Design Like a Pro: Strong Bones

Thoughtful design makes this formal vegetable garden elegant and productive.

Ken Druse July 11, 2012

The notion of a beautiful and tidy vegetable garden may sound oxymoronic to some, especially by season’s end, when the pole beans have outgrown their towers and the indeterminate tomatoes are determined to scramble across the path. New Jersey architectural and garden designer Andrea Filippone realizes the limits of commanding order from headstrong plants, and yet her 60-by-120-foot vegetable garden is elegant. She gave the garden solid structure with a formal plan and permanent elements.

Filippone is a student of historical gardens and read about the oldest French kitchen gardens. These were frequently made up of geometric beds surrounding a water source, such as a well. She visited the grand 17th-century Potager du Roi at Versailles. That vegetable garden is enclosed by hedges and has an enormous fountain at its center. These schemes informed Filippone’s plans.

“I began with hedges around the outside. We have heavy stress from deer, and I couldn’t have a garden unless I could contain and protect it,” she says. Chain link would have worked, but this is a garden that is as important for its aesthetics as its utility. She chose privet because it grows quickly and deer don’t eat it. Using rooted whips about 12 to 18 inches tall, Filippone planted in a zigzag pattern so that the hedge would grow thick at the base and keep small deer out. Today, the hedge is more than 6 feet tall and is sheared every year. In cross-section, the shrubs would take on an A shape with a flat top. Filippone prunes her hedges narrower at the top than at the bottom, so that the higher foliage does not shade the growth below, which would lead to sparse foliage at the hedge’s base. Since the privet gets trimmed every year, it doesn’t flower or fruit, which in the right conditions would allow it to become a weed problem.

A 5-foot-wide path and a wooden fence surround the inner garden: “The deer wouldn’t even try to jump over the privet if they didn’t have a clear spot to land. The hedge with fence did the trick,” she explains. “The fence is light at the top with wider spaces, and more dense below.” Wire covers the lower section and is buried 3 feet below ground to keep out rabbits and groundhogs.

Narrow beds line the inside of the stained fence, and foot-tall espaliered apple trees edge these. This time, the inspiration came from the enormous potager at the Chateau de Villandry in France. “I bought the trees, cut them down, and when they branched, chose two shoots to tie to horizontal wires running left and right,” Filippone explains. She also purchased taller espaliered apple trees grafted with several varieties to grow up against the fence. Square beds form the main planting areas. “There’s freedom and flexibility on what to plant within a bed when the outer edges are sharp and clean,” she says. All of the beds are edged with boxwood, one instance when Filippone veered from historical convention. Most “potager-style” vegetable and herb gardens feature so-called English box, Buxus sempervirens ‘Suffruticosa’—a little-leaf shrub that is prone to disease. Instead, she chose B. sinicavar. insularis ‘Justin Brouwers’, a naturally small and slow-growing selection.

As for the vegetable beds, Filippone applies compost to the surface of the soil every year, so as not to disturb buried irrigation or bring up weed seeds. Except for the compost, “I don’t fertilize,” she adds. “I use the right amount of water, I prune, and I use compost and compost tea as a soil drench.” She mulches with chopped leaves.

As for what to grow in the garden, Filippone has three criteria for selecting vegetable plants. First, will her daughters Isabella and Tessa, age 9, eat the results? The girls have definite opinions on what things are good to eat and fun to pick. Second, each year she tries cultivars that are new or fun. A yellow-flowered ornamental okra was an inedible hit of the last season, and ‘Moon and Stars’ watermelon is an annual staple. Third, she selects cultivars that contribute aesthetically. “I think of ways to create patterns, contrast, tall/short, light green, dark green,” Filippone explains. “There’s impact from mass and color.” Oh and yes, they all get eaten, as well.

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