The garden is a refuge, a place for peace and tranquility in the midst of our chaotic life. What better pleasure can one derive from hobby gardening than creating your own ornamental garden. To enhance your already beautiful landscape with maybe the right garden island featuring a small pond, water fountain, statue, or plantings is pleasure in itself.
To some people, a garden suggests vegetables planted in beeline-straight rows. Flowers and fancy garden designs, to them, are mere frills. But the two interests have a long history in shared beds, and they need not exclude one another.
Ornamental vegetable gardens used to be the domain of royalty. It required a king`s resources to construct and staff these fancy kitchen gardens, laid out in mazes of low, clipped hedges. Louis XIV`s enormous garden at Versailles included a 20-acre Royal Potager -- not just a soup garden, as the name implies, but a geometrically and horticulturally elegant fruit and vegetable garden with a fountain splashing at its center.
The potagers of that day were sheltered from seasonal extremes by brick walls up to 13 feet high, behind which gardeners produced tender asparagus for the king`s table in December, strawberries in April, figs in early June. Extravagant brick walls are a luxury most American gardeners must do without, but we can nearly always count on the shelter of neighbors`houses, garages and fences to create favorable microclimates in our yards. Rosemary Verey, a British garden designer and author, discovered in her own garden at Barnsley House in Gloucestershire that even a low hedge of boxwood, the traditional edging around a formal potager`s geometric beds, provides a surprising amount of protection.
A strong design should be the foundation of a formal potager. Garden history books are a rich source of plans that translate easily to the garden with the help of stakes and string. Most designs start h a square or rectangle divided by crossing paths. Small beds are arranged symmetrically among the paths in simple, repeating patterns. Combinations of basic shapes -- squares, rectangles and triangles -- can result in vigorous and pleasing patterns.
Measure your site and draw it to scale on graph paper. Let your own stature help determine the size of the beds, making planting areas no wider than 6 feet, or about twice the distance you can comfortably reach. Allow generous working paths, at least a yard wide. Secondary paths may be narrower.
The design you sketch on paper is the "plan" view of the garden, like the floor plan of a house. To lift the garden, and your eye, from the horizontal plane, introduce vertical elements such as fruit trees, a trellis or an arbor. Some vertical features should be permanent, others seasonal. An arbor at the center of the garden will give height year round. A tepee of bamboo stakes for peas makes another focal point in summer. Enclosing the potager with a fence may not be necessary, although it frames the design nicely.
Once you have settled on a design, mark it out on the ground and walk through it; this is the time to make changes and adjustments. Do the proportions feel and look right? Make sure the garden has room in which to fill out. When the arbor is thick with grapes or roses, you will still need to be able to walk under it. Roll your wheelbarrow along the paths and around the corners; there should be plenty of room to maneuver.
Paved paths are appropriate in a formal vegetable garden, and they must be laid before planting begins. Bricks, especially old bricks, give a rich color and feel to the garden. You could lay wide cement paving stones on the main paths, between borders of bricks set in sand, to make a smooth surface for the wheelbarrow. Local materials nearly always look best, so borrow ideas from gardens in your area. You might use flagstone instead of brick, or even carefully edged gravel paths.
Clipped hedges around the beds belong to the formal garden tradition. They reinforce the garden`s geometric design and give it a definition independent of the crops. Boxwood takes a few years to fill out from cuttings or transplants, but it is an aristocrat among garden hedges and worth the wait. Instead of box, you could try santolina, dwarf arborvitae, mounds of lavender or, in spite of its spines, dwarf barberry. Violets, strawberries, parsley and chives also make strong lines. If beds need to be raised to improve drainage, you can hold the soil in place with brick or stone edging, or even low, woven wattle fences.
The plants you choose for your potager will depend on the climate and your tastes. Interplant early- and late-season crops for a garden that changes and develops over a long season. Experiment with contrasting leaf forms, colors and textures. Combinations you would never dream of at the dinner table strawberries and leeks, brussels sprouts and gooseberries) can be planted together to great effect in a potager. A section of the garden could be given over to melons; their large, rough leaves and sprawling habit contrast strikingly with the cool order of a perfectly square bed. In this formal context, the ripening fruits are the finest garden ornaments.
When planting, you can create patterns in each bed, designs within the overall geometry of the potager. Balance and repetition will give a sense of order. Several kinds of greens might be sown in alternating diagonal drills within a rectangular bed, for example, repeated in mirror image on the other side of the walk. Plant a heaving sea of red-tip lettuce in one bed, with a crop of cauliflower cutting a wake through it. Balance blocks of asparagus on opposite sides of the garden; the asparagus need not all be in one place.