Fruits, veggies add more color to flower beds

Revealed: Vegetables mingle with flowers as gardeners are pressed for space and time.

July 30, 2000|By Ary Bruno | Ary Bruno,Special to the Sun

No longer banished to the back of the property, clustered behind the garage or hidden by a hedge, fruits and vegetables are consorting with flowers in a way they never have before.

The same eclectic style that defines our home decorating is now spilling over into the garden -- allowing once segregated edibles to share space alongside ornamentals.

Practicality is one force behind the trend. With space at a premium, many outdoor areas are performing double and triple functions. While center stage is still mainly given to decorative plants, innovative gardeners have begun to integrate handsome food crops directly into their landscapes.

Anne Stocksdale, a horticulturist at Riverhill Nursery in Clarksville, finds this especially true in the newer housing developments springing up around the Howard County nursery.

"People don't have a lot of time and don't want big gardens way out back. Yet, there's a tremendous interest in growing more vegetables -- food is getting more expensive, and there's more desire for organic produce -- but gardeners want it convenient, too, and they want it to look good."

Stocksdale finds that nicely done container gardens of edibles are very popular to put on decks and patios. This year she made up planters mixing things like tomatoes, cucumbers, basil, nasturtiums and leaf lettuces.

"They're very attractive, and you have everything you need for a salad right there," she says.

There is a dawning realization that many vegetables can be beautiful themselves, says Rose Hobbs of the National Garden Bureau.

"A higher level of consumer interest and sophistication has encouraged breeders to focus on enhancing the decorative qualities of food crops," Hobbs notes.

From 'Purple Rain' and 'Neon' violet eggplants, to 'Bright Lights' Swiss chard, with gold, pink, purple and white stems and green or

bronze leaves, vegetables are truly getting gorgeous.

The definition of what is ornamental is also being re-explored in these new gardens. The adventurous find that vegetables mix surprisingly well even in formal gardens.

A low border of clipped boxwood seems right at home filled with a selection of neat, multi-hued, leaf lettuces in spring, followed in summer by compact, hot pepper plants like 'Super Chili,' offering up a profusion of sprightly red, orange and yellow fruit.

Food plants often boast distinctive foliage, which make them striking additions to a flower bed, and the gardener can take advantage of their contrasting shapes and textures.

Try pairing 'Moonbeam' coreopsis with a bush summer squash, such as zucchini. 'Blackie' sweet potatoes also makes an elegant addition to tubs and raised beds.

Whether the best sun space is over the back porch or in the front yard, gardeners have discovered how to take advantage of it by including edibles in their planting scheme.

Gretchen Williams, who with her husband, Garland, runs Garland's Gardens in Catonsville, comes to gardening after being a chef in California. "I love to mix in all kinds of herbs with the flowers, and we grow pole beans on iron obelisks in the center of the beds," Williams says, "and I've found that chartreuse and variegated sages make excellent groundcovers."

Williams also suggests using small gourds on a wall trellis. "They have such pretty flowers, like squash blossoms, and are so cute; in the fall they make a great decorations," she says, and can be paired with annual flowering vines.

Many gardeners start to experiment by introducing herbs into their decorative plantings.

Many are prized for their fragrance and blooms: cinnamon or Thai basil, with purple flower heads and divinely scented leaves, makes a terrific addition to bouquets as well as salads, and can be used as a small, shrubby annual in the border. Dill, fennel and asparagus all have delicate, lacy foliage which compliments many flowers.

Planting diversity has other benefits as well.

Beneficial insect populations increase with the more varied food sources, while destructive insects are frequently stymied by the mixing of "target" with nontarget plants. Interspersing different species of plants also helps rotate food crops more effectively, which is often difficult in small yards.

Stocksdale does offer a word of warning. "Be careful if you decide to use pesticides or herbicides on mixed plantings," she cautions. "Remember that some of them are toxic to humans, too. Others are systemic and get into any plant's system that it touches. If you plan to spray a rose, for example, it's better to put the edibles in pots you can remove while spraying, or at least cover them well with newspaper or plastic to prevent contamination."

Ideas for using edible plants in the landscape:

-- Espaliered and dwarf fruit trees make an elegant living fence, with deliciously scented flowers in the spring. Small fruit and nut trees such as filberts, can be used as any decorative tree. Figs have large, palmate leaves which add a lush, tropical look.

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