Form meets function with edible gardens

Published on Wed, Apr 7, 2010 by Jody Hackleman

Read More News

Let’s face it – the garden community is divided.  Many folks garden with flowers and ornamental shrubs solely for enhancement of their landscape. Other folks dedicate themselves strictly to vegetable gardening and seem to begrudge devoting any ground to ornamentals. 

These days food gardening’s popularity is fueled by a consumer desire for pest free, organic produce. Personally, my vegetable gardening space is limited but I am unwilling to sacrifice my ornamental beds to convert them to food producers.

To compromise, I’ve begun integrating some attractive edibles among the flowers and shrubs, leaving more room in the raised beds for tomatoes, squashes, radishes and carrots, and other healthy (but less decorative) crops.

It’s easy to tuck some handsome edible foliage plants into your flowerbeds. 

Start with kale and you’ll have nutritious greens all year. Red Russian kale, grown from heirloom seed passed on to me by a Point Roberts friend, is now flourishing in my little vegetable garden.  Wanting more of this vitamin rich green but lacking room, I was inspired to plant some in the rose garden, where it has adapted itself effortlessly. 

Now its grey-green toothy edged leaves and purple stems are adding color and form to an otherwise winter-sparse bed. Ragged Jack, as this kale is also known, has proved to be quite a gentleman, gallantly disguising the roses’ bare limbs until they leaf out.

For a darker shade of kale, try Rainbow Tuscan.  Its strap-like leaves integrate well into the bed or border – and look good all through the winter.  A cross between Black Tuscan and Redbore, the leaves vary from dark blue-green to deep purple, some with curly edges and some with red veins. 

Remember that kale is a biennial and will go to seed in its second year. Sow some now for a constant supply to steam, saute gently in olive oil with garlic, or add to soups and slaws.

Giant red mustard is another handsome, winter hardy foliage plant with bumpy burgundy leaves splashed with lime green.  Sprouting readily in moderately rich soil, it will rapidly grow alongside your favorite perennials, maturing in only 45 days.  Full of nutrition, this Asian green can be harvested on a cut-and-come-again basis.   The small
early leaves are a mild and tasty addition to salads; let them mature and they gain a stronger mustardy flavor, perfect for a quick stir fry.

Swiss chard “Bright Lights” is an edible superstar. Boasting a variety of vivid, jewel toned stalks of magenta, yellow, crimson, white or orange topped with forest green leaves, this chard mix grows readily from seed and will keep producing until we get a killing frost.  Imagine these exotic 20 inch beauties with yuccas, bergenia and Giant red mustard greens, together making a bold tropical statement in the border or pondside. Chard can be harvested a few leaves at a time or, if the stems are cut down to two inches, it will readily grow back. 

If you like the look of sweet peas, then you will love a pole bean named Violet Podded Stringless. Now is the time to plant these beans, as they germinate readily in cool soils. Flowering early in the summer and reaching 6 to 8 feet, trained up a tepee or obelisk this heirloom will make a strong vertical accent  in a sunny border.  

The dainty mauve blossoms are generously scattered along the wine-red vines, and turn into clumps of juicy burgundy pods.  When cooked they lose most of their purple color, but they are so tender and tasty – who minds?
Dating from 1840, heirloom beet ‘Bull’s Blood’ is another stylish vegetable for the front of the border.  Imagine drifts of glossy deep red-burgundy foliage filling in gaps and accenting your favorite perennials. 

Sow them from late April to mid-July, in full sun or partial shade.  Soon they will be toning in nicely near pink and purple blooms or contrasting effectively with oranges, whites and yellows.

In 30 to 40 days, begin to harvest the tender, sweet leaves for use in salad mixes. Allow some plants to remain intact to grow 18 inches high and develop a 2-3 inch beet root.  Their smooth leaves will gleam like rubies in the sun, as leaf color intensifies as the plant matures.  Make successive plantings of this heirloom so you always have some in the garden.

This spring try mixing some edibles among your ornamentals.  It’s a great way to grow some of your own food if you lack time, energy or inclination to tend a full-on vegetable garden.   For instant gratification, replace a few flats of annual bedding plants with some vegetable starts for a whole new way to garden. 

Or take time and plant from scratch.  Seeds for all plants mentioned here are available through West Coast Seeds (www.westcoastseeds.com) and Territorial Seed Company (www.territorrialseed.com).  Their catalogs and websites contain lots of growing information to get you started.  Soon beets, beans, mustard greens and chard will be
popping up, adding beauty first to your garden, and then to your dining table.

(Jody Hackleman has a small cottage garden in Point Roberts where she grows ornamentals and edibles in peaceful coexistence.)