Growing Your Own Veggies

Confession: I always skipped the veggies in my garden. I hoarded my acreage for ornamental plants (never considering a food crop to be ornamental), and figured that's what grocery stores were for. After chatting with Ben Pick, former BB Barns employee, and gardener at Great Dixter and Chanticleer Gardens, I reconsidered. Ben also preferred ornamental horticulture over food crops, but after a summer of designing and maintaining Chanticleer's vegetable garden (2015, picture below) he discovered the rewards of growing your own food. Three big bonuses were gaining a sense of where our food comes from, sharing the harvest with a local women's shelter, and getting the urge to get creative in the kitchen, something he hadn't done since college. Those are definitely garden perks, and now I am incorporating vegetables into my garden. Read on for a few tips from Ben.

Chanticleer vegetable garden, summer of 2015. Designed and maintained by Ben Pick, former BB Barns employee. Picture also by Ben Pick. 

Chanticleer vegetable garden, summer of 2015. Designed and maintained by Ben Pick, former BB Barns employee. Picture also by Ben Pick. 

This is Ben, in front of his creation. His love was always ornamental horticulture, but found growing crops to be rewarding while providing actual sustenance. Growing vegetables is a way to slow down and be more mindful in the garden, while saving a few dollars in the process. 

This is Ben, in front of his creation. His love was always ornamental horticulture, but found growing crops to be rewarding while providing actual sustenance. Growing vegetables is a way to slow down and be more mindful in the garden, while saving a few dollars in the process. 

1. Always be Creative. Excite Yourself. Excite others.

I opted to keep it simple and not add other vegetables  or herbs to this container since I use a lot of lettuce. 

I opted to keep it simple and not add other vegetables  or herbs to this container since I use a lot of lettuce. 

My lettuce urn placed near my new 'Teasing Georgia' David Austin rose, and under the bird feeder. FYI: under the bird feeder isn't the best spot. Birds can be messy.

My lettuce urn placed near my new 'Teasing Georgia' David Austin rose, and under the bird feeder. FYI: under the bird feeder isn't the best spot. Birds can be messy.

There are some basics to be considered when beginning a vegetable garden, like picking out the right spot. You may have a back 40 for planting, but if it isn't full sun (6-8 hours a day of direct sun) then consider someplace else (there's really no fudging on this one, it must be full sun and that 10-4 time frame is best). Incorporating vegetables into the landscape is an easy way to get started. Check out Eat Your Yard, by Nan Chase for plant suggestions and good recipes. Of course, raised beds fit nicely into smaller spaces and are easier to grow work around, but if building a structure seems too much, try containers. Ben suggests potatoes in containers for better drainage and then just tip the container over when harvesting. No forking the potatoes when digging them out. I opted for containers since my space is small and the sun is limited to one side of the house. Currently, my lettuces are doing nicely in my urns and I have basil, tomatoes, and peppers in other containers and herbs in annual bedding areas. I use decorative containers and place them into the perennial beds, but the standard nursery pots work, too. Growing a vegetable garden doesn't always mean a long, even rows, it can be many things. So get creative about where and how you plant. Gardening is rewarding and work. Getting excited about it and exciting others, too is Ben's #1 tip.

Rhubarb's bright red stems are every bit as showy in the garden as they are tasty in a pie.

Rhubarb's bright red stems are every bit as showy in the garden as they are tasty in a pie.

2. Create Combinations of Vegetables.

Vegetable gardening, as Ben's pictures show, can be beautiful. Just as we consider combinations of our ornamental plants for better show, consider combinations of vegetable plants, or chose showy plants. Some combinations can include companion planting or use one plant for show. One of Ben's favorites is red burgundy okra with red stems, pods, and creamy yellow mallow flowers. It looks like a small shrub. It's easy to grow from seed and the result is tasty and beautiful.

3. Be as productive as you can.

Malabar spinach looking full and lush in a corner of Barney Bryant's flower border, right off the kitchen for easy access.

Malabar spinach looking full and lush in a corner of Barney Bryant's flower border, right off the kitchen for easy access.

Use your space wisely. We gardener's love our trellises but forget annual vines, which many vegetables are. Use the vertical space to grow cucumbers, small squash, baby pumpkins, and berries. And then the trellis is freed up for something new next year. What gardener doesn't love that? Do succession planting to keep favorite vegetables coming on and extend the growing season by planting early spring and fall crops. If you don't use it, compost it or share it.

As the garden coach, I find folks are more inclined to over-plant than to under-plant. Like a house, we want to fill up every square inch. The result is thinning out expensive trees and shrubs when they start growing together. Vegetables are a good solution to our need to plant. Use those spaces you've been wondering "what to plant there" for vegetables. It will save you money on your grocery bill and a future arborist.

4. Finally, figure out what works for you and do that.

As much as I'd like to have the vegetable garden in Ben's picture, or the space for the one below, it's not a reality, but growing a few favorite vegetables or adding a berry shrub to my landscape is definitely doable. I like the idea of combination plantings with vegetables, or mixing herbs into my annual containers. Letha Hinman, our annuals buyer, has a huge space for a vegetable garden. and grows a lot of variety. I stick to my favorites and try a only a few new things. Too often, I hear clients say, when we move to the country, or a bigger space, or when we downsize and I have more time. I tell them not to wait. The perfect time is now and the perfect space is the space you have. 

  1.  Early crops yield early rewards. Cabbages almost ready to harvest now.
  2. Label your seeds. Even the best gardener forgets what's where and has trouble identifying weed versus plant.
  3. Letha has the luxury of this much space. Not all of us do, but that doesn't mean we can't have a vegetable garden.
  4. Colorful cages ready for colorful peppers.

Written by Cinthia Milner, Garden Coach, OSA and garden blogger.

BB Barns Garden Center serves all of Western North Carolina, upstate South Carolina, and Tennessee.