There is nothing new about planting a vegetable garden. What is new is the whole world telling you that you should have one, writes New York garden designer Marie Viljogen. As a gardener, this green trend has my seal of approval, I am usually averse to bandwagons, but what's not to love about a horticultural movement that has gone from grassroots to mainstream?
I see two kinds of food gardens: intensive and extensive. Intensive, as the name implies, devotes a certain amount of space solely to growing crops. It requires a lot of energy and time. The extensive kitchen garden is one that blurs the distinction between ornamental and edible plants. It will not feed your family all year but it will provide enjoyment and education for kids and adults alike.
Planting a specimen tree? Make it one whose berries are delicious in summer. Need a tall seasonal focal point? Aubergines are arresting when ripe and taste good, too. Don't know what to plant in that sunny spot between the perennials? Try scallions. Not sure where to begin? Get started with my top ten list of lovely edible plantings for the garden.
Amelanchier berries in June. Photo: Marie Viljoen
Also known as Juneberry, this tree or shrub is native to the east coast of America and gets my vote for five reasons. It has beautiful white spring flowers, sweet red berries in June, stunning orange autumn colours, can withstand the cold, and bear fruit in full sun or a dappled shade position. Depending on the species, it could be a shrub or a twenty-foot tree. I believe it rivals the famous blueberry for flavor. Eaten fresh or made into a pie, it will make June a reason for celebration.
Ripe fig on a rooftop. Photo: Marie Viljoen
An exotic-looking addition to small or large gardens, figs can be grown in containers or given room to spread. They are highly adaptable and surprisingly tough. Plant in full sun, and protect them from from icy winter winds. Check with your supplier about the best types of fig tree for your region. Many figs produce two or even three crops from late summer through to autumn.
Blueberries in late summer. Photo: Marie Viljoen
I try to add these hardy shrubs to every garden I design. They require full sun and an acidic soil, but reward you with the iconic summer crop that we love. They are a favorite container plant of mine as it is easy to control the the pH of the soil they enjoy. In spring, the bell-like pale green flowers have considerable ornamental value, and the leaves in autumn turn a ravishing red. Think outside the box, too: Need a hedge? Consider blueberries!
Concord grapes. Photo: Marie Viljoen
Grapes off the vine in late summer have an unbeatable flavour. The Concord grape was developed in Massachusetts during the 1800s and is a tough, relatively pest-free addition to any space. It will grow in a large pot and can be trained over an arbor or sturdy trellis. Harvest the tender leaves in spring to wrap around your favourite filling Greek meze style, eat the new tendrils in a salad, make your own verjus from the unripe bunches for cooking with, or just wait and eat the sweet grapes in late summer.
Potato flowers. Photo: Marie Viljoen
Growing potatoes in containers or in the soil is remarkably easy. Plant potatoes that have gone to seed, so they have eyes. Cut your sprouted potato so that each piece has at least two eyes, and plant eye side up in full sun, in good potting or garden soil. Water every day and make sure they drain well. As the plants grow taller pile a few inches of additional soil around the stems. Do not dig up until the flowers have fallen and the leaves start to turn yellow. Amazingly, your container will be full of potatoes!
Aubergine in my mother's perennial garden. Photo: Marie Viljoen
Incorporating aubergine plants into a perennial planting is both fun and delicious. Plant seedlings out in full sun in the spring after the danger of frost has passed. Be sure to leave at least 1ftt on each side for them to spread. You will see them grow to unusual focal points up to three feet high by summer's end. Their luscious purple fruit is not only beautiful but highly versatile in the kitchen.
Mexican heirloom cherry tomatoes. Photo: Marie Viljoen
I leave the beefsteak tomatoes for the farmers' market and grow cherry tomatoes in full sun on a tepee or tuteur - a conical structure made from branches - in a container. Using a tuteur turns your rapidly growing cherry tomato into an instant edible ornament and gives it support at the same time. By the end of summer you will be giving them away.
Purslane weed. Photo: Marie Viljoen
Edible weeds - seriously. Do not yank out that sprawling, succulent-leafed invader. Eat it. Purslane sells for £5 a bunch at the farmers' market so why not encourage your own? Toss the tart leaves with boiled potatoes and olive oil, or saute the stems and leaves for an Asian stir fry. The plant is loaded with vitamins and minerals.
Carrot harvest. Photo: Thomas Generazio
Carrots are perfect for growing in containers. In a pot at least 10in deep, sow seeds in a mixture of sand and compost, and thin them out when they start to crowd each other. The cut thinnings taste great sauteed in a little olive oil! The feathery fronds are soft and pretty, and if left to shoot up they produce flowers like Queen Anne's Lace - a good reason to add them to a flower border, too.
Freshly-pulled scallions. Photo: Marie Viljoen
Scallions, leeks, garlic and onions produce pretty purple pom-pom flowers if left unharvested. Sow scallions in spaces between perennials in full sun, and pull them as you need them, leaving some behind to make the flowers we love. They are a natural slug deterrent, too!
With a little imagination every garden can feed us as much as it feeds our senses.