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Yes, people have been growing their own food since the dawn of time, but during the past century it seems we’ve moved farther and farther away from digging in the earth to harvest our food. Vegetable gardens have typically been a collection of raised beds, or a few herbs in a pot, banished to out-of-the-way areas. These days, however, edibles are everywhere in the garden – mixed with ornamentals, scrambling out of recycled containers and clambering up apartment walls.
Not everyone has the space for a dedicated vegetable garden – so what’s a gardener to do? Mixing edibles and ornamentals in your planting bed is a terrific way to not only add beauty to the garden but food to the table. With so many unique varieties of edibles to choose from, search out those offering traditional design principals such as color, form, fragrance or texture.
Here are some of my favorite edibles to mix with your ornamental beds, separated into two categories: Foliage and Flowers.
Foliage is one of the most important design elements in the garden. While flowers come and go, foliage can last year-round, giving you the most bang for your buck. When designing gardens for my clients, I use foliage for maximum impact, taking into effect the vast array of colors, shapes, textures and sizes available. Edibles are no exception!
Take Kale, for example. Woven throughout this planting bed, the full and frilly leaves of Kale add a soft and mounding shape to the garden, as would any other low-growing ‘filler’ plant. Weaving in and out of this bed’s evergreens and perennials, Kale’s subtle blue-green leaves gently tie together its neighboring plants.
For years, I've planted sorrel (Rumex sanguineus) throughout my gardens, taking advantage of its deeply veined leaves, with touches of maroon, to add much needed contrast to neighboring plants. While sorrel’s leaves are edible, I use them mainly as decoration - placing a few under a fruit and cheese plate, or as the base for strawberries piled on top of them for a simple dessert.
In my zone 9 garden, sorrel is evergreen and long-lived (some of my plants are over 5 years old)! If it starts to look a little haggard in the heat of summer, just prune it back to the ground and it'll quickly re-sprout within a week or so with fresh, new leaves.
Another favorite edible I like to mix in with my planting beds is purple brussel sprouts. The deep plum-colored foliage of this variety easily mingles with the neighboring echeverias and 'Blackbird' euphorbia. And what a toughie! The leaves are fairly thick, so snails and slugs do only minimal damage. I can't wait to see these brussel sprouts continue to grow and send up their tall stalks of purple 'buttons', adding yet another unexpected twist to this narrow planting bed.
Renee Shepherd (founder of Renee’s Gardens) once said “There are a lot of edible flowers; whether or not they’re tasty is another thing”. Below are some of my favorite (and, yes, tastiest) flowers I like to add to my ornamental borders.
If you want to add cool and calming colors to your garden, you can’t go wrong with the blue, star-shaped flowers of Borage. Plant one of these and you'll have it for life, as it freely re-seeds in the tightest spaces, requiring very little water. The flowers taste delicious too, sort of a nutty-cucumber flavor.
If you want to add hot colors to your garden, the bright orange and yellow petals of nasturtium flowers will wake up your garden during cooler months. My kids have grown up eating the slightly peppery-tasting nasturtium flowers stuffed with cream cheese, picking the flowers and making little 'purses' out of them!
And I can't forget one of my all time favorite edibles flowers - the fava bean! This is such a great edible to incorporate in a planting bed as it only reaches about 2 1/2 – 3 feet. Its height means it’s a perfect choice to add as a ‘middle layer’ plant. And its stems are really sturdy too, so they won’t flop over onto surrounding neighbors. Another edible that slugs and snails seem to leave alone, its unusually colored black and white flowers blend with almost all other flowers and foliage in the garden.
Besides adding beauty to the garden and food to the table, growing your own edibles means you control how they are cultivated. Knowing your produce is pesticide free and safe not only lowers your food bill, it brings peace of mind.