How to use vegetable plants in colorful garden displays

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Vegetables are usually seen and appreciated solely for their utilitarian virtues: the potential to feed us, flavor fresh or cooked, and nutritional value. In our perception, they exist only for eating and are segregated by themselves in vegetable beds with no thought of their potential to contribute to the beauty of our gardens.

The good news is, a number of vegetables make striking, artistic, or even atmospheric ornamental landscape features, some lasting for several months and others for almost a year.

These vegetables can be planted in vegetable-only artistic compositions or can be mixed into ornamental plantings. The color, form and texture of many vegetable plants act to highlight nearby flower colors and the structural forms make striking focal points.

Good winter flowering companions are violas, borage and calendulas. Some summer combinations are included below, but endless opportunity awaits.

Most vegetables do require specific conditions to thrive. All need protection from slugs or snails, especially when small. Compost greatly enhances soil fertility, and the more fertile the soil, the better the plants will grow. Most of the plants listed below are best for fall, winter and spring plantings or compositions.

Like all plants most vegetables do require some upkeep. Pull off the lower leaves of vegetable plants when they get unsightly or harvest them as plants grow. A column on warm season ornamental vegetables will follow in summer.

A couple of the most fun edible ornamental plants are Redboor kale and the purple Brussel sprout. Both are regularly used in countries like Japan, France and the United Kingdom as ornamentals. Both are best planted in the spring as their individual character develops with age.

Their deep purple leaves have both great color and texture, but it is over the course of the fall and early winter that their individual character develops.

The saturated purple leaf and stem color also deepens as temperatures cool.

Redboor kale is one of the most nutritious and heat-resistant kales, but the super-ruffled leaves are coarse and in the warm season can be tough to eat. Its stalk lengthens over the season, so that by fall and winter it can be over 4 feet high.

Often multi-branched, with age this kale doesn’t stand stiffly upright, but lurks morosely through the garden, leaning menacingly over paths in the winter morning mists.

Another garden personality is the purple Brussels sprout. New leaves are cupped and embrace the sky, and large old leaves droop morosely. In a youthful state, it is upright, but as it ages, it too stoops with age, and acquires personality.

These plants can simply be left in the fall vegetable garden to mature and entertain or can be planted purposefully in the flower garden in spring to offer beauty all summer.

The purple leaf color is wonderful with orange cosmos, burgundy snapdragons, yellow dahlias and zinnias of many colors.

Two more kales good as ornamentals and for eating — but with less personality — are Siberian Dwarf kale and Portuguese kale. Siberian dwarf kale is only about 2 feet tall and wide. This dependable kale has gray, dense, ruffled fancy leaves.

It always looks handsome, is one of the most cold-tolerant varieties, and is one of the last kales to go to seed in the spring. Portuguese kale is a very large plant.

It has huge rounded light green/gray leaves with striking, large white veins. In the coldest areas it may not survive the winter, but it tolerates summer heat well. When mature it may measure 3 feet tall and wide. Dinosaur or Lacinato kale with narrow dark green leaves on upright plants is also good as is scarlet kale. All combine well with flowers.

Swiss chard is one of the most flamboyant edible/ornamental vegetables. Its huge, shiny, almost plastic-looking leaves come in colors like green with white veins, gold, magenta or ruby red and are a striking feature used in a group or singly among other vegetables or flowers.

Swiss chard is usually planted in the spring. In favorable conditions, it will last all summer, grow through the winter and into spring, when it will go to seed. In some areas, you may need to replant in the late summer, about August as mature plants may become susceptible to aphids.

New, young plants are not affected by them if nutrient levels are right. Leaves that have leaf minor damage need removing immediately as you don’t want the fly larvae in between leaf layers to mature to adults that will cause more damage. Affected leaves should be thrown away, buried in the compost pile or fed to chickens.

Bulls blood beets have relatively small leaves for beets, but the leaf color is a rich, deep reddish- purple. These can be planted singly or used as a bed edging.

Leaves with leaf minor damage should be removed right away. Beet leaves are highly nutritious and delicious and can be eaten. These can be planted by seed or individually from 6-pack size plants

There are a number of beautiful Oriental greens. These plants are at their best in fall or spring when temperatures are cool. Heat brings out hot mustard flavors and plants bolt quickly.

Mizuna is a mustard- type green with ferny leaves that grows to about 10 inches tall. It is usually planted by seed, is very easy to grow and young leaves are often used as an ingredient in salads or quickly stir-fried. A variety called Beni Housa (but there are others) mizuna has purple stems and dark green leaves.

It is rich in antioxidants and makes a beautiful edging or specimen plant. Pak choi is a delicious sculptural plant with thick, succulent stems and wide rounded leaves. Most are about a foot tall. They need planting individually and are not at their best direct seeded unless thinned to 8-12 inches apart.

Purple-leaved varieties or green petiole varieties like Mei Qing Choi are especially beautiful, but white-stem types are good too.

Tatsoi has a dense rosette of rounded spoon-shaped dark green leaves and is mild in flavor. Purple mustard is giant red/purple mustard with highly ornamental leaves. It has a sharp mustard flavor but is beautiful in the landscape. It is best as a single specimen.

Red orach is in big demand as a nutritious green and as a filler for flower arrangers. But it also is very ornament.

Related to spinach, and cultivated since the Roman era, it has a mild spinach-type flavor. Leaves are distinctive; rounded but with a point like an arrow. The red or purple-leaved varieties are especially beautiful in a mixed flower border or in a mixed vegetable planting.

For a vertical accent, try the bunching onion He Shi Ko from Baker Creek seeds.

The ornamental bunches become large by early summer from a fall planted plant. The flowers in spring are bee favorites and very ornamental.

Kate Frey’s column appears every other week in Sonoma Home. Contact Kate at:,, Twitter @katebfrey, Instagram @americangardenschool

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