Creative designs nurture garden appeal

Ray Mueller

Fond du Lac -  In addition to growing food, vegetable gardens can be designed to provide visual beauty, to be a way of expressing oneself, and to be a vehicle to meet neighbors and thereby create a neighborhood community.

That was the message – based on her own experiences – from Megan Cain of Madison to attendees at the 2017 “Day in the Garden” program sponsored by the Fond du Lac County Master Gardeners Association.

As the author of “Smart Start Garden Planner,” developer of eBooks, leader in a K-12 program, and creator of the website, Cain is sharing her design inspirations with the public. She is excited by the chance to “create community that is not limited by geography.”

Megan Cain

Road to the garden

Once Cain began to focus on creative design within gardens, she has accumulated a large number of possibilities that can be practical in many settings. For herself, that means gardening in the front and side yards of the Madison homes she has lived in.

What occupies her today wasn't even considered while growing up in Philadelphia but the notion of “good food” was nurtured while living in San Francisco during her early 20s, Cain recalled. The next step was obtaining an internship in northeast Missouri, living in a 90 square foot cabin.

Cain described that “life change” episode as a “huge system shock” which revolved around what was in effect “a hippie garden.” She also met her husband through that internship.

Design principles

After moving to Madison, Cain used the opportunity to start a front yard garden to combine the growing of food with flowers and foliage. To others entertaining the same idea, she advises starting by “creating your canvas” and not settling for a flat, tilled site with straight rows of plants.

By that, Cain means selecting locations for plant beds and walking paths. For visual appeal, include some raised beds or curved rather than rectangular plots for growing vegetables and flowering plants, she said.

Beyond that, consider designs such as letter shapes or symbols for visual beauty, Cain added. Introducing rocks and logs to the various beds and using cardboard and wood chips have also worked well for her.

Height hints

Taking advantage of what heights offer not only adds to the growing space but also provides visual drama to the garden, Cain pointed out. Among the items that she has used are livestock panels to form either triangle or rounded trellises, birch tree trunks or large branches to make teepees, and the placement of obelisks and tuteurs.

Introduction of the height devices will mesh with the growing of plants such as peas, climbing beans, cucumbers, tomatoes, winter squash, tomatillos, and flowering vines, Cain explained. The extra dimension, along with the edges of the garden, also allow for adding annual or perennial plants that in total span the entire growing season, she remarked.

Other possibilities that Cain mentioned for accommodating the growth of various plants are bamboo sticks, old ladders, and bicycle frames with baskets for holding pots. Look for other useable items of art at fairs, galleries, and garden stores and consider putting in a seating area to enjoy it all, she advised.

In addition to human visitors for whom a residential yard garden might be a novelty, Cain mentioned bees, insects, spiders, birds that perch on trellises, and hummingbirds that are drawn to the Passion flowers. For other birds, consider bird baths and pottery that can hold water, she added.

Variety selections

Cain's preferences for “unique and colorful” vegetable varieties include the lively yellow pepper, purple ruffles basil, trilogy beans, golden sweet peas, deep purple carrots, green zebra tomato, moonglow tomato, and dancer eggplant.

The seed companies which supply those varieties are Johnny's Selected Seeds of Maine, High Mowing Seeds of Vermont (organics), and the Seed Savers Exchange of Decorah, IA for heirloom species.

Cain can be reached by phone at (608) 395-7246 or through the Creative Vegetable Gardener website. She is available as a consultant and as a presenter at events.