University of Illinois Extension

Landscaping with Vegetables

There isn't anything as tasty as picking fresh tomatoes, peppers or lettuce from your backyard garden on a summer day. But with the average home lot filled with shrubs, trees, a lawn and flowerbeds, is it absolutely imperative you have a space designated for vegetables, asked David Robson, University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator.

"If space is a problem, it's perfectly acceptable to integrate vegetables into your landscape," said Robson. "Several of the vegetables lend themselves nicely to landscape use.

"The first thing you have to change is the mindset that vegetables do best when planted in nice straight rows or in a large plot. Some, like green beans, do. It's not true for all of them. There is no law that vegetables must grow in their own confined space."

Sure, it's easier to take care of plants when you can rototill an entire area, he noted. Weeding and watering is also easier when everything grows in one location. "Some vegetables just won't do well in the landscape even with careful planning," said Robson. "You'll have a hard time producing quality sweet-corn ears without the stalks in large plantings to ensure good pollination. Pumpkins tend to want lots of room to ramble as they grow.

"On the other hand, many vegetables can be tucked in among shrubs and flowers."

It doesn't take much space to sow some leafy vegetables. Patches of lettuce and spinach need only a square foot here and there. If planted early in the spring, the space can be used for flowers or other vegetables later in the season. Since most leafy vegetables are in for only eight to 10 weeks, you can plant some late-season annual flowers to fill in the same space.

Peppers also work well interspaced among flowers. The reds, oranges and purples of the fruit will add a little zip to the landscape. The newer one- to two-person eggplants also do well, producing vivid purple or white fruit to contrast or compliment surrounding flowers and foliage.

"Many of the root crops, from radishes to carrots to beets to parsnips, fit in well," he said. "It may take a little more patience when planting to make sure that the seedlings are spaced properly. Place two seeds in each location, thinning down to one plant if both germinate. Remember not to hoe or cultivate deeply around the plants."

Many of the root crops have interesting foliage, including the fern-like carrots and the large reddish-green beets.

Tomatoes also work well tucked in among other plants. You may find the need to stake or cage the plants, but that isn't much of a problem if done when the tomatoes are small. Consider some of the pink, orange and yellow cultivars as well as the red types. Cherry and plum tomato plants don't grow as large and rampant as slicing types.

'Bright Lights' Swiss chard is an interesting vegetable with a multitude of various colored stems. They add a certain pizzazz even if you don't harvest the leaves.

"Most gardeners grow the bush snap beans, but pole beans probably fit better in a landscape border as they'll climb up above the other plants, essentially sharing the same space but at different levels," he said.

A plant of broccoli planted in early spring will produce heads by midsummer, when the plants can be pulled up and replanted with another vegetable. Broccoli, cabbages and cauliflower can also be planted in late August for a fall crop, replacing vegetables or flowers that are past their prime.

Vining crops such as cucumbers and cantaloupes can be trained on fences, supported by old nylon pantyhose or foam-covered twist ties. Plant the seeds in hills close to the base of the fence and allow the plants to ramble up. The weight of some plants may be too much for some old fences, so make sure the fence is secure.

For years, herbs have been mingled with flowers to no effect. In fact, many gardeners enjoy the chance encounter with herbs while working the flower garden, releasing their aroma. Dill, fennel, sage, rosemary and basil are ideal for flower gardens.

"Just remember to read the seed packet or transplant tag to determine how much room the plant needs to grow properly," Robson cautioned. "Don't fudge; if cabbages need 18 inches by 18 inches, don't try to grow them in a square foot."

Look for those seeds or transplants that mention that plants are compact or smaller than normal. Those do the best.

"Finally, don't forget containers on decks and patios," he said. "There are many vegetables bred for compactness which makes them perfect for containers. Just remember to give them enough room to grow and plenty of water when it gets hot."