Edibles with Ornamentals, or Edibles as Ornamentals?
By Cyndy Crist
As the interest of urban gardeners in growing edibles increases, so do their questions about how to combine them with ornamentals in a limited amount of space. While this can seem challenging, I think we’re making things more difficult than they need to be. To paraphrase P. Allen Smith, it is humans, not Mother Nature, who made the decision to separate plants into these two broad categories. In other words, it’s a distinction with no real meaning for biology or cultivation.
Still, it’s understandable that urban growers, whose garden beds are likely more visible to the public than those in more rural areas, are concerned about how plants grown primarily for food might look in their small gardens. And let’s face it – not only do summer squash and melons require more room than one might be able to allot to a single plant in a small space, but I don’t think most of us would choose them for their beauty. On the other hand, some edibles are attractive plants that also produce colorful fruits and vegetables, offering more reasons for combining them with ornamentals than efficiency.
If you’ve been thinking about growing edibles in an otherwise ornamental garden, here are some plants you might want to consider.
Tomatoes: Let’s start with tomatoes. Tomato plants don’t immediately come to mind when thinking of attractive plants, and it’s certainly true that the sprawling nature of indeterminate varieties can pose an aesthetic challenge. But many heirloom varieties produce beautiful fruits, and more cages and supports are now available that can bring a touch of whimsy and color to the garden. One example is the Glamos 744098 14-Inch x 42-Inch Heavy Duty Metal Tomato Cage – 5 Pack Fuschia, a traditional-style cage available in light green, red, and fuchsia. A similar option is the Tomato Cage- Set of THREE (3) resin cages-Resuable year after year, which has an interesting spiral shape and comes in green. These are just two of a number of attractive support structures on the market, and since hardscape items in the garden can contrast nicely in shape, color, and/or texture with the plants themselves, they can add garden interest while serving a utilitarian purpose.
As for the tomatoes themselves, heirlooms can provide lovely color in the landscape and on the table. Good choices here include Raspberry Lyanna, which produces a beautiful raspberry-pink fruit; Green Zebra, with gorgeous yellow/green stripes and a tangy taste; Limmony, a Russian variety that produces bright yellow beefsteak tomatoes; Kelloggs, a great orange choice; Black Krim, another Russian variety with a beautiful, deep-colored fruit; Aunt Ruby’s German Green, a reminder that tomatoes can be simultaneously green, ripe and flavorful; and Tangella, an intensely flavored, bright orange fruit. And don’t forget heirloom cherry tomatoes, which offer a variety of shapes, sizes, and colors. See more on these and other heirloom varieties on the Comprehensive Comparison Chart on this blog.
Eggplant is another plant that is both edible and ornamental. A recent on-line discussion among Minnesota Master Gardeners about plants that produce unusual colored fruits, vegetables, and flowers has yielded a few favorite eggplants that produce unusual fruits. One is Ping Tung Long, whose fruit has been described as magenta-colored, of good size, and delicious. Another is Ruffled Red eggplant, sometimes called Hmong eggplant or Pumpkins on a Stick. The gardener who cited this one said that while it can be eaten, it is bitter and she grows it only for its ornamental value. A third choice is Ghostbuster, which produces a white fruit with mild taste and thin skin.
Although I have cited the ornamental nature of their fruits, some find the plants themselves to be attractive. They tend to stay compact and although the flowers are small, they are white to purple in color and somewhat star-like. Anna Pavord, in The New Kitchen Garden suggests red peppers as an attractive companion with eggplants but cautions that eggplants are more susceptible to wilts than some common edibles and therefore are more safely grown in pots in some climates.
Cabbages, Kales, Chards, and Leafy Greens
It’s quite common to find ornamental kales sold in nurseries for purely aesthetic uses in the garden. The attractive shapes and colors of their leaves and the fact that they are often in their prime in late fall when other plants in the garden are quickly fading are among the factors that commend these plants for ornamental purposes. But many varieties of plants grown for their edible leaves can be quite beautiful in the garden, as well as nutritious. Here are some options:
Kale – Good choices include Redbor, with beautiful deep purple leaves, and my personal favorite, Lacinato, an Italian variety also known as Cavolo Nero that has crinkly, dark blue-green leaves and is great for cooking.
Chard – Just about any Swiss chard is beautifully ornamental, including Bright Lights, Five Color Silverbeet (an Australian heirloom which looks virtually indistinguishable from Bright Lights); and Ruby Red, sometimes called Rhubarb Chard and sporting bright red stalks and dark green leaves.
Brassicas – Two of the most ornamental options are Rubine Brussel Sprout, an heirloom variety, and Red Drumhead cabbage.
Salad Greens – There is a wide array of leafy greens from which to choose, especially for edging in front of taller, bushier plants. Two good choices whose red leaves offer a nice contrast to green plants are Lollo Rosso and Red Salad Bowl. And don’t forget the chicories (including radicchio) and endives, which add both visual and flavor contrast to milder salad greens.
A fourth set of good options for plants that are ornamental and generally edible as well are peppers. It is important to note that some peppers are grown only as ornamentals, while others are both ornamental and edible. I didn’t find anything indicating that inedible peppers are poisonous, and some peppers considered ornamentals are also edible, but a careful reading of seed packets and plant tags should spare gardeners the disappointment of growing peppers whose beauty is, alas, only skin deep. In general, peppers work well in primarily ornamental spaces not only because of the beautiful fruits they produce but also because of their compact size and shiny, deep green leaves.
Some ornamental peppers cited as particularly beautiful and producing prolific, brightly colored fruit are Explosive Ignite, Explosive Ember, and Chilly Chili. Some edible peppers that produce beautifully ornamental fruits include Alma Paprika hot peppers, Banana Hungarian Wax Hot Peppers, Apple Sweet Peppers, and Scotch Bonnets. Beautifully ornamental heirloom varieties include Antohi Romanian sweet peppers, Beaver Dam Hot Peppers, Black Hungarian Hot Peppers, Bulgarian Carrot Hot Peppers, and Buran Sweet Peppers.
One more option for garden spaces that combine food and beauty is plants whose flowers are edible – and there are many of them. Here, of course, extra caution is needed if you plan to use insecticides and products used to deter furry critters. In addition, not all flowers are edible, so it’s important to consult a reliable source to determine which flowers are safe to eat (two good resources I found on-line are About.com and University of Minnesota Extension). But with just a little care, your garden can provide an array of beautiful flowers that can add real eye candy to your dinner table, especially in salads and desserts.
Two of the most commonly used edible flowers are pansies and the “gem” varieties of marigolds (lemon, orange, and tangerine). But many other flowers are also edible, including day lilies, Monarda (commonly known as bee balm and with a taste similar to bergamot), carnations (with a peppery, clove-like flavor), Calendula (sometimes described as poor man’s saffron and also called pot marigolds), and Nasturtiums (whose buds can also be pickled and used much like capers). In addition, the flowers of many herbs add flavor and beauty to food and beverages, including basil, chives, chamomile (sweet and apple-like), lavender (though it’s best to use the unopened flower buds), anise hyssop, borage (beautiful blue with a cucumber-like flavor), and sweet woodruff (used to make traditional May wine).
The Last Word
So, does one need to choose between the edible and the ornamental? I hope by now you agree with me that the answer is a resounding “no.” I concur wholeheartedly with P. Allen Smith, who said about combining vegetables, herbs, and flowers within a garden, “It’s the best way I know to have both beauty and taste.” In other words – you can have your ornamentals and eat them, too.