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Kitchen gardens used to be a part of everyday life

You might find the term "potager" either puzzling or pretentious. It is actually a descriptive French term for "kitchen garden," derived from "pot of herbs for the soup." It has evolved to mean the garden where household vegetables are grown.

Not so many years ago, it was a part of everyday life to have a vegetable garden in the backyard, and to use its produce on a daily basis. But life has changed, and we've lost not only most vegetable patches, but much of our knowledge about how to grow them.

As a person who grew up with a huge vegetable garden, and a close working relationship with it, I am always startled to hear of children who are amazed to learn that carrots grow in dirt, or that composted cow manure might be used to help feed the soil. Maybe we can change that.

With rising food prices and growing concern over the use of pesticides and herbicides, we might want to revisit our current practice of planting the available soil we have with grass, which is actually quite useless, since you can't eat your lawn. Many of us think of vegetables as being planted in rows, looking very utilitarian, but I'd like to give you some ideas to help nudge you toward using vegetables and fruits as landscape plants, and very attractive ones, too.

The term "potager" as used in Europe often referred to a formal-looking garden of mixed vegetables, herbs and ornamentals, tended by a crew of gardeners for the upper class.

In the 1980s, however, the idea surfaced in America, especially in California, where things were anything but formal. It was OK to be more frivolous, and even to grow veggies in your front yard. These plantings were attractive, mind you, with the use of color, pattern, shapes and height — not beans and cabbage planted in rows.

Pole beans grew over the porch or on tepee-like structures made of bamboo. I've seen squash growing on the back fence, asparagus as a border for the herb garden (remember those lovely fern-like fronds that asparagus makes at the end of the season), kiwi vines growing over a doorway, and strawberries in a multi-layer bed, resembling a birthday cake. One enterprising person planted his sweet corn in several tubs and planter boxes on the upper deck of his house.

Grapes and cane berries make good edging plants, while an artichoke serves well as an "anchor" plant to help define a corner in a design. Plant chard and kale among the tulips and daffodils, and their growing leaves will help hide the unattractive foliage of the bulbs as they die back. Edge flower beds with different kinds of lettuce or the rosette kind of pak choi. People have learned that planting certain kinds of flowers and vegetables near each other (companion planting) is not only attractive to look at, but encourages beneficial insects to call that garden their home.

Salad greens, including spinach, can be planted among the transplanted annuals — they will be eaten and gone by the time the weather is hot and the annuals reach a size where it's looking crowded. For more interest, turn some of that lawn into round or oval beds, if you're design-minded. And if you have clay soil (don't we all?), raised beds can be any size and shape, and need not be more than six inches deep, unless you are planting root crops in them.

In other words, let your imagination go. As you begin using this idea, however, I must warn you — it will draw you in like a magnet. You will see new possibilities of where to plant the rhubarb, tomatoes, radishes, onions and garlic. You will come up with a clever structure for your cucumbers. You will notice how pretty beet leaves are, and how they are less subject to insect infestations if they are not all jammed into the same place.

And the next thing you know, you will have less lawn as you adopt your new motto, "I will grow nothing that isn't edible."

Wouldn't that be grand?

Carol Oneal is a past president of the OSU Jackson County Master Gardeners Association. Email her at diggit1225@gmail.com.