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An Edible Landscape


When we talk about our landscaping, we usually distinguish it from our gardens, which are of course full of delicious vegetables. Why do we make such a clear and definite distinction?  They are all plants, when you get down to it.

We can generally use the same growing conditions for ornamentals as for the ones we consider edible. Both require water, sun, and a certain level of fertility.

There are some differences, of course. We space them so that flowering plants get put close together, to make a big visual impact, and we tend to spread vegetables out so they’re more productive. Another difference is that many ornamentals are perennial, and we treat most vegetables as annuals. Even so, we can think about what’s really pretty among the edibles and plan accordingly.

Some herbs can be really gorgeous, like basil. This is something that grows best during cool temperatures – spring and autumn. All basil flowers are pretty, but since it’s an annual, pick them off so the plant continues to produce leaves. However, if you’ve ever seen the basil variety “Purple Ruffles” you know that it’s exactly that. It’s purple. And the leaves are ruffled.  It’s so pretty that you might not want to harvest it. But do pick it and use it just as any other basil.  By the way, Cornell has a website listing over 20 medicinal uses for basil from all over the world.

I’m delighted when I see sage in bloom.  Flowers of the regular garden variety are a lovely rich purple, and since it’s a perennial, those blossoms can just grow rampant, while it produces more aromatic leaves.  If you look, you can even find cultivars that have particularly attractive foliage.

Lettuce has a big range of colors and shapes, from burgundy romaine to speckled leafy types. How can that not be ornamental?

Now, not everyone likes the vegetable okra, but I bet more people would grow it if they knew that the flowers look very much like its cousin, hibiscus. These blooms are often cream colored with a deep magenta center.

It does develop those seed pods, that’s the edible portion, but if you don’t plan on eating them, you can let them dry out on the plant for an interesting look.

A lot of people grow ornamental peppers, which are mostly edible. Some of them are bland, almost to the point of tasteless, but some of the newer hybrids are so hot that the seed catalogs say, “Don’t eat them!” Of course, these have the most vibrant colors.

I always think of nasturtiums as ornamentals, but they really should be added to any list of edibles. Both the leaves and the flowers can be added to foods for a spicy touch.

Anyone who’s ever grown melons or pumpkins know that the flowers are terrific. Sadly they only last a day, so as ornamentals, they’re disappointing.

I’ve often said that Mojave gardeners should grow asparagus for lots of reasons – for one thing it can handle our soils and our climate. It’s perennial, and growing them is a lot less expensive than buying them. But on the ornamental side, if you don’t harvest the spears, they’ll burst into asparagus fern – tall, feathery, and green – once temperatures rise. They provide a nice backdrop for other ornamental edibles, until they dry up and turn brown in the fall. 

Another tall edible with visual appeal is scarlet runner bean. The flowers are usually red (you might have gathered that from the name), and are quite eye-catching. The beans need to be cooked really thoroughly cook before eating. Plant them where the soil’s received a good dose of compost.

Any garden in this part of the world needs to be water-thrifty, but so many of the plants we love, whether to look at or to eat, need to be kept evenly moist. Improving the soil with compost, and keeping a layer of mulch over the soil, works wonders.

Edible or ornamental, our gardens can be both!