design feature as well as a practical way to combat pests and diseases, as below mentioned attract pollinators as well as beneficial insects, and also will help with nutrient uptake of plants as certain plants help others to do this. Companion planting is a principle used a lot when combining edibles and ornamentals.

A very important reason – and one that we should be looking into more to limit the use of insecticides – is that adding certain ornamentals and herbs to the edible garden will encourage beneficial insects to visit and live in your garden. These beneficial insects will substantially reduce and control the populations of ‘bad’ insects, which love attacking edible gardens.

Still on the topic of symbiosis, another very big and beneficial reason to add ornamentals to an edible garden is that they tend to attract pollinators, which may lead to higher yields of fruits and fruiting vegetables.

Another obvious reason you would combine edible and ornamental gardening is to make the best use of the space you have. In modern times our gardens and accessible gardening spaces have been significantly reduced in comparison to the space the previous generations had. This is due to a constantly increasing human population and the sheer volume of people living in city environments and complexes. Many of us have a lack of space, meaning we cannot have (or rather, are not prepared to commit to) a dedicated edible garden section that takes up a large chunk of our already squeezed, aesthetically more pleasing garden and outdoor space to just edibles. By combining edible and ornamental gardening, you can save a lot of space; introducing the term ‘Potager garden’.

Edible gardening traditionally is very regimented and structured and this is not necessarily very attractive to the eye. By weaving edible plants into your ornamental landscape and vice versa, you can enhance the beauty of the landscape and create year-round interest.

Introducing edibles into your ornamental garden

What to take into consideration when adding edibles to your ornamental garden:

Below are some of the things you need to take into consideration when choosing what edibles you are going to add to your garden as well as some design practicalities that need to be taken into consideration when adding edibles to your ornamental garden.

The most important thing to consider is that you need to really do your homework when it comes to choosing edibles to add to your ornamental garden as well as choosing where to add them into the garden. Vegetables, herbs and fruiting plants all have very specific growing conditions that need to be adhered to and they tend to not be very flexible when it comes to these needs and preferences. Most edibles prefer full sun, or at least half a day of full sun. Not many edibles will grow well in very shady spots, and although some will survive, they will not thrive and do their best in shady spots. The watering needs of the edibles must also be taken into consideration as they vary drastically. A lot of your leafy veggies require regular and substantial watering. Whereas some vegetables, if over watered, will rot and their fruits and rooting crops will not develop adequate flavour, or they will split and burst open. Over-watering also causes fungi to develop. Mediterranean herbs prefer to not be watered regularly. Another thing you need to take into consideration is that certain herbs are quite specific with what type of soil they would like to grow in. You need to investigate what type of soil you have and figure out what edibles would like to grow in this type of soil and choose appropriately. If you have very sandy soil you can add good topsoil and compost to planting areas and planting holes to slightly improve this and make it more suitable for the edibles.

Something extremely important to take into consideration when adding edibles to an ornamental garden is that you cannot use chemical pesticides on the edibles. Many people do not take this into consideration and it can be potentially dangerous if you don’t. Keep in mind that edibles are more likely to be affected by pests and diseases than ornamentals are. You will either have to consider adopting a new organic holistic way of practising pest control or slightly separate your edibles within your ornamental garden in order to treat them differently from your ornamentals. Practising a more organic holistic way of pest control can include using organic products or homemade ‘friendly’ sprays, planting pest susceptible plants with appropriate protective companion plants or introducing plants that attract beneficial insects to help with controlling pests on the edibles.

Another practical consideration that is very important before planting edibles is that edibles need to be regularly harvested. So keep this in mind when choosing where to plant them in your ornamental garden. Consider how regularly you will be harvesting your edible and place accordingly. Plants that need to be regularly harvested should be planted on edges or closest to easy access areas. You should also maybe consider either not fully planting up beds to be able to step into them or create pathways to gain access. Accessibility is important because edibles need to be regularly checked for pests and diseases.

