There’s no longer any reason not to combine edibles and ornamentals — and plenty of great reasons to integrate vegetables into your overall planting scheme.
REMEMBER WHEN THE gardening world was clearly divided between people who grew ornamental plants and those who were vegetable gardeners? The gap between cultures was so wide that we somehow forgot that all of us were just out there working the soil and tending plants.
Sure, rhododendron fanciers might well have grown lettuces and herbs in a raised bed tucked away somewhere. And urban farmers might plant marigolds between the rows. If you grew ornamentals and edibles, chances were the flowers and shrubs were out front, and the vegetables planted behind the house. Even when people started tearing up their front gardens to grow veg, that was about all they planted out there.
Maybe it’s time to get past the idea of edible vs. ornamental. For those of us facing space challenges, it makes sense to play around with integrating vegetables into our overall planting scheme. Treating ornamentals and edibles as the kin they are, judging each on its merits rather than its category, allows for growing more of what you love. I’m not talking about production or growing crops, but creating a beautiful garden that offers up food as well as flowers: a garden that offers up fresh lettuces for salads, sun-warmed raspberries and blueberries to top your morning cereal, and enough basil for at least a couple of batches of pesto every summer.
Mixing edibles with ornamentals plays up the seasonal ebb and flow of the garden; draws you in to look closely; and enchants visitors, especially young ones. My garden is all mixed up, with lettuces growing beneath cardoons, fennel fluffing up between the lilies, and pea vines weaving their way up the shrubbery. When children visit, they love to search out the dwarf blueberry bushes in the herb patch, strawberries dangling down the sides of feed troughs, raspberries tangled up in the wallflowers.
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For a longtime ornamental gardener, it’s a challenge to figure out the sequencing and quite different needs of edibles. I’m working on it. Kosmic kale, a relatively new variety, was the gateway plant that pushed me toward full garden integration. Now I’d rather cut flowers than snip the creamily variegated, slightly ruffled edges of this blue-green kale. That’s how much I rely on its shape and color to fill out garden beds. Plus it’s perennial; tasty; nutritious; and delicious in salads, stir-fries and soups. A garden-worthy plant is a garden-worthy plant, be it fruit, veg or what we used to call ornamental.
Plant breeders are inspiring us by turning out vegetables in an array of gorgeous colors and eye-catching forms that blur that old line between edible and ornamental. And in a happy pairing, often the more intense or dark the coloration, the more nutritious the vegetable or fruit.
Even cabbages, perhaps the least inspiring of vegetables, come in shades of rich plum and steely blue. The translucent, jewel-tone stems of rainbow chard are as stunning when backlit by the sun as the leaves of a Japanese maple. Lettuces have curly leaves in colors from chartreuse to near-ebony, or speckled like the leaves of ‘Flashy Troutback,’ my favorite cut-and-come-again lettuce. Favas have crisp black-and-white checkered flowers. Carrots, with their ferny foliage, and ‘Bull’s Blood’ beets with ruby-red stems, have such visually interesting foliage that they’re worth growing even when the vegetable itself grows underground. Parsley, dill or arugula gone to seed is a magnet for pollinators and adds an airy look to any garden bed.
Don’t even get me started on all the pumpkin possibilities …