Ellen Zachos is the author of six books including Down and Dirty: 43 Fun and Funky First-Time Projects and Activities to Get You Gardening. She is a senior advisor for Garden Compass (a plant identification app) and her next book, The Wildcrafted Cocktail, will be published in May 2017.

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The Blended Garden
by Ellen Zachos       #Edibles   #Ornamentals

What is your idea of a perfect garden? Abundant flowers and lush greenery? Ripe vegetables and plump fruits? These days, with smaller yards and longer work hours, few gardeners have the space or time to care for both a kitchen garden and a separate ornamental garden. When you plant a blended garden, you can feed both body and soul.

Here are eight plants that do double duty, combining beauty and deliciousness. You might not recognize them all as ornamental plants, but each one is as lovely as it is tasty.


1. Who doesn’t love blueberries (Vaccinium corymbosum)? They’re sweet, delicious, and good for you because they are high in antioxidants. But did you know this shrub is also a gorgeous landscape plant? The fall foliage of blueberries is brilliant red, and it makes this a plant to grow for its looks alone. If you want to harvest the fruit, you may need to net your shrubs as the berries ripen. Birds like blueberries as much as humans do.

The fall color of blueberry is reason enough to plant this fruit-bearing shrub in the garden.


2. Swiss chard (Beta vulgaris ssp. vulgaris) is a traditional vegetable, but the ‘Bright Lights’ cultivars are pretty enough to grace any ornamental garden bed. Stems and midribs come in bright orange, yellow, red, or white, and contrast nicely with the green leaves. They have an upright growth habit, and look especially pretty clustered in groups of three to five plants. Find a sunny spot at the front or middle of your garden for this lovely edible.

Leaf lettuces, Swiss chard, rosemary, and peppers light up this edible container just as well as its floral counterparts


3. Elderberries (Sambucus nigra) have a history of use in wine, jellies, and baked goods. They are attractive, green-leaved shrubs, and look especially pretty when covered with large umbels of white flowers in spring. New cultivars, like Black Lace (S. nigra ‘Eva’) or Black Beauty (S. n. ‘Gerda’) have been bred for their finely cut, purple leaves, and are outstandingly ornamental. Try them for their dark purple foliage and pink flowers. Like other purple-fruited elderberries, the fruit of these ornamental cultivars is also edible. Red-fruited elderberries (S. racemosa) are not generally considered edible or tasty.

Elderberry flowers produce an abundance of pollen.




4. Most people grow beets for their tasty roots, but ‘Bull’s Blood’ beets (Beta vulgaris ‘Bull’s Blood’) offer so much more. They produce striking, deep maroon foliage (approximately 12 inches tall), which is edible, just like regular beet greens. Plant them at the front of a sunny border for their shiny, deep red leaves, then harvest and enjoy eating both the foliage and the beetroots. For extra impact, interplant them with a chartreuse-leaved ground cover like creeping Jenny (Lysimachia nummularia ‘Aurea’).




‘Bull’s Blood’ beets have striking deep red foliage that makes them interesting bedding plants.






5. I’d grow okra (Abelmoschus esculentus) just for its looks. Its showy blooms rival those of its hibiscus cousins, but you get edible pods as a bonus. Try ‘Red Burgundy’, ‘Bowling Red’, or ‘Red Velvet’ for gorgeous bright-red stems and fruit to go along with the pretty flowers.






Grow okra for its tasty fruit and get lovely flowers as a bonus.






6. Red mustard greens (Brassica juncea ‘Red Giant’) are as pretty to look at as any ornamental annual. Plant a row at the front of your sunny border where you’ll appreciate the gorgeous foliage all season long. Add a few leaves to salads and stir fries, and let the plant keep growing up until frost. And if you let them go to seed, you’ll probably find a few volunteers in the garden next spring.





Here, ‘Giant Red’ mustard is used as an ornamental annual, growing alongside hostas and Euphorbia x martinii ‘Ascot Rainbow’.





7. Malabar spinach (Basella alba) isn’t really a spinach, but it tastes remarkably similar. Unlike spinach, it thrives in summer heat. In the United States, Malabar spinach is sold as an ornamental annual vine, but in Africa and Asia it is grown as a vegetable. Flowers are small and white or pink, followed by dark purple ornamental berries. Foliage is lush, textured, and shiny, and the vine’s thick stems quickly cover a trellis or pyramid form. The cultivar, ‘Rubra’, has showy red stems.




The red stems of Malabar spinach (Basella alba ‘Rubra’) contrast beautifully with its edible green leaves. This annual vine grows 15 to 20 feet in a single season.





8. You’ll see Jerusalem artichokes (Helianthus tuberosus) on restaurant menus and in grocery stores, but rarely in garden centers. Yet this bright-yellow sunflower is perfect for the back of a sunny border. Jerusalem artichokes grow to be 4 to 8 feet tall and under ideal conditions, can spread quickly. Unlike most sunflowers, they produce a tasty tuber. After the first frost, dig up half your tubers to bring into the kitchen and use them in soups, stews, and salads.




Jerusalem artichokes are statuesque sunflowers, with tasty tubers just beneath the soil. Harvesting the crop every fall keeps this fast-growing perennial in bounds.


All of these plants are multi-taskers: lovely to look at and tasty, too. All of them make excellent choices for the blended garden.


A version of this article appeared in a May/June 2017 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Patti Marie Travioli, Christina Salwitz, Patrick Byers, W. Atlee Burpee Company, and Ellen Zachos.


Posted: 05/01/17   RSS | Print


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