Beautiful Vegetables For Foliage: Tips On Using Edibles As Ornamentals

Vegetables Used As Foliage
ornamental veggies
(Image credit: constantgardener)

I grow gorgeous scarlet Carmen sweet peppers, rippling dinosaur kale, flowering leeks, and crimson strawberries every year, amongst other things. They are so pretty in the garden, or at least I think they are. I also adore flowers and have a multitude of flowering pots with annual color mixed with perennials adorning my deck and front patio. What if the two mixed? What are some beautiful vegetables that can be used for foliage color and how can you mix decorative edibles with other plants?

Veggies and Herbs for Container Foliage

Using edibles as ornamentals to accentuate the beauty of potted annual flowers isn’t a new thing. Many people tuck an herb in here or there amongst their hanging flower baskets. The idea of using vegetable plants as ornamentals, first and foremost, over growing them for food, is a newer inspiration. Really, this is a win-win proposition since many of these ornamental vegetable plants are also decorative edibles. Sort of like the old Reese’s commercial about who is responsible for getting the peanut butter mixed with the chocolate. In the ad, the end result was delicious just as the end result of mixing flowering annuals and ornamental vegetable plants would be gorgeous as well as useful. I think all of my veggies are beautiful but if I had to choose, what are some beautiful vegetables for foliage color and texture to add to an ornamental vegetable garden or container?

Edibles as Ornamentals

Well, we’ve already mentioned adding herbs into the mix of container grown annuals and/or perennials. They add not only beauty with various leaf and flower textures and colors, but also a pleasing aroma, which often attracts pollinators while repelling unwelcome insect pests. Plus, they are usually situated near the kitchen or grill where their easy accessibility makes us use them all the more often. It’s easy to mix veggies and herbs for container foliage color and texture and is just as suitable for the rest of the garden. To illuminate your plantings further, try planting in raised garden beds for easy access and improved drainage, or create a circular garden that will be a focal point of your landscape.

Ornamental Vegetable Plants

There is a multitude of colorful vegetables that can be added to create interest in containers as well as the garden. Tucking in interesting looking leafy greens will add interest. Leafy greens come in a variety of colors and textures from every shade of green to red hues, bronzes, and purples.

  • Red fire or Red Sails are loose-leaf lettuces that bring into play the reddish bronze tones while Cimmaron lettuce is more bronze.
  • Try Freckles instead of plain, green romaine. This romaine type is splotched with burgundy and resistant to bolting. Darker burgundy Galactic has curled leaf edges and is also resistant to bolting.
  • Rainbow chard comes in a plethora of colors. Bright Lights is a chard variety whose stems and leaf veins arrive in riotous hues of orange, red, yellow, purple-red, and hot pink. Since it is a taller green, plant it as a backdrop for smaller plants.

I mentioned my Carmen sweet peppers earlier, but there is seemingly no end to the colors, shapes, and sizes available for pepper lovers. Everything from rather “ho-hum” green to purple, white, yellow, red, orange, brown, and even white peppers are available with every available hue within this rainbow of options. Eggplant is yet another delightful option for the ornamental vegetable gardener. These also come in multi-hued varieties from dark purple to green, white, pink, lavender, and even striped varietals. Tomatoes, with their cheery red fruit, are an obvious choice to integrate splashes of color throughout the landscape. Again, this fruit comes in a dizzying array of colors from white, yellow, purple, green, black, red, and, yet again, striped. If you thought beans were just green, think again. There are a number of colorful beans that can add a flush of color. Try planting purple or yellow “green” beans. Don’t forget about the colorful bean blossoms! Ornamental scarlet runner bean blossoms are a vivid pink and will enliven any area of the garden or container. Many of us use cabbage in the fall for added color to our landscape or flowerpots when summer colors have begun to fade. Cabbage comes in many shapes and colors, as does cauliflower and broccoli. Oddly hued orange cauliflower or purple broccoli might just be the thing to entice those members of your household who refuse to touch a green veggie! Don’t forget the perennials! Globe artichoke adds dimension and has striking foliage along with interesting fruit that, if left to linger, turns into a hallucinogenic blue that attracts bees from miles around. Asparagus has long, wispy, fern-like fronds and rhubarb returns reliably year after year with elephant ear-sized leaves beneath which scarlet stalks rise up from the soil.

Caring for Decorative Edibles

With the exception of the perennials, change out the ornamental veggies each year and experiment with combinations that are most pleasing to your eye. As an added bonus, crop rotation helps keep the garden and soil healthy. Depending upon the vegetable, you can also change out crops seasonally. As one plant dies back, replant with a cool-season vegetable. Include edible flowers that can be tucked in here and there. Lastly, keep the garden in good shape. Remove any weeds and crop detritus and keep plants pruned and deadheaded. The goal, after all, is to integrate the vegetable plants and herbs in such a way that they are simply seen as ornamental. Maintaining a neat and sanitary ornamental garden will also cut back on the incidence of disease and encourage you to get out there and harvest some of these edible ornamental beauties. Growing these plants in containers makes them even easier to maintain, but ensure the pots are both large enough to accommodate mature plants and provide adequate drainage.

Amy Grant

Amy Grant has been gardening for 30 years and writing for 15. A professional chef and caterer, Amy's area of expertise is culinary gardening.