ILLINOIS YARD AND GARDEN
Planting Vegetables in Your Flowerbed
Fewer and fewer people have vegetable gardens. Rural folks still do, and occasionally you'll find vegetable gardens in town. The urban folks tend to get into their car and drive to the nearest supermarket or farmer's market.
We've been ingrained so long as to what constitutes a vegetable garden. We imagine rows and rows of lettuce and green beans, closely followed by giant mounds of pumpkins. Tomatoes are planted by the gross and staked or caged. And vegetable gardens take up lots of space. Or they did.
Years ago we planted to put food away for the winter. Now it's cheaper to go to the store and pick a can off the shelf, or a packet out of the freezer.
I won't get into the economics of vegetable gardening other than to say it isn't economical any more. We can debate for hours about the quality, but mass transportation has created a food supply where we seem to have anything we want all year. Asparagus is no longer just an early spring food. You can find it, if you are willing to pay, about 12 months of the year.
Still, there is something wonderful about eating your own grown tomato or pepper.
Many vegetables do well as landscape plants, tucked in among the flowers and shrubs. You don't need row after row of plants.
For example, many leaf lettuce seeds can be scattered between perennial plants in the early spring or fall. Cultivars such as 'Red Sails' look attractive as clusters of plants, and can be picked and harvested by early June or late October. You end up with nice little mounds of 6 to 8-inch-high plants. Sure, the spring-planted types will bolt in summer, but you rip them out and replace them with annual flowers.
Treat other greens the same way. Don't grow beets for the awful tasting tuber (okay, that's a personal opinion) but for the colorful baby leaves. Spinach and mustard greens are also wonderful small plants.
Pepper plants can be tucked in with the annuals. Some of the ornamental types are extremely hot, while some such as 'Chilly Chili' are mild. Bell and banana peppers can form nice 2-foot shrubby plants with colored fruits. For the best enjoyment in the flower garden and landscape, choose color-fruited bell types instead of the green one.
Tomatoes are a little touchier to fit in, especially the large ones. The bigger the tomato, the more likely it is to need support, and the more likely it will develop diseases. The cherry and Roma types, no matter their color, are the best.
Kales look great in the landscape, as do some of the small round cabbages. The bigger ones and broccoli might look okay, but you'll need something to replace the plants in late July. I'd almost suggest not trying either.
So what do you do with vine crops such as pumpkins, squashes and melons? They're best left to the large gardens. Even the bush types tend to form 6 foot by 6-foot plants, and seem to act as beacons to insects.
One of the best landscape plants of recent years is 'Bright Lights' Swiss chard. It's a relative of the beet, but much better tasting. The petiole or leaf stalks have bright colors ranging from white to red to purple to yellow to orange. You can't predict what combination will come out, which is part of the fun.
Even if you don't like chard, the 2 to 3-foot tall plants never bolt and look good until a killing frost.
Finally, consider cardoon. It's a great foliage plant with gray-green leaves that look similar to a thistle, but much softer. The plant stands out in the landscape and you can eat the leaf stalks (not the blade) if you want.
The plant is easily started from seed. However, if you buy plants, the plants may reach maturity in October, at which time they'll start producing these gorgeous round blue flower heads for you.
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