Keep in mind that not all edibles integrate naturally into the ornamental landscape as they are untidy or may occupy too much space. Examples are tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, and runner or pole beans. There is a way to get past this and make them look good in an edible garden: grow them on trellises and other frameworks to keep them neat and tidy, and allow for enough space!

The last thing you need to take into consideration is aesthetics. You want your edibles to complement your ornamentals and look good. The purpose of an ornamental garden is to be aesthetically pleasing so you do not want adding edibles to take away from this. Take into consideration the mature size, shape, texture and colours of leaves, stems, branches, flowers and fruits before choosing which edibles to add to your garden.

Practical tips to introduce edibles into your ornamental garden

Spinach planted with marigold as border

A great practical way to add edibles into your ornamental garden is to use them on bed borders. In this way you can easily access them to harvest and check and treat for pests and diseases, as well as it plain and simple just looks great. Use neat and tidy leafy veggies such as lettuces, baby spinach and larger growing spinach, cabbages and winter growing oriental veggies like pak choi, as well as neat mound-forming herbs like sweet basil, purple basil, and parsley and chives with their neat growth pattern, that will also reward you with their lovely purple pom pom-like flower heads. They all make great border plants!

Artichoke plant

When discussing the aesthetics of edibles, I mentioned keeping in mind their colouring before making your final selection. Here are some options that will add a strong colour pop to your ornamental garden:

  • For a silver or grey colour, add artichokes, lavenders, dinosaur/curly kale, sage and catmint. Artichokes also add texture to the garden as they have interesting sword shaped leaves and lovely large thistle like pink or purple flowers. Lavenders are obviously lovely bloomers and catmint produces masses of purple flower spikes. Dinosaur or curly kale has lovely blue grey curly foliage which adds texture to the garden.

COLOURFUL Swiss Chard

  • Add hues of red with Red Russion and Redbar (coloured kale variants), rhubarb, coloured chard (various colours exist), giant red mustard and red lettuces. These plants all have red in their foliage. 
  • For purple, plant Thai and purple basil, black peppers (leaves and fruits) and tricolor sage. 
  • Herbs that will add great flower colour are Pineapple sage (my personal favourite), lavenders, rosemary, tansy, yarrow, beebalm, catmint, borage, anise hyssop, lemon verbena and chives. These are only but a few of the popular ones. 
  • Also remember that all fruiting plants add colour to an ornamental garden so consider adding eggplants, tomatoes, chillies and peppers, strawberries, blueberries etc., to your garden.

If you are looking for groundcovers, consider using plants like thymes (specifically, more flat-growing varieties), oreganum, marjoram and chamomile, and think out of the box by using something like strawberries as well.

Trending now is adding edibles to your ornamental pots, containers and hanging baskets. Miniature edible varieties are coming out that make great pot plants, like mini eggplants, tomatoes, chillies and peppers. The fruits also add an ornamental touch and vibrant colours. Strawberries and cherry tomatoes can look really good planted in hanging baskets. When you have ornamental pots and there are small gaps to fill up, consider using plants like small-growing herbs (parsley, chives, oregano and thyme to cascade over), lettuces, baby spinach and mizuna. Wild rocket can also be a great filler but remember that it is quite vigorous.

One thing with adding edibles to your ornamental garden is that they don’t last forever and need to be regularly replaced after their season is finished. Good planning is required to keep an ornamental garden with edibles in it looking good. Plant some fast-growing crops like radishes, lettuces, basil and wild rocket to strategically fill up gaps where vegetables have been harvested.

Grow parsley, chives and garlic around roses. Parsley repels rose beetles and attracts hoverflies, which prey on aphids that can overtake roses. Garlic and chives protect roses from black spots. Look into companion growing and up your game by learning exactly which other edibles and herbs can benefit your pretty-to-look-at ornamentals.

What to take into consideration when adding ornamentals to your edible garden:

Any ornamental plants can be added to an edible garden as long as you take the growing conditions into consideration. How much sunlight do your plants need? What are your edible garden’s inhabitants’ watering and soil requirements? Try not to add ornamentals that are highly susceptible to insect and disease attacks as you do not want to do too much spraying near your edibles and cannot use chemicals.

