A decade ago, it was the rare client who wanted to grow fruits and vegetables at home. Now everyone in America, it seems, has become a small-scale agronomist, cultivating baby lettuces, purple green beans, and heirloom eggplants in orderly backyard beds. If the locavore movement has created mob scenes at urban farmers’ markets, it’s also turned landed homeowners into passionate gardeners. A National Gardening Association survey showed that the number of households with vegetable gardens has increased 20 percent in the past five years.
“Many of our clients have a strong interest in getting into the dirt and growing what they eat,” says landscape architect Joe Wahler, associate at Stephen Stimson Associates, in Falmouth and Cambridge, Mass. He starts by asking clients how much time they want to devote to a garden, and how much they’ll consume or share.
Traditionally located close to the kitchen, a vegetable plot offers the opportunity to bring architecture into the garden with materials that are tidy and durable. “One of the interesting aspects is the framework,” Wahler says. “We always work on getting vertical elements into the garden.”
Agrarian simplicity is the best inspiration. At Longmeadow, in Duxbury, Mass., Wahler and his team designed a contemporary framework of indestructible stainless steel mesh, strung between cedar posts and run 12 inches into the ground to keep rabbits and gophers from reaching the tender plants. Set within wide, crushed gravel paths is a neat grid of raised beds made of bluestone curbs in a concrete foundation. Stepping stones at the gated entrance connect to a network of bluestone footpaths around the property.
“There’s a magic size to managing a raised bed, not too wide that you can’t reach the center, or about a 4-foot-by-8-foot rectangle,” Wahler says, adding that raised beds extend the growing season there and make the plants accessible.
At Rockford Farm, in Hume, Va., landscape architect Richard Arentz inserted a kitchen garden into the sunny void between a new house, a stone potting shed/garden library, and a stone tool shed designed by Russell Versaci Architecture. A porch off the kitchen overlooks the vegetable garden and adjacent “allegorical orchard” of contorted crabapple trees. “The owner didn’t want fruit-producing trees but loved the idea of an orchard,” says Arentz, of Washington, D.C.–based Arentz Landscape Architects. “It’s designed to look like remnant pieces of a former orchard.”
The raised beds are made of locally milled black locust, a hard native wood that farmers often use for fence posts, and set in a sea of gravel. “Gravel gives you a clean, stable surface,” Arentz says. “Water moves through it, so there’s no mud or runoff, and you can push away the gravel to plant, which the owner did in several spots.”
Kitchen gardens are public yet intensely personal, and a place to experiment with materials ranging from earthy to refined. Architect Ron Radziner, a partner at Marmol Radziner, Los Angeles, is designing one in Santa Barbara, Calif., with raw steel mesh fencing that eventually will rust. For a Santa Fe, N.M., client he used ubiquitous coyote fencing—slender branches of cedar, pine, or spruce wired tightly together. And at the house he designed for his family in Venice, Calif., Radziner grows vegetables inside a simple railroad-tie border, enough to create a zone apart from the lush native landscape that surrounds it. “There’s nothing wrong with seeing a kitchen garden,” he says. “It becomes a part of living in the home.”