Foodscaping has been a hot gardening trend for years now. What goes around comes around. In a past blog post, I explored how a lot of “new” foodscaping ideas are actually pretty old. Gardening with edibles is simply a terrific idea. A real win-win. But, I have to admit, there are times when I’ve grown perfectly consumable plants strictly for their beauty. With no intention of harvesting them for the dinner table, I plant them strategically as wonderfully eye-catching accents.
If you’re interested in plants for harvesting beauty alone, here are 10 of my favourite food-as-ornamentals.
One: Star-spangled DILL
My first foray into using edibles as ornamentals was with dill. I loved the result (see below). Sprouting up in a garden bed filled with perennials including gaura (or what I like to call Butterflies on a Stick) and sea holly (Eryngium planum), the dill’s bright acidy-green umbels were the perfect, airy accent floating like small starbursts over the other flowers. Aliums will give you that frozen fireworks effect as well, of course, but I’m really loving the looser, more see-through effect of dill.
Two: Even spanglier PARSNIPS
If you love what dill can do to a flower bed but want something even bigger, brighter and taller (and wanting more-more-more is an urge I heartily approve of) then try parsnips. When parsnips are allowed to stay in the ground and you let them go to seed, they can grow up to 7 feet tall with brilliant acid-green umbels that look like dill flowers only, well, bigger and brighter.
Keep in mind that parsnips are biennial so you’ll need to plant the seeds in spring, grow nice (tasty) roots the first summer and flowers the following June.
Three: Feathery FENNEL
Another wonderful vegetable that bolts to great heights of beauty is fennel. Grown as an ornamental in a deep flower bed (see below), fennel works wonders to add hight and colour at the back of the border. The plants size and feathery leaves make it a wonderful addition to a melange of grasses in a large border, as well.
Four: Towering APARAGUS
I saw a large patch of fully grown asparagus (Asparagus officinalis) during a garden tour this summer and I’m kicking myself for not taking a photo of it. It was a thing of jaw-dropping admiration with stems as thick as two of my thumbs and growing over 5 feet tall with dense, dark green plumes. Back in the day, asparagus fronds were often used to fill out floral arrangements in a vase. I think it’s kind of shame that the look has dropped out of favour but that doesn’t have to stop you from using the fronds in your own arrangements. The fronds make excellent wreaths, too!
Asparagus takes a while to get established. You won’t get harvestable stems to eat for a couple of years after planting from seed and growing great plumes will obviously take longer so keep that in mind when figuring out where you’d want to plant yours.
Don’t get (edible) asparagus mixed up with Asparagus ferns which aren’t edible. Asparagus densiflorus Sprengeri asparagus fern is actually not a fern at all but related to the asparagus you can eat. It’s often used as an ornamental but be forewarned that it is considered invasive in parts of the U.S. Another asparagus fern–Asparagus aethiopicus–is very, very invasive in parts of the United States.
Five: Velvety SAGE
I’m not a big fan of sage as an herb. I find the taste too astringent. But I think their velvety leaves and spikes of pretty flowers are a lovely addition to container plantings and flower beds.
Six: Fiery PEPPERS
Ornamental peppers may be edible but they’re not considered very tasty and are commercially grown and sold as “patio plants” for adding fiery colours to a container or garden bed. Ranging in colours from deep purple to pale yellow, they can really spice up (sorry) a grouping of annuals. Gardener’s Path has a great guide to growing these plants with a long list of various cultivars worth keeping your eye out for.
Seven: Elegant GARLIC
I have a good friend who will completely disagree with my suggestion that garlic can make a wonderful accent plant because she’s battling garlic plants that have escaped her vegetable patch and self-seeded all over her garden. Be forewarned! But I can’t help thinking that garlic scapes–the tender, edible stems that sprout up from hard-neck garlic bulbs in spring have such a terrific sense of joy (even though they can very well take over your garden). Not ones to simply grow straight up and then flower, garlic scapes grow into crazy loopedy loops. I say, hang the risk and try some for fun.
Eight and Nine: Lavish VINES
There are a host of climbing vines that can coaxed into covering a garden archway or pergola but there’s something evocative about grapevines. Maybe it’s all that ancient (albeit intriguing) hype about bacchanals and partying on with Dionysus. Or maybe it’s just that grapevines are pretty easy, peasy to grow and their wide leaves form a wonderfully cool mat of green to shelter you from the sun. Two vines that do well in Ontario are Riverbank Grape (Vitis riparia), a native to Canada and the U.S. with undesirable fruit and Wine Grapes (Vitis vinifera), producing grapes used for making wine.
Another vine that I find exquisite but not technically an edible is hops (Humulus lupulus), best known for making beer. Growing up to 30 feet in length, the vines produce lovely yellow-green fruits that look a little like soft pine cones or tassels and, in the hot summer sun, the scent of the vines is wonderful. Because it’s such a prolific grower, hops do a great job at covering fences or other supports to make a dense, green privacy screen.
Ten: Dramatic CARDOONS
Cynara cardunculus subs. cardunculus is a mouthful, for sure. Better known as cardoon or artichoke thistle, this plant looks a lot like the artichokes you’d see at the grocery store although those are a cultivated form. Artichoke thistle isn’t particularly hardy so in some parts of Canada, you’d have to grow it as an annual and the plant may not get around to gracing you with it’s big, bright purple thistle flowers but it’s still worth the effort for it’s spectacular leaves and flower heads (see below, photographed at Toronto Botanical Gardens).
Note to my fellow gardeners in the southern U.S.: In California, it’s considered a Most Invasive Wildland Pest Plant on the Californian Exotic Pest Plants of Greatest Ecological Concern.
If you grow a few edibles just because they’re so beautiful, I’d love to hear about them.