Successful Edible Garden Design Must Marry Form and Function
Beautiful herb and vegetable garden designs fill the history of edible landscaping. This page uses some examples from stunning and historically significant garden sites to explore basic design styles and garden layouts.
If you are just starting your herb or vegetable garden design process, you'll want to start with a quick functional assessment, but now we are ready to advance to the more robust world of edible landscaping.
Rather than jam you full of an entire garden design history textbook, here are three basic styles that ought to get your ideas for any edible garden rolling:
English garden design, also sometimes called Cottage, Italian garden design, or Italianate, or formal, and Asian garden design, which is a broad look at both Japanese and Chinese garden design styles. (Eventually I hope to add a section in here on Persian gardens, too.)
This short list is hugely NOT exhaustive- the pattern play of Brazilian gardens, the Islamic fountains and mosiacs, the chinampas of Mexico, they are all missing- but starting with these three should give you a feel for which basic aesthetic choices appeal to you.
England, being generally wet and cool, tends toward the right side of the site conditions square. Plants here often grow in great abundance, leading us to focus on the abundant borders of an English Cottage garden (versus the vast strolling lawns of Capability Brown, which people also sometimes mean when they say 'English garden').
America's Mission style, also known as Arts and Crafts or California style, is the hot, dry version of English. Despite the severe climate shift, both of these garden design styles count on orderly garden bed shapes that form patterns. They'll build a nice wall, put in a granite step and a bench, and then hang the bouquet of an exuberant garden off these strong bones.
Gertrude Jekyll (JEE-kull) was a garden designer living in England at the turn of the twentieth century, same time as the Impressionist painters were working. Jekyll did a lot with color theory in her garden borders. When I think of English gardens, I think less of the strolling gardens of Capability Brown and more of Jekyll's exhuberant, colorful borders.
As it happens, Jekyll did work with some edibles: both the Munstead and Hidcote lavenders are named for her. (Hidcote Manor was an estate she worked at, Munstead Woods was her own home, designed by Edward Lutyens.) Herb gardens are a great way to start into edibles, and an English border suits a border herb garden well.
(And yes, her brother was friends with Robert Louis Stevenson, author of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.)
Italy generally runs along the top of the site conditions square: sunny, whatever else is going on. Most of Italy is also somewhat dry. It's not that it doesn't rain all winter, it's that a lot of Italy is mountainous, so that rain runs downhill. Remember that when thinking about your site: steeper is dryer.
Italian gardens push symmetry to its lyrical edge. Not necessarily by making the whole garden symmetrical one part with another (both the French and the Persians did more of that), but within each part of the garden.
Italian style emphasis typically also includes strong geometrical shapes, using boxed hedges and very formal sorts of plant harassment. Read my pruning guide before attempting this yourself.
In the 1700s, French and Italian nobility used citrus trees like garden jewels, lining their pathways with them. This is one of my favorite ways to include my houseplants in my garden each summer. It makes it look so much more like the fancy parterre gardens (like Villandry,in France, shown here) but without quite so much work.
East Asian gardens, whether Japanese, Chinese, Korean, or any of the other famous Asian styles, do something Western gardens are only just learning to do. Seeking to mimic the essence of nature, these gardens styles favor balance over symmetry, and include symbolic reminders of the larger world: a pool, a striking rock or two, and a well placed tree.
One of the huge Western mistakes has been to import the LOOK of east Asian gardens while forgetting the IDEAS that make those gardens great. While the image here, from Ryoanji [roe-on-jee] in Kyoto, doesn't look like fodder for an edible garden, the point of these rock gardens was observation. Think of it as gardening the sunlight and shadows, which one can then watch shift and change through the day.
There is no reason why you can't recall in your mind tranquil Japanese gardens while growing a "pool" of lettuces under a sculpted serviceberry tree. The simplicity of it, and the slow rotation of color as you shift lettuce varieties through the seasons, holds true to elemental Zen garden concepts.
(Wait, why are you shifting lettuce varieties?! Some lettuces do great in the cold but bolt up to flowering stage in the heat of summer. Bitter! Yuck! Butterheads tend to do great in spring, but Cos and Romaine are much more suited to fall, and other leafy salad greens are better suited to summer's heat. See "bolt" in the Garden Glossary for more information.)