Beauty and utility don’t always go hand in hand, but the garden is one place where multipurpose plants can mingle with ornamentals in delightful and nutritious combinations. The trend of growing edibles—vegetables and fruits—at home has settled nicely into the American garden vernacular; home gardeners have come to expect it, and pros must supply the consumers’ needs.
According to a 2014 study conducted by the Garden Writers Association, “Among the 75 million gardening households that have a lawn, garden or grow plants in containers, this year more than two in five consumers (44%) said that they grew edible plants in the ground, while 15% used containers. Almost one third (32%) grew edible plants both in the ground and in containers.” Looking forward, 58 percent of respondents stated they planned to grow edibles in 2015.
So let’s give consumers what they want. Whether it’s young plants in pots, starters in container arrangements or simply a display of seed packets, retail sales are sure to grow. Display gardens provide inspiration (and lunch for employees) as well as sell designs. And if you’ve got space in that underutilized greenhouse, maybe it’s time to experiment with a new crop.
Some colorful and unusual edible plant selections can provide just the boost your program needs. Check out the varieties we’ve selected:
Read more: Enticing edibles
Globe artichoke (Cynara scolymus) is a big, bold, brassy plant that can dominate the garden, but the thistle-like flower is a stunning focal point. The more common artichoke (Cynara cardunculus) provides a similar presence, almost architectural in style and size. Mature plants can reach 3 to 4 feet tall and 4 feet wide, bearing one large bud on a stalk with several buds below it. The gray-green foliage is long and often dramatically toothed, but it’s the purple flower that draws the most attention.
If artichoke is grown for harvest, however, the large, pinecone-like bud must be taken before it begins to open. If allowed to mature, the highly ornamental, purple flower adds a regal touch — but it cannot be eaten.
Grown as a perennial in zones 10 to 11, artichoke also may be overwintered with protection in zones 8 and 9. Perennial plants can produce viable buds for up to five years. In colder zones, artichoke is grown as an annual.
2. Crucifers: Cabbage, Cauliflower, Kale, and Broccoli
Let’s look at cabbage, cauliflower and kale as a group; they’re all in the genus Brassica. And while we’re at it, we’ll consider broccoli. Low growing but bold, each of these plants produces impressive foliage that’s both ornamental and edible; although in the case of broccoli and cauliflower, it’s the floret that’s better known as the tasty part. Leaves of both of these plants, however, pack a nutritional wallop.
Cabbage (Brassica oleracea var. capitata), like its cousin, kale (Brassica oleracea var. acephala), is a cool season veggie that’s grown as an annual. Each grows about 1.5 to 2+ feet tall with an equivalent spread; there are so many selections of ornamental kale that the size, habit and colors vary widely. Basically, however, the plants form beautiful, rose-like foliage clusters that stand out in the front of a mixed border or in decorative containers. Kale has become a standard autumn decorative plant, its whites, pinks and purples combining beautifully with rich orange gourds and pumpkins.
Broccoli and cauliflower (Brassica oleracea var. botrytis) can grow to 2 to 3 feet tall with an equal spread, so be sure to recommend sufficient room in an ornamental garden. They have a reputation of being a bit more difficult to grow than cabbages and kales, but given full sun and well-drained, fertile soil high in organic matter, a rich harvest can be realized.
Broccoli foliage tends to appear medium green with a slight bluish cast; the leaves of cauliflower are medium to dark green. Foliage remains attractive, but once the highly textured florets emerge, they steal the show.
Yes, technically kohlrabi belongs in the Brassica group, but it’s such an oddball that it deserves special attention. It looks a little like a turnip that’s growing above the ground; some gardeners liken it to an alien or sea creature.
The edible, rounded, bulb-like stems can appear white, purple or green, with stalks of foliage emerging like tentacles. The plant can reach up to about 18 inches tall, spreading to nearly 3 feet.
Kohlrabi is considered easy to grow and quick to mature, and it’s best to harvest the bulbs when they’re about 2+ inches across—about the size of a tennis ball. Both the bulbs and foliage are edible, and it’s well-worth planting simply for the curiosity factor.
Read more: Postharvest handling of vegetables and fruits from Growing Magazine
Who doesn’t love a fresh salad? Whether on the plate or in the garden, lettuce provides crisp greens—and reds, and purples—and the variety is nearly endless. It’s easy to grow, reaching from .5 to nearly 2 feet tall and wide, and the variation in foliage texture is a highlight.
The habit tends to be clumping or mounding, although Romaine selections are more upright. Planting a variety of types promises not only varied color and texture, but an expanded season of harvest when seeds are planted in succession. It’s easy to grow and is impressive when tucked here and there among flowering perennials in a mixed garden; it’s also nicely suited to container arrangements.
Read more: Increasing sales with value-added enterprises from Growing Magazine
5. Swiss chard
Spinach’s more flamboyant cousin, Swiss chard (Beta vulgaris subsp. cicla) holds much of its attraction in its colorful stems, ranging from purple to red and pink, yellow and orange. The highly textured, crinkly foliage also is showy, with rich, deep greens, reds, purples and yellows that highlight and contrast with the stems. A few selections are variegated and/ or sport brilliantly contrasting veins, adding to the riot of color. Both stalks and leaves are edible.
Easy to grow and reaching about 1 to 3 feet tall with a spread of .5 to 2 feet, Swiss chard can hold its own in the garden or in containers. A mass of plants provides enough color to create its own garden, but sited with flowering perennials, the foliage and the stems contribute to a bright palette.
Read more: Cool it down in the garden