Veg, vines & visuals at the RHS Edible Garden
Words: Graham Rice
The centrepiece of the Hampton Court Flower Show this year is the RHS Edible Garden. Created by the formidable team of Jon Wheatley and Anita Foy, who've had such success with these huge RHS displays in recent years, the garden brings together every aspect of growing your own. To round off the experience, the garden takes in drinking your own and also cutting your own flowers for the house.
View the video, virtual tour and more images of the RHS Edible Garden
Tasting good and looking great
Although new techniques and new ideas have taken hold in recent years, many gardeners rely on more traditional techniques – growing similar plants together and rotating them around the garden. But they can still look exciting. These brassicas make an attractive garden display, providing masses of food: purple curly kale at the back, then Brussels sprouts, more kales and other attractive cabbages complete the picture.
Crops for a shady spot
In the partial shade of a tall hedge of beans, both red and green lettuce, pak choi and other leafy salads that can take a little shade combine to create a very productive and yet attractive area. The key is choosing varieties that not only look good but which are also productive – like the runner bean 'Moonlight' which reliably produces beans in all conditions. Towards the back, where there's a little more light, the finely cut leaves of carrots add a contrasting texture.
Vines for all situations
The Romans grew grapes in southern Britain, and forty years ago before our climate changed there was a productive vineyard as far north as Sheffield. Now it's possible to grow good grapes for wine or for eating fresh all over the country. The older they get the better they look, as their stems become more gnarled. And to enhance the whole look of your row of vines, grow wildflowers alongside – just as they do in France and in California.
Another Mediterranean crop that thrives in Britain is lavender. Popular for its fragrance, and increasingly for cooking, in recent years a vast range of new varieties has come on the market. If you plan to cut and dry more than just a few stems it pays to set aside a sunny area devoted entirely to lavender (unless you have a mature olive tree on hand). A few wild flowers can complete the picture or plant the spaces between the rows with spring bulbs.
This may look like an ordinary tomato – but it's not. In recent years there's been a revolution in tomato growing as the old technique of grafting has been re-introduced. Driven by the fact that it's almost impossible to grow tomatoes in the same greenhouse soil for more than a year or two without disease wiping them out, the best fruiting varieties are grafted on to disease resistant roots. The result is early crops of the best varieties – on plants that never get diseased. Brilliant.
It's not just tomatoes that are grafted. Many greenhouse crops suffer from root diseases so grafting can also allow peppers, chilies, cucumbers and aubergines to be grown in greenhouse soil year after year. And there's more – even when grown in fresh soil they often perform better than non-grafted varieties. Some grafted varieties are also suited to growing outside in the open garden and here earliness is a valuable improvement.
The big idea in food growing in recent years has been growing them with ornamentals. And now that so many attractive forms of vegetables and herbs are being appreciated, plantings can look as good as they taste. Here purple-leaved fennel, purple perilla, silvery cardoons, lavender and the delicious lab lab beans are blended with garden pinks, achilleas and penstemons in a harmonious colour grouping.
Growing in harmony
A ribbon of ornamental sweet potato foliage threads through a tapestry of pinks and yellows, colour clashes calmed by the variety of foliage. Blue-green cabbages, fresh green French bean foliage and silvery cornflower leaves mingle with dahlias, antirrhinums, violas and a wide range of geraniums in various pink shades plus yellow daylilies and marigolds. As the food plants are harvested or the cornflowers are cut for the house their neighbours expand to fill the space.
It makes sense to grow cut flowers with other plants and integrating cut flowers with food plants and attractive perennials is a resourceful way of ensuring that when the cut flowers are cut there are no gaping holes in the border. Here lovely Gladiolus 'Debby Ann' is grown in clumps amongst penstemons, hostas, campanulas and even roses with the variegated foliage of hostas filling in underneath. When the gladioli are cut, the border will still look full.
In the greenhouse area of the RHS Edible Garden, the idea of edibles is stretched a little to include varieties that are more ornamental than productive. The red-leaved banana, Ensete ventricosum 'Maurelii' is grown for its stunning glassy rich red tinted foliage – it's one of the most dramatic plants in the garden but don't bank on any bananas. Alongside are coleus and Calamondin oranges, with fruits and fragrant flowers all year. The fruits are more like limes than oranges although they make good marmalade.