Ask the Clark Gardener

Dear Fellow Gardeners:


July 15, 2015. You Can Have Your Garden and Eat It Too.

My first vegetable garden was located in the side yard of my parent’s house when I was a teenager. The plot of land that I had to work with was about 10 feet wide and 40 feet long. The sun exposure was not ideal. The plot had to be an eyesore for our next door neighbor late in the season when some plants would start to deteriorate and vines would turn brown and wither. I never thought to ask my mother if I could plant some vegetables amongst her roses and annuals in the backyard. For some reason, I just assumed that plants raised for food were to be confined to their own dedicated space, planted in neat rows, and preferably remote from the “main” garden. Sure, my mother might have a few herbs in her garden, my uncle would have a couple of wormy peach trees near his ornamentals, and a family friend might have a huge blueberry bush behind her annuals, but for the most part plants grown to be edible, like tomatoes or cucumbers or carrots, were kept apart.

How my mindset has changed since then! I now have no qualms in mixing edibles and ornamentals in my home garden. Some edible plants have significant ornamental interest in their own right. Moreover, there is no area in my yard that would easily lend itself to be a dedicated edible garden without disrupting the flow of my yard’s landscape as I currently desire it.

If you look around Clark Garden, you will also find edible plants mixed with strictly ornamental plants. Here are some examples that might give you ideas for your own garden at home.

One of Clark Garden’s trusty ground covers is Ipomoea batatas or sweet potato vine. The garden currently has four different cultivars, one with lobed burgundy leaves, one with heart shaped burgundy leaves, one with lime colored leaves, and one with variegated green/pink leaves. The garden has used these vines for years in sunny areas among tropical plants, and in other annual display beds. By the end of a summer, a sweet potato vine will completely cover any bare spots between more upright plantings and be attractive in its own right. When we dig up the vines at the end of the summer, we inevitably unearth some large sweet potato tubers. These are edible, although I suspect that the cultivars that we grow are not the same used in commercial plantings. Nevertheless, I’ve been told that in years prior to my beginning work at Clark Garden, a gentleman would come every year to ask for these unearthed tubers. They would become part of the menu in his restaurant.

Have you ever eaten a cardoon (Cynara cardunculus)? Well, neither have I. In fact, I never heard of this plant until I started working at Clark Garden. I have since raised cardoons from seed and the dramatic looking plants have been used as specimens among Clark’s tropical plants one year and last year finding a home in Clark’s butterfly garden. Although categorized as perennials, they seem to act more like biennials at Clark, forming a clump of up to 20 inch long narrow leaves the first year and purplish artichoke like flower heads the second year (if they survive the first winter). The blanched leaf stalks and midribs are edible, although some garden visitors told me they required a bit of preparation to make them palatable.

Although not a mainstream edible, cardoons seem to have a following. Late last summer, two middle aged brothers were visiting the garden and suddenly recognized the plants, shouting and laughing “cardoonies, cardoonies.” Out came a cell phone, to take a picture of the plants to show their father. The recognition of the plants sparked memories from their childhood. Now and then, when they were youngsters, their father used to call to them to follow him. They would assume that they were going to have a fun game of softball with their dad. Next, they found themselves by an abandoned field of cardoons and realized that they had been tricked into helping their father harvest and prepare the leaves for eating.

Have you ever gone to a nursery and noticed small pepper plants for sale? I’m not talking about plants sold alongside other vegetable plants that will eventually produce large bell peppers or narrower hot peppers, but the more compact plants sold in the ornamentals section with what appears to be miniature peppers hanging from them. Often, these smaller pepper plants are cultivars of Capsicum annuum, such as ‘Purple Flash,’ ‘Black Pearl,’ ‘Sangria,’ ‘Calico,’ or ‘Medusa.’ All these cultivars mentioned have been planted as ornamentals at Clark Garden. The fruit of these plants may start out as green, black, or purplish, but they often ripen to bright red, yellow, or orange. They are little gems in the ornamental garden, but the fruit is edible, at least theoretically.

The measurement of the “heat” of hot peppers is expressed as something called Scoville units. As a point of reference, jalapeno peppers have a Scoville rating in the range 2,500 – 10,000 SHU (Scoville Heat Units). ‘Medusa’ is rated 1 – 1,000 SHU; ‘Sangria’ 1,000 – 5000 SHU; ‘Purple Flash’ 5,000 – 30,000 SHU; and ‘Calico” and ‘Black Pearl’ each above 30,000 SHU. Someone would have to be a pretty hardy soul to enjoy eating the hotter peppers, like ‘Black Pearl.’ I once sliced a ‘Black Pearl’ pepper in half and held it to my lips (never mind ingesting it). Twenty minutes later, my lips were still burning.

The next ornamental edible that I want to mention is used by many in soup, stews, and gumbo. I only tried it once, many years ago, and I now mentally categorize it as “that vile vegetable.” I think of it as the slug equivalent of the plant kingdom, for when one cuts open one of its pods, one is greeted with an unappetizing, repulsive (to me) slimy interior. Of course, I’m talking about okra. I mention it here because a cultivar grown at Clark Garden last year in its annual display garden was a strikingly attractive plant. Red Burgundy okra (Abelmoschus esculentus ‘Red Burgundy’) has burgundy colored tall stems and pods, as well as yellow flowers.

There are some plants at Clark Garden that attract more attention than others, and we can tell this by visitors stopping to ask the plant’s name or commenting on how nice it looks. For the last couple of years, at least, visitors have been inquiring about an up to 5 foot tall plant, 1 to 2 feet wide, with the upper foliage bright scarlet, orange, and yellow appearing in the annual beds or among our tropical plants. This plant is a cultivar of Joseph’s Coat Amaranth (Amaranthus tricolor). The leaves are visually stunning, but they are also edible. Although I have not tried them yet, it is said that the leaves taste like spinach when steamed or sautéed.

I could go on and write about many more edible plants that would look fine anywhere in your garden. I highlighted five to spur you on to use your imagination and encourage you to experiment. Even planting more common edibles like tomatoes or cucumbers or beets in movable planters can add interest to sections of your garden that need temporary empty spaces filled.

Come visit Clark Garden often. Throughout the growing season, every day here has something new to see.

Remember, if you have a comment or question, send them to me at CBGardener2@gmail.com. And come for a visit!

The Clark Gardener

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