Home vegetable gardens provide style and substance

Northaven Gardens manager and horticulturist shows how scallions and chard can fit just as pretty into a garden as flowers can.

It’s spring in Texas: cue the photos of puppies and babies amid fields of bluebonnets or tiptoeing through the tulips. Yes, flowers may have the power for garden photo ops, but many North Texans are discovering that home vegetable gardens can be just as pretty as they are practical. And with a little help from your neighborhood garden specialist, you could be turning guests green with envy after serving up a salad grown fresh from the terrace.

However, be forewarned, garden growing isn’t all instant gratification.

"Novice gardeners need to get some basic gardening education and take it one step at a time," says Leslie Finical Halleck, general manager of North Haven Gardens. "No one becomes an expert vegetable gardener overnight! It takes practice to learn how to grow each crop and how our seasons and climate impact production."

Halleck recommends defining a space for your garden. From there, you can determine the materials and budget. Projects can range from a simple terracotta pot, good soil and a package of lettuce seeds for around $15 to four-foot-by-four-foot raised cedar or redwood beds for about $160 each.

For small spaces, opt for salad greens, broccoli, dwarf "bush" type squash and zucchini, patio/dwarf tomatoes and pepper plants. If you’re going the bed route, select vining vegetables, such as cucumbers, melons, vining squashes, pole beans, asparagus and fava beans. (Totally worth growing if only to make the joke about serving them with nice Chianti, right?)

According to Halleck, April is a great time to plant seeds for squash, zucchini, okra, corn and melons. It’s also the perfect time to plant transplants of salad greens, peppers, eggplant, okra and warm-season herbs like basil, oregano, thyme and sage. As for tomatoes, it’s a bit late in the season to plant and expect fruit, but you can try again for a fall crop in late June through mid-July.

Looking for something flashier to gussy up the garden? Swiss Chard "Bright Lights" offers brightly colored stems and foliage that are showy on their own, but are also great companions to cool-season color such as pansies and violas.

"Dill produces large umbels of white blooms that resemble Queen Anne’s lace," adds Halleck. "And don’t forget hot peppers in the summer. Habañero and chili plants offer lots of beautiful fruit color during the worst of our heat."

Jimmy Turner, senior director of gardens for the Dallas Arboretum agrees, "I think peppers are the hottest thing in the garden. I like the colored fruit when they turn red, orange or yellow – kind of like hell’s own Christmas lights in the summer garden."

Gardening doesn’t have to be a Sophie’s Choice between flowers and food. You can mix and match the two for very interesting results.

Halleck recommends using colored tomato cages that coordinate with flowers as a means of featuring tomatoes in flowerbeds. She adds, "Peppers are usually compact but pack a lot of colorful fruit. They look great when planted with pentas, angelonia or zinnias. Also, don’t be afraid to add ornamentals to your vegetable garden. I like to add violas and calendula to border my raised vegetable beds in winter months, while marigolds and zinnias are great additions in spring and summer."

But before you dive in to any garden projects, start at the absolute beginning.

"A healthy quality soil is key. You can’t expect to get a good harvest if your soil is of poor quality. Feed the soil. If you’re building in-ground beds, you’re going to have to amend with a good amount of organic compost, expanded shale and other amendments to improve nutrient levels, aerate and improve drainage. Raised beds are really the easiest way to quickly grow healthy vegetables," Halleck says.

Turner concurs and advises to reap the benefits of what you do grow.

"Though you probably will never grow enough plants yourself to be ‘off the grid’ and not have to go ‘Krogering’ there is nothing more incredible on a warm summer day than picking a home grown fresh tomato, slicing it up with some fresh basil, a good drizzle of olive oil and balsamic vinegar and pigging out! Also, nothing is more frustrating than to go pick your own fresh tomatoes and find out that the neighborhood kids, squirrels, or mockingbirds beat you too them!"

Nonetheless, with a little pre-planning and perhaps a green thumb or two, maybe you’ll be peppering up those petunias in no time. And who knows, you might just end up with a garden that’s as worthy of gazing as it is grazing.

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