Grow a feast for the eyes and a feast for the table: Graham Rice suggests we jazz up our bedding and borders with vibrant vegetables
We grow hostas for their foliage, we grow heucheras for their foliage. But there’s another group of plants whose foliage can be just as attractive but which rarely find their way into our beds – because they’re vegetables.
Of course, choosing the right varieties is crucial, but take lettuce. Modern red-leaved lettuce varieties such as the looseleaf ‘Bijou’ or hearted types such as ‘Nymans’ (see photo), not only produce wonderfully rich colours but stand without bolting for far longer than older varieties – giving you colour for longer. Try them with calendula, lobelia or white alyssum.
Chard lasts even longer. While for years only a red-stemmed type was available, 'Bright Lights' has six or eight colours, (including a vibrant cherry red, see photo, below) many of which are also available separately. They look superb making a flat carpet around the base of low, creeping verbenas.
Purple kale ‘Redbor’ is one to look for. It's sometimes sown in summer for a tasty winter crop, but sown in spring it makes a superb foliage plant for summer. With yellow Tropaeolum peregrinum (canary creeper) twining through, it makes quite a feature. Green curly kale, such as ‘Starbor’, looks like a huge curled parsley plant and is good with white annuals. The dark, long-leaved ‘Nero di Toscana’ (cavolo nero) is lovely with daylilies (see photo) blue salvias or in front of pink cosmos.
Purple Brussels sprouts, whose purple-blue foliage will give visitors a happy surprise among orange Tithonia (mexican sunflowers) or used as a support for Ipomea tricolor ‘Heavenly Blue’ (morning glory), will give you a fine winter crop of buttons after its neighbouring flowers have faded; look out for ‘Rubine’ or ‘Falstaff’. Red cabbage does the same job on a smaller scale, with a ground covering of petunias perhaps.
Still not convinced? Well, it’s especially easy to try these colourful leafy vegetables with your flowers because young plants are available from mail order seed companies and young plant specialists. You can try a few and prove to yourself how good they look. And of course, they taste great too.