Incorporate edible ornamentals into your garden for a great look that also tastes great.
By Ann Wilson, Geneva, Illinois
You won't have to search far to find vegetable and herb cultivars that offer both good eating and good-looking appeal. Growers have introduced an array of tasty and decorative plants that please both eye and palate. From frilly-leafed herbs and white eggplants to black peppers, here's a crop of 10 edible (and easy-to-grow!) plants that look great and taste even better.
Bright Lights Swiss Chard
(Beta vulgaris subsp. cicla var. flavescens 'Bright Lights,' annual)
This easy-growing All-America Selection brings rainbow hues to vegetable gardens and perennial borders. Growing to 20 inches tall, Bright Lights produces large mild-flavored leaves on thick yellow, red, orange, gold and white stems. When harvesting, cut the largest leaves about 2 inches from the crown to encourage plants to put out new leaves. Direct-sow into garden after last frost. Days to maturity: 60.
(Solanum melongena 'Gretel,' annual)
This All-America Selection produces clusters of white eggplants on 3-foot-high plants. The mild-flavored fruits can be harvested when they reach 3 to 4 inches long. Start seeds indoors eight to nine weeks before planting outdoors. Eggplants are susceptible to cold, so wait for the soil to warm and the danger of frost has passed to plant outdoors. Days to maturity from transplants: 55.
Cherokee Chocolate Tomato
(Lycopersicon esculentum 'Cherokee Chocolate,' annual)
Weighing in anywhere from 10 ounces to 1 pound, these deep red, chocolate-shouldered beauties grow to 4 inches wide, with firm, juicy, tart-sweet flesh. Start seeds indoors 6 to 8 weeks before the last frost date; plant transplants after last frost. Days to maturity: 80.
Scarlet Runner Bean
(Phaseolus coccineus,, Zones 7 to 11; annual in colder areas)
Draw in hummingbirds and butterflies with scarlet flowers on vines that grow to 20 feet. Plants bear 6- to 12-inch pods holding scarlet-black beans. You can eat the young tender pods right off the vine. The beans can be eaten right from the pod, or you can cook them. Vines require the support of a trellis, arbor, fence or teepee. Direct-sow into garden after frost. Days to maturity: 70.
Purple Ruffles Basil
(Ocimum basilicum 'Purple Ruffles,' annual)
Frilly, flavorful purple leaves helped make this herbal hybrid an All-America Selection. Growing to about 18 inches high and wide, this simple-to-grow herb can be used in containers, to edge vegetable gardens or mixed in a sunny perennial or annual border. Start seeds early indoors—basil is very cold-tender, so wait until after the last frost to put plants (or direct-sow seed) in the garden. Days to maturity: 85.
(Lactuca sativa 'Freckles,' annual)
This heirloom romaine lettuce has bright green leaves splashed with crimson speckles. Crisp, buttery-flavored leaves grow 6 to 12 inches high but can be harvested as baby greens. A cool-weather veggie, its seeds and transplants can be placed in gardens as soon as soil can be worked in early spring. Start seeds indoors four weeks before transplanting outside. Sow seeds every two weeks through summer for successive harvests. Days to maturity: 70.
(Fragaria x ananassa 'Pink Panda,' Zones 3 to 9)
This sprawling ground cover bears bright pink flowers and an occasional small crop of edible berries. Evergreen to semi-evergreen plants grow 5 inches high and spread to 24 inches wide. Sold in small pots rather than as seeds, they can be planted in sunny to partly shady sites once soil can be worked in spring. Plants can be trained to trail from window boxes and hanging planters.
Papaya Pear Squash
(Cucurbita pepo 'Papaya Pear,' annual)
This All-America Selection produces light-bulb-shaped yellow squash on semi-bush plants throughout the growing season. Pick the squash when they measure 3 inches long and wide to encourage plants to set more squash. Direct-sow after last frost. Days to maturity: 42.
Red Russian Kale
(Brassica oleracea 'Red Russian,' hardy biennial)
This heirloom sports 2- to 3-foot-tall velvety grayish-green leaves with purple stems. Looking much like huge, ruffled oak leaves, they darken to purple after frost and turn sweeter in flavor. Direct-sow four to five weeks before last frost and continue to sow seeds every couple of weeks for a continuous harvest. Can also be sown in summer and harvested in fall. Days to maturity: 60.
Hybridizers have introduced compact ornamental pepper varieties sized to fit small gardens, hanging baskets and containers. Unlike their kin, which hang beneath foliage, ornamental plants produce upright clusters of peppers that face the sky. As fruits ripen, a single plant may sport three or four different peppers shading from yellow to orange, red, purple or brown.
Ornamentals come in an array of shapes, much like the more common peppers, but smaller. Though edible, ornamentals may be super-hot or exceedingly pungent, so choose cultivars that suit your growing area and taste buds.