I’ve always loved the way certain vegetables look in the food garden and have often threatened to plant the prettiest ones in my perennial beds. So far I’ve done nothing about it but move two kale plants to join pots full of pansies. Unfortunately, something ate one. I have no eye witnesses but I assume it was one of my dogs. Luckily the pansies were not appetizing.
I still giggle when I say, think or write ‘pansy.’ It started when I saw the animated movie Madagascar. The scene where the king of the Lemurs called the escaped zoo animals ‘a bunch of big pansies’ cracked me up. Are pansies considered the wimps of the garden? Is that where the derogatory slang as in ‘you’re such a pansy’ came from? It makes no sense to me since they stand up to the cold so well. But I digress.
At the Philadelphia Flower Show I saw that the competitors for “Best Window Boxes and Window Balconies” did not just threaten to combine flowers with vegetables. They made the bold move and wove all types of plants into combinations that made me green with envy. The mixtures of annuals, perennials, vegetables, fruit trees and herbs were sensational.
This plant art inspired me to break out of my shell this year. I hope you will too after looking at these photos. Try combining grey and green with purple, soft with prickly, and shiny with fuzzy. Try some these ‘off the beaten path’ building blocks on for size:
Vegetables & Fruits
Cold weather vegetables like Lettuce, Kate and Swiss chard will do better with some shade, particularly in August. Hot weather edibles such as Artichoke and Citrus want full sun.
Swiss chard – The brightly colored stems and veins contrast vibrantly with the green leaves. Try ‘Bright Lights’, ‘Rhubarb’ and ‘Pink Lipstick’ varieties.
Kale – The purple stems of some Kale literally glow against its blue-green leaves. The upright and reverse-scalloped shapes lend strong structure to the center of a mixed arrangement.
Artichoke – Bold, jagged, arching leaves make a robust statement even if the artichoke never appears. There is also ‘Cardoon’ a majestic, silver foliage like the artichoke that is unfortunately just an annual in our zone.
Small Citrus Trees – Glossy leaves add texture and structure even after the tiny orange or yellow fruits have fallen.
Red Lettuce – There are many, many types of lettuce. Pick a ‘loose leaf’ variety rather than a ‘heading’ one. Floppy, red and green lettuce don’t need to mature to look good and will blend with the other plants much better than a head of lettuce.
Mustard – ‘Red Giant’ is used effectively in a window display shown in the photos to add large dark leaves and texture.
Herbs generally like full sun, but always read the tag for light and moisture preferences. The best part about adding herbs is that many of them you can snip periodically to eat!
Bronze Fennel – I planted this large, fuzzy herb in my perennial garden last year and was thrilled when it returned after the nasty winter. The texture and color this purple plant adds is far from ordinary and stands in stark contrast to the shiny green peony leaves behind it. I think it would be a rock star in a potted arrangement. Try it in a light colored pot for contrast.
Dill – The leaves of Dill add a light fluffy texture. The flower stems add great verticality. The flowers are a wide, upside-down umbrella shaped, yellow bloom. Be careful though. Dill self sows well. Unless you want lots of Dill, cut the flower heads off before they go to seed.
Parsley – Plain old parsley can add a great curly leaf and fill out nicely between flowers.
Chives – This herb endows an arrangement with tall shiny tubes of green. Where else would you get that shape?
The best part about using perennials is that they can move to a garden before winter comes. Many will even return in spring if kept in the pot in a sheltered area. This is true only for plastic, cement, metal or fiberglass containers. Terra cotta pots may break in freezing temperatures. Remember to read light and moisture preferences, just like with annuals.
Heuchera – commonly called Coral Bells are known for their beautiful water lily-shaped leaves that come in many colors such as purple and bright green. Try the ‘pistache’, ‘peach melba’, ‘caramel’ or any other variety that strikes your fancy.
Yucca – try this sharp beauty if feeling bold. The erect spikes grab attention in the glowing gold and green leaves of ‘Golden Sword’ or ‘Bright Edge.’ Just don’t put it where people will run into it!
Dwarf Lavender – small, young lavender plants add a soft, blue-grey spikes and delicate cones of purple flower heads. Choose dwarf varieties to keep them small.
Variegated Iris – I use this iris solely for the vibrant gold and green leaves that keep their intensity all spring, summer and fall. The small purple flower is a nice bonus, but I would use the plant without it. Plant it in the middle of a pot surrounded with flowers for good verticality.
Artemisia - There are many types of Artemisia. They add a soft, furry grey that compliments all other plants. Try ‘Powis Castle’ or ‘Silver Mound’ for a mounded, feathery addition.