Add Edibles to Your Garden for Food and Beauty
Colorful vegetables and fruit-bearing plants can enhance the look of your flower beds, not merely provide a mealtime bonus
Maybe you lack space for a dedicated vegetable patch or would love to expand the edible harvest you already have. Either way, it's easy to get more of your leafy greens—and fruits and other veggies, too. Simply pop them in your garden beds for a fix that's practical and pretty. Blooming ornamentals attract pollinators that will stick around to visit the food plants, resulting in bigger harvests, and some ornamentals may even help ward off hungry pests.
Shown: In this front garden, at the home of landscape designer Rosalind Creasy, exuberant flowers and formally clipped shrubs mix with trellised tomatoes and scarlet runner beans. Potted kumquats mark the entrance.
Plenty of edibles are as eye-catching outside as they are useful in the kitchen. Many have big leaves with striking outlines, colors, and textures. 'Bright Lights' chard, for instance, with its multi-hued stems, shines beside sword-shaped New Zealand flax, and 'Purple Ruffles' basil offers a rich contrast to lime-green boxwood leaves. Some edibles, such as okra and fava beans, flower extravagantly before producing, while others—including orange eggplant and burgundy bean pods—offer madly colored fruit. Certain food plants can also give structure to a chaotic bed; try using blueberries as a hedge or a cucumber-entwined tepee as a focal point.
Shown: Scarlet runner beans, lavender, and yellow-stemmed chard form a brilliant ensemble.
Plenty of edibles are as eye-catching outside as they are useful in the kitchen. Many have big leaves with striking outlines, colors, and textures. 'Bright Lights' chard, for instance, with its multi-hued stems, shines beside sword-shaped New Zealand flax, and 'Purple Ruffles' basil offers a rich contrast to lime-green boxwood leaves.
Shown: (Ocimum basilicum 'Purple Ruffles')
Some edibles, such as okra (shown) and fava beans, flower extravagantly before producing, while others—including orange eggplant and burgundy bean pods—offer madly colored fruit. Certain food plants can also give structure to a chaotic bed; try using blueberries as a hedge or a cucumber-entwined tepee as a focal point.
You can find unusual heirlooms, like 'Red Russian' kale (shown) and 'Blauw-schokkers' peas, at farmers' markets and nurseries or at specialty online sources, such as rareseeds.com and groworganic.com. Since many food plants develop and finish all in one growing season, they don't demand a long-term commitment.
What they do need, usually, is at least 6 hours of sun a day along with well-drained soil and plenty of water. In general, this means pairing them with heat-and-sun-loving ornamentals with similar moisture needs, although there are exceptions.
Shown: Pink petunias pop against the dramatic hues of 'Charlotte' Swiss chard.
Lettuce, kale, and chard prefer the cool temperatures of spring and fall and can take some shade; grow them beside cool-weather pansies or bulbs. And because Mediterranean natives, like rosemary and mint, love heat but require less water, they thrive among drought-tolerant perennials.
Shown: 'Merveille des Quatre Saisons' butterhead lettuce
If you've never grown food before, start small, swapping out your usual border of begonias, say, with a march of lettuces, such as burgundy 'Lollo Rosso,' green-and-red 'Merveille des Quatre Saisons,' and red-flecked 'Freckles.'
Shown: Dangling gourds make this passageway all the more memorable.
Also, consider what you like to eat and where you might sneak in some long-lasting edibles, like the cool-season perennial rhubarb, a dwarf apple tree, or some gooseberry shrubs. Sketch a garden plan that shows your existing plantings and identify areas with space for changes or additions. To make room for peas and other viners, set up an obelisk or an arbor for them to climb.
Shown: 'Blauwschokkers' peas
As with any garden, consider the layers of your design, choosing groundcovers, like thyme and strawberries, and working in taller plants, such as kale and peppers, among your ornamentals. Keep in mind the progression of leaves, flowers, and fruit, and think about how these might show off what you have.
Shown: 'Amethyst' basil anchors a planting of yellow-flowering Apache beggarticks (Bidens ferulifolia) and peppers.
The blue-flowering herb borage contrasts nicely with rosy-hued succulents, while purple eggplant highlights the violet veining of some coleus.
Shown: Borage (Borago officinalis)
Pair plants with an eye for pest control, too. Petunias repel tomato worms, so arrange a few at the feet of your tomatoes. For aphid-plagued roses, underplant with nasturtiums or aromatic herbs, like oregano.
Shown: Fava beans (Vicia faba)
Prepare your beds initially by amending soil with nutrient-rich compost, and apply organic fertilizer at planting time and throughout the season, catering to the needs of specific crops. With tomatoes, for example, ease off on nitrogen-rich fertilizer after flowering, to encourage fruit development rather than leafy growth.
Shown: Deep-purplish-green ruffled kale leaves complement both the brighter color and finer leaves of a stand of lavender.
If possible, turn off automated in-ground sprinklers in beds containing edibles and hand-water selectively. Direct your hose at the roots rather than the foliage of mildew-prone plants, like squash, and give extra water to thirsty lettuces, chards, melons, and gourds.
Shown: 'Bright Lights' chard
To avoid gaps in your beds, start new seedlings before the old crops finish so that you have tomatoes ready to follow beans, for instance. You can also seed waves of quick-growing leafy greens.
Shown: A Siberian iris, with its distinctive bloom and sword-shaped foliage, peeks out from behind a fragrant herbal pairing of globe-flowering chives and leafy spearmint.
Harvest judiciously, snipping outer lettuce leaves rather than whole heads and leaving a few peppers and eggplants to hang like baubles. By the time your blueberry hedge reddens in fall, you'll be poised to pull out your summer vegetables, mulch their spots, and look forward to a well-earned winter rest.
Shown: 'Lolo Rosso' lettuce
An underplanting of red cabbages all in a row adds a touch of whimsy to a sunny border.
Rosy-hued aeonium succulents bring out the red veining of this sorrel.
The fuzzy leaves of sage are juxtaposed beautifully with a puckered loose-leaf lettuce.
White 'Easter Egg' eggplant and a deep-burgundy sweet-potato vine make for a classic black-and-white pairing.
With its jagged foliage and 6-foot-tall stature, artichokes are a sculptural addition to any flower bed.