Often when people plan ornamental gardens, the first plants they think of are flowers. But if you live in the South, all sort of beautiful edible vegetables look great in a garden. You can admire their beauty and appreciate their taste while stretching your food budget. Here are some ideas to make your Southern ornamental garden do double duty.
In the South, winter and early spring gardening means greens: lettuces, Swiss chard, spinach, kale, frilly-edged and colorful mustards - even beets have ornamental and delicious leaves. The great thing about using greens as ornamentals is that you can cut the bottom leaves for salads and still maintain a colorful garden. If you live in USDA Hardiness Zones 7 to 8b, you can start growing your greens as early as January and February.
Ring your edible landscape design with an appealing border. For an edible edge of shimmering jewels, choose from low-growing leaf lettuces like 'Red Salad Bowl', 'Lollo Rosso' and 'Emerald Gem'. Triple-curled parsley planted in a shady garden makes a bold statement. Besides flavoring your meals, it also feeds swallowtail butterfly caterpillars later in the year.
The middle of an ornamental vegetable garden is a great place to play with color and texture. For a touch of the unusual, drop in a few purple broccoli plants or a mix of cauliflower plants in shades of orange, lime, green and purple. Sprinkle edible flowers like pansies, calendula and nasturtium in the mix. You can even let arugula plants go to blossom, then add their spicy flowers to salads.
All garden designs benefit from vertical interest and the edible landscape is no exception. As a centerpiece or in the back of the border, try grouping several giant Japanese red mustard plants. Not only do these plants have deep burgundy leaves that reach 2 ½ feet tall, their snappy taste brightens salads. Other greens to color coordinate in the garden include ox blood beets with deep burgundy leaves and Swiss chard varieties in a rainbow of stem colors ranging from white to flamingo pink to scarlet. To add an interesting texture and a dusty blue color, look for the heirloom kale, lacinato.
Photo of giant Japanese red mustard courtesy of Park Seed Company: www.parkseed.com
Vegetables and most herbs need lots of sunlight to produce their best tastes and colors. Choose a well-drained site with at least six hours of sunlight. To make sure your soil is right for your new plants, perform a test with an affordable kit from your local home improvement store, or provide a soil sample to your local extension service. Add organic matter to your soil in the form of compost or garden soil, such as Miracle-Gro® Organic Choice® Garden Soil. In new gardens, work it in with a shovel; in an existing bed with established plants, use a trowel. Break up the soil deeply to encourage roots to reach down for water and nutrients.