The other day, a close friend said wistfully, "Your vegetable garden looks so pretty."
"Why can't vegetable gardens BE pretty?"
"Oh," my friend said. "You know...they have to be productive."
It's time to rid ourselves of this crazy notion that if something works well and is productive, it must be ugly. Who wants to look at an ugly garden? My kitchen windows look directly out onto my back yard and my raised bed vegetable garden. I want beauty in the front of my house and at the back.
Old-timers knew a thing or two about planting vegetable gardens for function and beauty. The old-fashioned kitchen garden, or potager, mixed herbs, fruits, vegetables and flowers for potpourri and medicinal uses into a pleasing array of useful plants. Today, I've recreated this look in my flower garden by mixing perennial herbs in among the borders. Many visitors ask what the purple flowers are in the back and surprised when they learn it's culinary sage. Lavender is unmistakeable in the rose garden border, but it provides dried flowers for potpourri after it's done perfuming the garden and feeding bees and butterflies. Form and function, beauty and usefulness easily coexist in the plant world; it's people who impose artificial distinctions upon the natural world.
How can you create a more beautiful vegetable garden? A few tips:
Plant marigolds around your tomatoes. Not only will they add a splash of color, the strong marigold scent repels tomato hornworms.
Mix herbs into your perennial garden and flower borders. Many herbs bloom beautifully, and you can harvest them for recipes, teas and other projects, too.
Try growing edible flowers such as nasturtiums. Fun, taste and beauty all in one plant!
Use colorful decorative markers instead of prosaic plant labels for your vegetables. During the winter months, I spray painted flat-faced rocks a gaudy gold and painted vegetable names on them with black draft paint. I had all the supplies on hand, and now I have fun, glittery rocks instead of boring old white plastic markers. I've seen spoons stamped with plant names, forks holding stamped can lids, and other clever ideas at craft sales. Challenge yourself to make even the useful beautiful.
Think of vertical gardening as a challenge to your aesthetic sense. Use metal or wooden trellises, arbors, and columns to grow climbing vines of peas, beans, or squash.
Plant vegetables with colorful leaves such as red leafed lettuce next to spinach. You can enjoy both in a salad, and the ruby leaves next to the emerald spinach look so pretty in the garden.
Keep your garden mulched and weeded. Nothing spoils beauty like a jumble of weeds, and besides, they steal valuable water from the soil.
I hope I've inspired you to take a closer look at your vegetable garden with an eye towards beauty and function. Plants provide both beauty and usefulness, so why shouldn't we when we design with plants? Make your vegetable garden beautiful this year.
From My Garden: Pictures
Brussells sprout leaves in the rain....
Purple chives dance among radish leaves, red and green leaf lettuce.
My vegetable garden. Cat (in the background) optional!
Why do we consider some plants weeds and others, wildflowers?
I started thinking about this during the weed when a plant growing wild in the woods caught my eye - Hieracium venosum, or rattlesnake weed.
I wrote about how I stumbled over this little gem while taking compost out to my compost pile during the week. The end result was that a plant derided as weed ended up in my perennial garden. I have no regrets. Rattlesnake weed now joins ferns and a host of other shade-loving plants in the back of my garden to create a cool, shady bower for contemplation and meditation.
But why do we humans insist on classifying plants by weed or flower, desirable or undesirable? Why should this little rattlesnake weed, relative of the dandelion, friend of the Native Americans, and a beautiful native perennial in its own right by derided as a weed in some gardening books?
Neither definition is very good. For instance, a valueless plant...how can any living creature be valueless? I used to think that ticks were valueless until I learned that poultry eat them. So they do have value to chickens, guinea hens, and yes, to other ticks! My little rattlesnake weed has value to ME as an ornamental plant, so that means it's not a weed.
What of Macmillan's definition? A plant that grows easily and is usually found in place where I do not want it describes about a quarter of my garden these days. I've got day lilies taking over the perennial garden, and Missouri primrose creeping into all sorts of spaces where they can gain a roothold. We transplanted four dianthus and salvia plants today that had seeded from the parent plants last spring but were growing too close to the front walkway. Were these plants weeds? Not to my way of thinking.
What of native plants? Native plants are simply plants that are indigenous to the area, especially to Virginia. There's a gentle swelling of interest now in native plants. Not only are they beautiful, but they're water-wise, using fewer resources than their greedy, imported cousins. They also provide hosting, shelter and nectar to a wide range of native insects, birds and mammals that may have trouble finding such resources among the tender imported plants we add to our gardens and yards. Adding native plants makes wonderful gardening and ecological sense.
Truly, weeds or native plants, perennial flowers or junk...plants are beautiful no matter what they are or their purpose in nature. Have you ever seen poison ivy in the fall? Even poison ivy is beautiful, turning shades of russet and amber before dropping its leaves.Wildflowers, weeds, native plants...beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
I planted my first asparagus bed four years ago, and have since found that growing asparagus in Virginia has its challenges and rewards. This is the first year that I’ve harvested more than a handful of spears; the lovely soft spring rains gracing my Piedmont-area garden encouraged the asparagus bed to produce abundant stalks, as did the 40 pounds of mushroom compost I added to the bed this spring. Age is also a factor. As a perennial vegetable, asparagus does take a while to get going, but once it does? Prepare your freezer - the asparagus is coming!
Asparagus Varieties for Virginia
Every gardener I’ve ever met has his or her favorite varieties. I’ve checked the Virginia Cooperative Extension website and don’t see any specific ones mentioned, so I’ll share with you my favorite. I’m growing Jersey Knight. It’s suitable for warmer climates, and that’s mostly what we have here in Virginia. Jersey King is also recommended for warm climates; Jersey Giant, for cooler areas.
