By: Elisabeth Ginsburg
Gardening with edible and ornamental plants makes gardening a little tastier and more valuable. Not many of us have the time and space for immense ornamental landscapes any more, but lots of us take great pride in our shrubs, perennials, and annuals. At the same time, we want to eat better, fresher food, and that urge has led us back to the garden. Limited space means that we have to grow ornamentals and edibles side-by-side. Fortunately, it is easy to do, and the results can be just as beautiful as an ornamental-only landscape.
For most of horticultural history, average people grew food from necessity, with little thought to purely ornamental plants. Inevitably, though, some gardeners noticed that certain edible plants and herbs sported lovely flowers or foliage that added a dimension to the vegetable garden. Others even transplanted flowering specimens from the wild into corners of their home vegetable plots. Eventually, as great civilizations (Egyptians, Ancient Persians and Greeks) grew wealthy, ornamental gardening came into its own, with immense ornamental landscapes designed, constructed, and documented in detail by artists and writers. Gardeners today are able to take the best from both worlds, mixing the edible and ornamental for increased garden value.
Add Ornamental Vegetables
The vegetable gardener’s mantra—“Grow what you like to eat”—is a good place to start if you have decided to take the plunge and mix some edibles among your ornamental plants. The feathery fronds of bronze or green fennel make a lovely addition to any garden and also attract swallowtail butterflies, but if you don’t like fennel, growing it may waste space that is better used for other plants.
Just about everyone loves fresh tomatoes and peppers, which are easy to grow and come in many varieties. They also thrive under the same conditions as horticultural divas like roses—at least 8 hours of sunlight per day, rich soil and fairly consistent moisture. The problem is that most tomato plants—especially indeterminate types that keep growing and producing all season–need some kind of support. Typical wire tomato cages are not the loveliest addition to an ornamental garden. Solve the tomato problem by training the plants up a simple bamboo stake or decorative tuteur or trellis that can hold its own among the flowering plants.
This technique not only makes a virtue out of a necessity, but it works for other vining plants like beans, cucumbers, and even squash. For a lovely garden backdrop, try scarlet runner beans trained up a trellis. The flowers are a brilliant red and the beans are delicious either raw or cooked.
For a successful edible/ornamental combination, don’t neglect adequate plant nutrition. Give both types of plants a good start by enriching your garden soil with a rich soil amendment like Fafard® Garden Manure Blend. Not only will it add needed organic matter for better water-holding capacity, it will also enrich the soil for better overall performance.
Add Beautiful Fruits
If fruit is your idea of the perfect edible crop, and you want a beautiful ornamental plant, try growing blueberries (Vaccinium spp. and cultivars). These shrubs feature lovely pinkish-white, bell-shaped flowers in the spring, followed by neat, green oval-shaped leaves. The tasty blue fruits appear in early summer and scarlet leaves announce the arrival of fall. Blueberries like the same acid soil as rhododendrons and azaleas and would complement them well in a mixed shrub or shrub/perennial border. Smaller varieties can even be grown in containers and can hold their own among the pots of geraniums and snapdragons on a porch or terrace. The same holds true of strawberries, with their white flowers and brilliant red fruits, grown in the pockets of decorative ceramic or terra cotta strawberry pots.
Add Ornamental Herbs
Herbs have long been used as ornamentals. Purple basil makes a dramatic edging plant at the front of a border and would provide a perfect complement to red/orange marigolds or late summer dahlias. The strong aroma of the basil also helps deter garden varmints like rabbits and deer. Pineapple sage, with its variegated leaves makes a lovely filler for a pot of flowering annuals. The leaves are also the perfect enhancement for a glass of lemonade.
If your ornamental landscape is mature and already filled with plants, look for “holes” where you can install a few ‘Bright Lights’ chard plants or fill in with low-growing herbs like thyme. Start small, with a few edibles and then, when the “grow your own” bug bites, increase the number of edibles. You will be amazed at how well it all fits together.
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