Most of us grew up thinking that vegetable gardening and flower gardening were two very separate entities. If a vegetable gardener heard that you were a gardener, he or she would ask, "What do you grow," waiting to hear your list of favorite vegetables. Flower gardeners or gardeners interested in gardening to beautify the landscape typically ask what kind of garden you have or what type of plants you like to grow.
The reason I have come around to merging both types of gardening in my garden was to expand the garden palette further. Instead of thinking that my vegetable garden had to feed the world, I decided to plant small pockets of vegetables that I truly love or cannot buy at the market. In addition, I set about making my vegetable plot as decorative as the rest of the garden. In the process, I began to see vegetables for the beautiful garden plants they can be.
Sugar snap peas are a sure thing in the Pacific Northwest garden. The Super Sugar Snap varieties climb quickly to a height of 5 or 6 feet and begin their show with delicate white flowers where the pea pod will soon emerge. The plump, 4-inch-long pods are perfect for picking and eating right off the vine and they really do snap as you bite through the skin.
Lettuce is so easy to grow, even if your garden is nothing more than a large pot or planter. I recommend a mix of lettuces called mesclun. Mesclun is the Provencal term given to a mixture of tender young lettuces and greens. These are traditionally sold as an assortment of plants or seeds in a combination of colors, textures and tastes. Lettuces are easy and inexpensive. Since taste is so subjective, try several varieties and keep track of your favorites.
One reason to grow asparagus is for that little private thrill you feel each time a new spear breaks the surface of the soil. Another is that asparagus begins to lose flavor as soon as it is cut, so the only way to taste its full flavor is to grow your own. Try "Jersey Knight," one of the best varieties for cold winters with tender, bright green spears fading to purple tips. When you first plant asparagus, you have to wait a couple of years for a bountiful harvest. When mature enough to harvest, an asparagus bed will bear fruit for decades to come. It's worth the wait.
Despite the difficulty, most gardeners in Southwest Washington want to grow the perfect tomato. Tomatoes like it hot and sunny with lots of water at root level to help form the best fruit. My best luck has always been with the small patio or cherry tomatoes. "Sungold," my favorite, is a bright tangerine-orange cherry tomato with a sweet kick. "Sweetie" is quick to mature and extremely prolific with cherry-red, 1-ounce fruits. "Sweet 100" is abundant, high in sugar and vitamin C. It's an early, reliable fruiting tomato that even a kid will eat.
I reserve one area of my garden for herbs; plants with leaves, seeds or flowers used for flavoring food. They are grown in a collection of pots and planters. Plants are grown in different-sized pots that fit the habit of the individual plant. Smaller pots are good for thyme, chives and oregano. Large pots for eggplant, tomatoes and peppers. A mix of pots adds seasonal interest and helps cut down on weeding problems. In addition, pots control the invasive habit of some herbs, especially those from the mint family.
Brussels sprouts add interest and structure to the vegetable garden. This is one edible plant that will stand up well into the winter season. What a wonderful surprise on a frosty morning to find the sturdy, upright green stalks loaded with petite, mini-cabbage heads ready to harvest. The heavy, puckered leaves are tough, sturdy enough to hold their form under a light dusting of snow. The seed packet confirms this information with a reminder that "flavor is best after the first sharp frost."
Last year I added a cardoon to a sunny, southwest-facing flower border. This is a monumental relative of the artichoke, grown for its striking gray-green, 5-foot-tall foliage. Just for fun, I let wild daisies and foxgloves naturalize on both sides of this area. This fits my country garden style. I may never feed the world from my vegetable garden but you are welcome to have a seat on the outdoor deck and eat all the strawberries you can pick.
Robb Rosser is a WSU-certified master gardener. Reach him at Write2Robb@aol.com.