In the fifth of a 12-part series on Designing a Large Country Garden we explore design ideas for creating a kitchen garden.
KITCHEN GARDEN DESIGN IDEAS FOR A LARGE GARDEN
Until last year, the joy of vegetable gardening was an undiscovered pleasure for some of our clients. As the year progressed many, who were yet to fully nurture their productive gardens or put their greenhouses to work, started to get in touch expressing their delight that we had persuaded them to incorporate a kitchen garden in their new garden.
For some, vegetable gardening could be a rare positive to emerge from the pandemic. It can be a mental therapy, the perfect excuse to get outdoors and provides the opportunity to experience the rewards that nurturing a plot can bring.
For our latest post in our series on designing large gardens, we explore the techniques for designing a successful productive kitchen garden.
KITCHEN GARDEN LAYOUT
When planning the layout for a productive garden, we always take a formal approach. A symmetrically designed vegetable garden is not only more aesthetically pleasing, but it will also provide necessary structure for the winter months when crops are limited and the plot may feel a little barren. We also find a formal layout encourages more organised planting. Ordered beds generally help create an organised cropping system as they make it easier to plan, in the winter months, what you will be planting where and on what rotation in the following year.
A classic kitchen garden layout would often feature, at its simplest, a four-bed cross design with an urn or a water feature placed as a central element from which the beds would radiate. Having multiple beds in patterns of four, eight or more allows you to rotate crops each year, thereby curtailing the risk of disease. We also recommend that clients dedicate at least two beds to permanent crops such as asparagus, rhubarb and the like, which need a few years to establish. Likewise we always incorporate permanent beds for cut flowers, which allows one not to feel guilty about cutting beautiful Peonies, Foxgloves, Delphiniums, spring bulbs, etc for the house!
For practical and aesthetic purposes, we always try to incorporate a greenhouse into our designs. When arranging the layout, the greenhouse would be positioned first, to form the focal point of the garden and positioned for best light accessibility. Other large structural components, such as fruit cages, could then be positioned in harmony with the beds and greenhouse. Incorporating a seating area in a productive garden is a welcome idea and we sometimes see clients also use their greenhouse as a summer house, surrounded by scented tomatoes, citrus fruit, etc.
Productive gardens can have a tendency to look untidy at various times of the year and in the winter months they may have a slightly neglected feel, so we would always separate or screen them from the main garden. Enclosing the garden, also allows for easier protection from wildlife such as deer and rabbits, that see vegetable gardens as a gift of fine dining!
Containment helps shelter the garden and create a warmer microclimate which allows for greater productivity and the ability to grow more tender crops. Positioning reasonably close to the house, makes for quick access from the kitchen also.
It is important to consider access into and around the productive garden. As a general rule, we design the outer paths and the main path into the garden at two metres wide to ensure a tractor and trailer can pass through the space easily for practicality. While the paths running between the beds can be anything from one metre to 1.2 metres depending on space available, which allows for wheelbarrow and pedestrian access. It is also helpful to have some ramped paths into the site, if on a sloping site, to assist with easily moving loads of compost and waste removal.
You should also think about the direction of movement of the sun. For best productivity the garden needs to maximise sun all day. As far as practicable the flanking side of the greenhouse should be positioned East-West facing, therefore along a South wall in a walled productive garden. This ensures crops get sun all day. If necessary, shading can then be achieved within the greenhouse, through the use of blinds, for example. There are crops which can be planted on the east, west and north walls of course.
KITCHEN GARDEN DESIGN ELEMENTS
If a walled garden is not an option, there are many decorative techniques that can be employed to enclose and protect the area. Yew and Hornbeam would be our favourite hedging choices to create an attractive and formal frame to such a garden. If a more rustic rural productive garden, Hawthorn would be a good choice. A pleasing alternative is to enclose the area with espalier fruit trees which allows you to grow more varieties of apples and pears, but without an overabundance of such fruit. Another practical design solution is Hazel or Oak hurdle fencing which can partition off the plot while supporting fruit and vegetables.
Compacted path gravel is ideal for a kitchen garden. Unlike loose gravel, it provides a smooth, level surface for sweeping up cuttings and manoeuvring heavy wheelbarrows. Brick is another favoured material that we often incorporate into our designs as it weathers beautifully.
For raised beds, Oak sleepers are very practical as the increased soil depth means less maintenance and the Oak tends to last a good number of years. Alternatively, beds can be edged in Box which creates a more ornamental feel but will require more maintenance and often needs a larger area to ensure there is limited root competition between the Box and productive plants. We often specify Oak for obelisks and espalier posts too and use Hazel stems for plant supports to give a rustic feel.
Vertical plant supports serve a variety of functions in the productive garden. As well as hosting climbing plants they add form and height and can make an eye-catching focal point throughout the seasons. We often commission bespoke pieces for productive gardens and always use natural materials to give the garden a timeless look.
Although they are sometimes thought of as incidental features, arbours can be highly effective in a productive garden. They are ideal to mark the intersection of two paths or to provide a sitting place, as illustrated below in the garden we designed for an old Rectory in Berkshire where an Oak arbour is clad in Wisteria to create a wonderful outdoor dining area.
We often use obelisks in a symmetrical layout to add additional aesthetic formality, as well as a useful plant support for roses, sweet peas, etc.
Other familiar features, which give the kitchen garden a rustic or romantic feel, are step-over apples. Grown to about one foot and trained like a fence along a wire, they can be used to edge paths or beds within the garden.
Apple or Pear espaliers are not only practical for enclosing the productive garden they can also be introduced in the middle of the garden and look particularly spectacular highlighting a central walk to the greenhouse, or as an edible signpost to guide you from the main garden towards the kitchen garden.
When it comes to crops, everybody has their own preference so while we specify permanent crops, herbs, fruit and cut flowers for our clients, we leave other crops and annual flowers for them to add their own personality to the garden and ensure what is being grown are to their tastes. It also allows clients space to garden with their children. Planting sunflowers for competition, jolly coloured annuals for fun and easy crops such as runner beans, hopefully helps nurture young minds too.
Vegetables are definitely valued for their beauty as much as their harvest and there are some wonderful varieties that can really enhance beds. Ornamental cabbages, such as ‘Red acre’, ‘Purple Queen’ French Beans, red-leaved Lollo Rosso lettuces are some examples, or try interplanting flowers and vegetables such as Calendula for a splash of bright orange that works brilliantly with herbs and vegetables. Companion plants such as French Marigolds, Nasturtiums are meant to help minimise pests amongst some produce and look fun and attractive too. They can also be used to brighten up salads.
Whatever your preference, here’s to a bumper crop in the coming year!
Look out for our journal posts on large garden design covering: