by Valerie Easton IT'S NEARLY TIME to plant, and not just primroses and hellebores and sweet peas. This year the excitement seems to be...

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by Valerie Easton

It’s nearly time to plant, and not just primroses and hellebores and sweet peas. This year the excitement seems to be all about lettuces, raspberries and tomatoes — especially those that are brightly colored, ruffled, curious or compact enough to grow happily in containers.

The Oxford American Dictionary’s 2007 word of the year was “locavore,” defined as someone who subscribes to the burgeoning movement that encourages us to use locally grown ingredients. You can’t get much more local than your own backyard, which was the premise for the Northwest Horticultural Society’s popular “Eat Your Vegetables” display at this weekend’s Northwest Flower & Garden Show. Plunk a vegetable-grilling chef down in your exhibit, and the crowds will come.

Perhaps the European concept of beautiful, structured potagers has penetrated our Northwest-casual brains. Or maybe in this crazy world we’re simply seeking some control over the quality of what we feed our children and ourselves.

Younger gardeners, raised on produce from farmers markets rather than canned and frozen vegetables, are driving the trend. Do you remember dismal canned pears and peas like my mom served up? Who could have imagined such smooshed vegetables and grainy, syrup-slicked fruits ever grew fresh from the ground? No wonder it took me years to give over garden space to a pea vine or a bean trellis.

Ornamental edibles are the Priuses of the plant world in their practicality and unexpected popularity. Because most gardeners are both time- and space-challenged, what could be more desirable than plants combining good taste, good looks and nutrition in one root ball? Talk about making the most of every square inch of garden space. And many of these pretty, tasty edibles have been downsized to fit into urban gardens and containers, like petite-leafed Pistou Basil or a bonsai of a blueberry bush called ‘Top Hat,’ which grows to a mere 18 inches high and wide.

Even I, who grudgingly squeezed in a few tomatoes and berries at my kids’ request, have fallen in love with stepping out the door to snip fresh lettuces and herbs, pull a few carrots or snack on strawberries. I’m not alone. Now, 2,500 community garden plots in Seattle cover 23 acres, tilled by more than 6,000 urban gardeners. That’s in addition to our own backyards. All these P-Patches are organic, producing tons of food for Seattle-area food banks as well as for gardeners’ dinner tables every year.

I’ve been swamped the past couple of months with catalogs offering everything from pale, sweet carrots to hardy, dwarf olive trees. What a great way to get through the long Northwest winter, daydreaming of sophisticated, slender Parisian beans that cook in a flash of the sauté pan, or tiny heads of Red Leprechaun lettuce stuffed into a pot outside the kitchen door.

Did you know that ever-bearing strawberries produce sweet fruit to top your cereal from June until frost? And they bear the first year, so you could plant up a pot or edge a bed in ‘Tri Star’ or the new ‘Eversweet’ and be picking strawberries in a few months. Raintree Nursery in Morton sells a new raspberry this year called ‘Tulameen’ that produces especially large fruit all the way through August. Even though raspberry canes are far from decorative, I grow a row of them down the middle of a large raised bed, surrounded by spikes of purple-blooming agapanthus and trailing nasturtiums.

We plant blueberries for their vivid fall color as well as their antioxidant-rich berries. But now there’s ‘Sunshine Blue,’ an evergreen blueberry with hot pink spring flowers. Picture a hedge of these handsome shrubs slathered in delicious sky blue berries over the summer months. Along with plenty of arugula and cut-and-come-again lettuces, buttery ‘Cheddar’ cauliflower and stringless, early-ripening ‘Sugar Sprint’ snap peas, they’re on my impossibly long wish list.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer and author of “A Pattern Garden.” Her e-mail address is valeaston@comcast.net.