Garden Guide: edible plants provide food and beauty

Learn exactly how to care for these double-duty garden staples.

Edible pansies and nasturtiums grow in a bed among lettuce, kale and other veggies—all the ingredients for a deliciously colorful spring salad.
In the quest for a stunning garden, people often overlook an entire category of plants: edibles. Edible plants aren’t just tasty, they can be beautiful too! And vice-versa: A tremendous number of pretty plants can be perfect garden staples. So why just feast the eyes only—or feast only? Let’s talk about plants that do double-duty as edibles and ornamentals!

Ground Covers

Good ground cover is essential to protect soil from erosion and to help prevent weeds. To improve the appearance of your garden, these low-growing plants can be placed around taller species or can fill in unused space. Why not pick a good-looking ground cover that tastes good, too?

One of my personal favorites is creeping thyme. Due to its spreading nature, this drought-resistant plant doubles as a lawn replacement and chokes out insidious weeds once established. It’s pretty, producing a plethora of tiny flowers; and it’s tasty, with leaves that are just as flavorful as other thymes.

Don’t like thyme? Instead, your herbal choice may be creeping rosemary. Its attractive flowers are as tasty as its leaves, which often get added to

Mediterranean dishes to bring in extra flavor. A bit woodier than thyme, it can be used as a low-growing bed cover.

If you want something that produces actual food instead of herbal flavors, consider berries. Many dwarf strawberries make extremely successful ground covers while producing sweet fruit. So, too, do lingonberries, which produce bright red berries up to twice a year. In both cases, these plants produce beautiful green leaves year-round.

For people with a lot of space to fill, the sweet potato vine could be the perfect choice. Its impressive vining foliage comes in a variety of colors. And, under the soil, the plant produces edible tubers to harvest later.
Short Plants

A variety of leafy plants and flowers fall into this category. Many are delicious to taste—and behold.

Looking for flowers? Those that are edible include lavender, a common flavoring for sweets, as well as violas and geraniums, which have edible petals that can be lovely topping salads or entrees.
Mix and match your flowers with leafy greens. Lettuce, chard and mustard greens come in an incredible array of colors and can make a beautiful display. Oxalis triangularis, the false shamrock, has uniquely flavorful leaves as well. Chives produce grassy foliage with ball-like blossoms that are beautiful and flavor-packed.
Ruffled-leaved herbs, like parsley or cilantro, work well as background plants. Combine them with something that stands tall and proud in the back of the bed, like onions or Swiss chard. My favorite chard to use is ‘Bright Lights,’ which has vibrant stems in red, purple, yellow and orange.

Taller Plants

Don’t forget your showstoppers! Large plants provide great visual effects. Whether used as a bed’s centerpiece or as larger borders, plenty of options exist.
If you love the look of palms and swordlike foliage, try a line of leeks along a path or in the back of a bed. Leeks easily reach a couple of feet in height and produce a wonderful fan of leaves.
The decorative kale plant, with its ruffled, frilly leaves in light green or deep purple or large leaves in a deeper green, adds beauty to the garden and nutrition to dining. One of the best things about kale? Once the leaves are harvested, more grow.

Perennial growers may find the lacy, fern-like foliage of asparagus more to their taste. In the spring, they can harvest the tender spears for eating. And if you’re looking for large boundary plants, a row of artichokes may be a great option. These perennials produce edible chokes, but be sure to let one go to seed to experience the gigantic, ball-like flowers too.

Even standard food plants can be beautiful. The purple flowers produced by Japanese eggplant are gorgeous. And there are many ornamental peppers that double as spicy additions to your dinner plate.

Shade Trees

Of course, we can’t leave out our tree options. Whether you choose a large-leaved tree, like cherry or avocado, or something smaller, like olive or pomegranate, there are plenty of possibilities for you.
A citrus tree provides pops of color during the winter and pretty flowers in the spring. Nut trees burst into bloom early in the year, act as shade during the summer and drop tasty treats in the fall. Even spices are represented by way of bay laurels, which produce delicious leaves to cook.
No matter what plants you mix and match, you’ll find that edible plants create just as serene of a landscape as standard ornamentals. And, best of all, they’re delicious!

Flowers to Food

Adding flowers to your food brings in color, flavor and a little whimsy. Flavors range from spicy to herbacious, floral to fragrant. Use flower petals in salads, teas, as a garnish on your spring pasta dish, or incorporated into something you’re making like homemade ice cream.
To keep flowers fresh before using, place them on a moist paper towel and refrigerate in an airtight container. They can last up to 10 days when stored properly. Need to revitilize limp-looking petals? Float them in an ice-water bath.