Show off your vegetable garden by incorporating design aspects of formal gardens

“Vegetable gardening should be elevated to the level of a formal garden, where the beauty of the plants can be shown off to maximum potential,” says designer Freeland Tanner, who gardens with his wife, Sabrina, in Napa, California.

Inspired by the plants’ delightful colors, textures, and forms, the Tanners created a inviting garden room in which to show them off.

A formal allée of metal arbors draws visitors into the garden along a gravel path and culminates at a circular herb bed accented with a wooden obelisk.

Throughout the rest of the garden, raised beds with low stone columns at the corners form living tapestries of plants in complementary colors. “I stage each bed like a flower arrangement,” Freeland explains. He starts with a focal point in the center, then builds a composition around it.

Large half-barrels, for instance, anchor most beds. In each barrel, the Tanners place an obelisk (planted with beans or peas, depending on the season) or a handsome blend of vegetables, herbs, and flowers. In other beds, variegated corn, Agastache ‘Tutti Frutti’ (shown above), or other tall plants serve as focal points. Below these, low-growing herbs and vegetables form patterns (as in a potager) or a more random mix of compatible colors and shapes.

Each bed is edged with overlapping hoops formed from small cuttings of apple, elderberry, and pear trees. The hoops are then underplanted with sweet alyssum, parsley, or violas.

The Tanners do mix in a few choice nonedible perennial flowers with their crops. “This way, we’ll always have vegetables for dinner and flowers for the table,” says Freeland.


Create focal points. Place a large container, an obelisk, a trellis, or a sculptural object in the center of the bed.

Arrange the bed like a container. Place taller plants in the center and surround them with shorter plants.

Plant in patterns. Arrange low-growing plants with interesting forms, colors, and textures (cabbages, herbs like basil) in circles or other patterns.

Echo colors. Start with a colored vegetable (purple eggplant, for example), then echo the hue with similarly colored vegetables, flowers, or foliage.

Grow vegetables vertically. Trailing types of cucumbers, melons, and squash are space hogs: Train them on an arbor or trellis. Pole beans, peas, and indeterminate tomatoes also need to be trained on some sort of structure.

Plan for seasonal change. Consider the seasons so you can shift from cool- to warm-season plants and back again “like a seasonal migration,” advises Freeland Tanner. When one crop is harvested, have something ready to plug in the hole.

Frame the space. Surround the perimeter of the bed or garden with edging or a fence.

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