On the arbitrary line between edible and ornamental

Kew Gardens, vegetable gardens

The vegetable gardens at Kew (russellskitchen on Flickr)

Somewhere along the line in America, we have decided that vegetables are ugly.  Nevermind the food photography and the urge to use your smartphone to share your dinner with everyone on Facebook: once they are on a plate it’s all fair game, but while growing, well, they are awful.  Ugly.  Front yard vegetables are illegal in many places and where not actually illegal, people are sometimes harassed and cited for causing a nuisance or being an eyesore.

Granted, I’ve seen some front yard vegetable gardens that are ugly in every possible aesthetic sense except that one that sees it as something to eat.  I’ve seen a lot of non-productive front yards that are ugly, too, but for some reason dead shrubs and rusty cars don’t get the neighbors up in arms quite like a well-tended tomato plant.  Nevermind that nearly 15% of American households are food insecure — meaning they must skip meals for lack of access to food.  Nevermind that for many of those households, a small vegetable garden at home or space in a shared garden might help bridge that gap.  Nevermind that 35% of U.S. households grow at least some of their own food.  Hide it around back, as if providing for your family with fresh nutritious produce instead of buying it with money is shameful.

Ornamental greens

“Ornamental” greens, Rina Pitucci on Flickr

But a strange thing has happened on the ornamental garden side.  Our garden centers are filled with “ornamental” kale and sweet potatoes and peppers and eggplants; with swiss chard and basil and cabbage.  Our nurseries stock flowering crabapples and cherries and plums, which produce poor fruit but their productive siblings are just as lovely in bloom.  Many of these plants are staples of the commercial landscaping business, gracing the entrances of apartment buildings and fast food restaurants and the stuffiest of Homeowner’s Association buildings.  Be a rebel and eat the ornamental kale.  Or if you need to, just tell the neighbors it’s a new ornamental kale with dark green leaves.

Even our seed catalogs, which should know better, label plants like borage and sunflowers as ornamental, while gorgeous poppies get listed under edible for their seeds.  The separation between ornamental and edible or medicinal is often entirely arbitrary, and it’s not the fault of the seed catalogs that feel the urge to categorize everything, nor is it the fault of plant breeders who are frankly ahead of most of us on this topic since they are happy to breed prettier versions of food plants.

Château de Villandry kitchen gardens

Château de Villandry kitchen gardens, a terrible urban eyesore (Henk Bekker on Flickr)

The challenge is twofold:

  • One, gain greater acceptance for functional gardens as places of beauty and productivity just as they are. Gardens that are well-tended and fruitful are beautiful to other gardeners, now let’s help others see the beauty.  Maybe you do that by inspiring a child with dirt and the miracles of seeds, or maybe by sharing prime produce with your neighbors.  Or maybe you break outside the rectangle and grow vegetables like you might flowers.
  • Two, as gardeners, to view our own gardens not only for food, but for relaxation and ornament.  We not only have numerous famous European potager gardens to use for inspiration, but also the gardens at American landmarks like Monticello, Mount Vernon and Williamsburg.  These gardens would be lovely whether they grew their vegetables and herbs or something else altogether.  Can you make your garden the same?  Maybe just a little bit each year?

Go forth gardeners, and beautify.



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