Many gardeners find solace in growing flowering ornamental plants, brightly coloring the yard with different shapes and textures, constantly changing with the seasons. Gardeners often set aside room to grow fresh vegetables, typically in rows, treated very differently than those flowering ornamentals. However, everyday garden vegetables can be just as eye catching as any garden perennial and can be grown alongside these plants. Incorporating vegetables into established planting beds can maximize space in the garden and provide and extra element of interest.
For instance, the very attractive foliage and flowers of okra (a relative of the garden mainstay hibiscus and cotton) can provide a stunning, nearly tropical appearance, towering over other plants. The upright habit makes okra excellent for tight spaces. Okra’s quick growing habit from seed makes this an easy addition to the garden. Harvesting can begin as early as mid-summer and should be done when the okra pods are between three and six inches long. Many cultivars of okra exist, some having deep red stems, leaf veins, and seed pods. The flowers, though often hidden beneath the foliage, are highly ornamental. Grown best in full sun, okra will produce a bountiful harvest with regular watering.
For a lower growing, sprawling plant, many of the vegetables in the squash family (Cucurbitaceae) have stunningly large, green leaves, vining and crawling habit, and often feature large, yellow flowers. The resulting fruit (which we refer to as a ‘vegetable’) can range from small and inconspicuous to very large, very colorful, and interestingly shaped. Plants like patty-pan squash produce very strangely shaped, starburst patterned fruit, very visible beneath the large leaves. Gourds are just as ornamental, available in numerous colors and patterns, and easily grown in the garden. The flowers of cucurbits are not only very attractive, but also edible, often stuffed and fried making a delicious addition to any meal. Place squash and other cucurbits in full sun, where they can sprawl and climb, and be sure to harvest the them before they rot on the ground. Be warned, these plants grow quickly in the heat of summer and will fill in a low border of the garden very quickly.
Many of the common garden vegetables grown today are members of the deadly nightshade family (Solanaceae), well known for the many species of poisonous, even lethal members of this plant family. These vegetables include eggplant, tomatoes, and peppers. Due to the very distinct flower that sets the deadly nightshade family apart from others, early European settlers initially identified these plants as dangerous, refusing to eat them for fear of poisoning. Of course, now these plants comprise the foundation for many culinary dishes from salsa to spaghetti sauce. Though the flowers can be ornamental, their small size makes them difficult to appreciate in a garden setting. The fruit, however, is often very attractive, considering the purples and whites of eggplants, the greens, yellows, oranges, and reds of peppers, and the myriad shades of tomatoes available. To appreciate the ornamental value of these fruits, these plants often require staking, similar to what is typically done in a vegetable garden setting. Solenaceous plants require full sun, regular watering, and often need fertilizing to produce large, healthy fruit. Placed appropriately, many of the plants we frequently arrange in rows to maximize the ease of harvest can be incorporated into the garden as an ornamental plant.
compiled by Cara L. Crocker