How to Grow Asparagus in Virginia
Asparagus is, as I mentioned earlier, a perennial vegetable. This means that the plants continue to produce vegetables annually if you leave the crowns alone. A good asparagus bed can continue to produce an abundant harvest for 15 - 20 years, so choose your location wisely. The plants need to remain undisturbed for many years to come.
Asparagus needs full sun, defined as six or more hours of bright, direct sunlight each day. They love sandy loam soil, and need a soil pH of between 6 - 6.7. Amend the soil with plenty of organic material before planting your first asparagus bed. They’re heavy feeders and love plenty of organic material worked into the soil.
Asparagus Seeds or Crowns?
You can grow asparagus from seeds or crowns. Seeds should be started in peat pots, and transferred to the garden in June after the soil has warmed sufficiently. One word of caution: asparagus seeds take a long time to germinate, especially if you’re starting them under grow lights in a cool cellar. It can take up to 3 or 4 weeks for the seeds to germinate indoors, and they’re slow to grow. Have patience. Don’t do what I did one year with my African violet seeds, another plant notoriously slow to start from seed. I discarded trays of soil and seeds in frustration, composting the lot because I thought they weren’t viable. Unfortunately, I dumped everything too soon. Oops. Learn from my mistake and practice patience if starting asparagus from seeds.
Asparagus crowns are sold in various packages, and here’s where you need to be careful.
Mixed packages contain both male and female plants. Female plants produce seeds, but fewer edible shoots. The better packages contain all male plants.
One year and two year old crowns are sold. If you don’t mind waiting, one year old crowns are fine, but you can’t harvest them heavily the first year, and in fact it is better to wait another year before picking any asparagus at all. Two year crowns will cost you more, but you can harvest vegetables faster.
Seeds, one year or two year old crowns all work fine in Virginia gardens. It’s up to you; you know your patience level the best. Seeds are, of course, the least expensive, followed by one year and then two year old crowns as the most expensive. But like anything, you’ll trade off saving money for waiting longer. You have to decide for yourself which trade off is better
When to Plant Asparagus Crowns
Plant asparagus crowns in early spring, and leave them alone the first year. The crowns need time to grow, and if you start harvesting spears the first year or two, they won’t have enough time to develop strong roots. The spears eventually unfold into tall, frothy fronds. These stems and leaves must manufacture nutrients during photosynthesis. If you harvest all the edible spears the first year or two, the plant won’t have enough energy to sink its roots down deep into the soil and grow into a robust, healthy plant. You’ll end up reducing your yield in subsequent years if you’re overzealous during the first year or two of planting.
Plant crowns 18 inches apart. Gently spread the crown’s roots and plant them at approximately the same depth you estimate they were harvested from - go by any soil lines on the crown.
Asparagus seeds grown in peat pots should be transferred to the garden in June. Don’t remove them from the peat pots, but set the pots directly into the prepared garden soil. Water very well, especially during Virginia’s hot, dry summers.
Care for Existing Asparagus Beds
Weed asparagus beds in the early spring before those vigorous weeds get a stranglehold on your garden. I’ve found that grass, including crabgrass, tends to invade my asparagus beds. Hand pull all weeds. Don’t hoe your asparagus beds as it may damage the crowns.
Fertilize with a high phosphorous and potassium fertilizer (the last two numbers on a fertilizer bag) at planting time. During the winter, give them a little nitrogen heavy fertilizer. I don’t add conventional fertilizers but instead rely on top dressing with a rich mix of mushroom compost. Mushroom compost or mushroom soil a byproduct of the mushroom growing industry. It’s a rich mixture of cow manure, horse manure, compost leaves and a lime. Plain old compost or composted manure is great too.
Hand-weed those pesky weeds during the summertime so that they don’t steal moisture from the soil. Asparagus does like a lot of rainfall, and that’s where growing it in Virginia gets difficult at times. This spring has seen abundant rains, but once summer comes, you may need to water your asparagus bed using a soaker hose or another reliable method of delivering water to the crowns.
Asparagus grows tall and flops over. I stake my asparagus bed, but I’m growing it in a raised vegetable bed. I hammer metal stakes into the corners of the bed and use two rows of twine to form a temporary fence around the bed. This holds the lanky asparagus fronds in place so I can mow around the raised beds.
In the fall, wait until asparagus dies back completely after the first sequence of heavy frosts before cutting it back. You want to allow the plants to produce as much energy as they can through photosynthesis to feed the roots for next year before trimming it back.
Harvesting and Storing Asparagus
Now we get to the fun part - harvesting and storing asparagus!
Harvest the spears from mature asparagus beds only. Snap them off with your fingers when the spears are about 6 to 8 inches tall, and before the top starts to unfold. I’ve found that thick spears tend to be a little woody or stringy; you want thin spears if you can find them. Snap them off daily and store them in a plastic bag in the refrigerator until you have enough for a meal. They store well for 7 to 10 days if kept cool.
You do have to check your asparagus bed daily during the harvest season. It’s amazing how quickly they spring up. It’s almost like the old fairy tale, Jack and the Beanstalk. I can visit my asparagus bed in the morning and there are only a few starting to emerge, but by evening it’s as if the whole bed is alive with edible spears.
Asparagus freezes well, so any extras can be frozen to enjoy another day.
For more information on growing Asparagus, see: