How to use vegetable plants in colorful garden displays
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.