Anyone who was lucky enough to witness the infamous “Chelsea flower show”, in Spring in the heart of London, will have witnessed the unprecedented increase in the use of vegetables in the ornamental garden i.e. pea plants growing, delicately up wrought-iron supports, ornamental pumpkins and squashes sprawling, boldly through flower borders or dainty, yellow coloured lettuce filling gaps amongst other, more favoured flower border plantings. Well, in recent years, the vegetable garden and all its wonderful bounty of shapes, forms and colours has become quite the rage here in Italy! I am continually suggesting the substitution of the famous “Formal Italian garden”, with its formal box-wood hedging, topiary and elaborate Renaissance sculpture with a more humble, yet equally elegant contender to the title of “Star” of the garden- the “Formal Italian vegetable garden!”
The vegetable garden with all of its wonderful foliage effects and magnificent fruit forms has, in my opinion, an amazing array of delights to offer the garden designer, particularly in a country where the garden is so very closely linked to the kitchen! Vegetables have always grown well in Mediterranean regions and vegetable gardens have always claimed an important role in society here, with allotments and vegetable plots being present throughout history and vegetables making up the larger part of the Mediterranean diet.
Many Italian farmers have sought peace and quiet in their ‘orto‘ or vegetable patch and its quite common to see groups of pensioners gathered around, chatting after a hard evenings weeding or hoeing in the vegetable garden, dressed in their large straw hats and bright-white linen shirts.
However I feel that the most positive advantage to incorporating a formal vegetable garden into any garden design is quite simply to have fresh vegetables at hand for self-consumption or to offer to friends. What can be better than saying to a guest “We are sure that it’s fresh because we just picked it from the vegetable garden“? With correct installation, soil preparation and mulching etc the vegetable patch requires far less maintenance and water, inch for inch, than the standard fine “English” lawn, with its needy irrigation and time-consuming maintenance requirements. We should also remember that vegetable plants are really inexpensive and to fill a large area with vegetable plants, or plants grown from seed one can talk in cents instead of the tens of dollars needed to plant an ornamental garden with expensive shrubs and other plants, which are clearly far from edible!
The bright reds of Costoluti tomatoes or the deep purples of eggplant can offer color and interest in the vegetable garden that can entertain they eye virtually all-year round, especially when combined with potatoes and members of the cabbage family.
The vegetable garden has often been considered a part of the garden that should, in some how be hidden behind walls, in some forgotten, tucked away part of the garden. However I feel that with a touch of imagination vegetables like Asparagus, Fennel or Artichokes can be combined with other ‘leaf’ vegetables to create truly spectacular displays, and when cut flowers and grey-leaved aromatic herbs, like sage and lavender are added this edible beauty can easily become very much the edible star of any garden!
Unfortunately nowadays a garden has become a luxury in Italy. Most people live in apartments or houses with no or little land around them. If you don’t have a garden and not even a terrace where to grow your vegetables in vases, you can buy your fresh vegetables locally, “a km 0” as we say in Italy. In recent years the concern about getting fresh and organic vegetables, preferably locally produced, has grown and markets with local producers and home-delivery services of local products have become more common. In some cases, like at the Azienda del Carmine in Ancona, you can directly go to the “orto”, pick up the vegetables you like and pay for them before you leave.