Remember: your ornamentals also serve a practical purpose and will benefit your edibles. Three practical reasons to add ornamentals and ornamental herbs to your edible garden:

  • Some species increase yields by attracting pollinators.
  • Some species attract beneficial insects that keep the non-beneficial insect population in your edible garden at bay.
  • Some species act as trap crops, while others have strong scents that keep detrimental insects away from edibles.

Introduce ornamentals into your edible garden

As pollinator attractors

Annuals serve a fantastic duo-purpose in any edible garden as they add annual colour and attract a multitude of pollinators.  Some popular examples are cosmos, zinnia’s, petunias, marigolds (single flowering varieties),alyssums, pansies, violas, cornflowers and calendulas.

Flowering ornamental herbs are best-known for encouraging pollinators and should therefore be planted in between your edibles. They are highly attractive bloomers and will be abuzz with activity. Melons and squash, in particular, need to have flowering herbs planted around them to encourage pollinators, otherwise hardly any fruit will be produced. Some flowering herbs to help attract pollinators are anise hyssop, basil, catnip, chives, lavender, lemon balm, bee balm, sage and thyme.

Perennials and other ornamentals also attract pollinators. Plant asters, pentas, verbena, scabiosa, black eyed susans, phlox, yarrows, sedums, cuphea, dahlias, portulacas and salvias.

As beneficial insect attractors

To recap… beneficial insects are like bouncers who crowd-control the detrimental insects (the ones that will harm your garden) that are also attracted to your little garden party. 

  • Alyssums attract hoverflies, which control aphids. 
  • Cosmos plants attract green lacewings, which also like to eat aphids.
  • Almost all herbs, if allowed to flower, will attract various beneficial insects. 
  • In general almost all the above-mentioned pollinator attractors will also attract beneficial insects. 

As companion plants

Below are some examples of ornamentals and herbs that will aid your edible garden – whether by protecting the plant or helping with the uptake of nutrients. 

  • Petunias deter bean beetles when planted with beans. 
  • Calendula should be planted with Brassicas as they excude a sticky substance that attracts aphids and they get stuck. The flowers also attract ladybirds, which will then eat the aphids.
  • Asters deter most insects. 
  • Borage is said to deter worms so plant them near tomatoes and cabbages. 
  • Catnip deters flea beetles, Japanese beetles and weevils. 
  • Chrysanthemums deter most insects as they have a strong smell but also work for soil nematodes and are said to be useful for red spider mite as well. 
  • Geraniums deter most insects because of the strong oils it exudes.
  • Marigolds are very well known for killing soil nematodes but are also useful for deterring bean beetles, squash bugs, thrips and whiteflies. Peppers and tomatoes do well when planted with marigolds. 
  • Rosemary is an ornamental herb and is useful for preventing cabbage moth, bean beetle and carrot fly. 
  • Lavender is an ornamental herb that keeps away cabbage moths.
  • Nasturtiums trap aphids as well as to deter squash bugs and beetles.
  • Peppers are also said to do quite well when petunias and geraniums are planted around them. 
  • Tomatoes are said to benefit from geraniums, petunias, nasturtiums and borage. 
  • If you are looking for slug repellant plants, then plant mint, hyssop, and sage around plants that are likely to be affected by slugs. 
  • Lovage, tarragon and chamomile are general health plants and are considered to be garden helpers too. Plant them in between your edible garden to keep plants healthy in general.

In conclusion, combining the two gardening worlds of edibles and ornamentals is not impossible, but rather a slow-burner process whereby you get to know your garden inhabitants more intimately.

Do your research before you start to work on your duo garden. Planning is the key to success. Remember that your end-vision end goal does not need to happen overnight; tackle it in stages. If something you planted is not flourishing, move it. Don’t be intimidated by trying your hand at something new. Combine, learn, have fun. Let your creativity flow! 

On completion of your foodscape, or seeing your edible garden elevated with flowering ornamentals and herbs buzzing with insect activity, you will realise that all the experimenting was so, so worth your while.

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