AUSTIN – It is possible for home gardeners in Central Texas to have their landscapes and eat them too. At least that is the conclusion of Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service horticulturists in Bexar and Travis counties.
Daphne Richards, AgriLife Extension horticulturist for Travis County, said there are many edible plants that also have ornamental potential for Central Texas landscapes.
“We’re talking artichokes, asparagus, Swiss chard, strawberries, herbs and more,” Richards said. “Some are perennials, some are annuals, but all will beautify your landscape as well as help satisfy your appetite.”
Richards said artichokes and onions have potential as ornamental plants, but if allowed to flower, the produce is no longer edible.
“With an artichoke, what you harvest and eat is actually the flower bud, so you eat it before it opens. Artichokes produce a beautiful purple flower that makes for a colorful ornamental addition, but you have to wait past the edible stage for it to bloom. The same goes for certain types of flowering onions. Once they have flowered, the edible bulb is no longer substantial.”
She said she also likes green beans as an ornamental, especially yard-long beans that can grow up along a trellis.
“Miniature pumpkins on a trellis make a striking ornamental addition to landscapes in the fall,” she said.”Pepper plants are also a good choice for edible ornamentals, especially as the fruit comes in shades of red, purple, yellow, orange and black.”
Richards said an interesting aspect of many pepper plants is that the fruit changes color as it ripens, so there can be a variety of color from the same plant.
“The ‘Black Pearl’ cultivar is unique among pepper plants due to its striking black foliage and clustered fruit, which begins a blackish purple and later matures to red.”
Among herbs, Richards likes to use oregano as a ground cover. Additionally, she said mint and lemon balm are both easy to grow, though gardeners may want to separate the mint due to its underground stems that can migrate and pop up elsewhere in the garden.
A Travis County Master Gardener for 15 years, Patty Leander is also a writer for Texas Gardener magazine and grows vegetables year-round in her Oak Hill garden. She will be presenting a program on edible gardening in Austin later this year.
“For people with the space and the right soil, it’s easy to grow vegetables and blend them nicely into their landscapes,” she said. “But people need to remember that insects and wildlife also find them edible and can damage plants and eat their produce if the plants aren’t protected and maintained.”
She noted, however, that some ornamental vegetable plants, such as okra and eggplant, are not only attractive but also seem to be less appealing to insects than other colorful edibles.
“Cool-season plants like Swiss chard and kohlrabi are also attractive in the landscape, but of course you have to know about when to plant them and how to maintain them,” Leander said. “Asian greens like bok choi and the smaller joi choi, as well as greens like dinosaur kale, also known as lacinato kale, are great additions for an edible landscape. Herbs and edible flowers add a different aesthetic to a landscape too.”
She added that if room is available in the landscape, planting trees such figs, pecans or pomegranates, which do well in Central Texas, would add another dimension to the landscape.
“But if you’re planting edibles in your landscape, I suggest you don’t just plant them so you can eat them. It’s probably best to harvest a little and leave others to grow past their prime so they can flower and add color and variety to your landscape.”
David Rodriguez, AgriLife Extension horticulturist for Bexar County, said ornamental or “flowering” kale and cabbage in addition to many types of lettuce, provide color for the garden and food for the gardener.
“Ornamental cabbage and kale are members of the brassica, or mustard family, which also includes broccoli, cauliflower, collards, kale and turnips,” he said. “They make colorful additions to the home garden due to their large frilled or ruffled rosettes of decorative leaves with cream, rose, pink, red or purple colors. And the Osaka mustard plant has beautiful red leaves and produces attractive yellow blooms.”
He said ornamental cabbages and kales don’t tolerate the South Central Texas heat as well as other edible ornamentals, so it’s best to plant them here as fall or winter crops.
Rodriguez said strawberries planted in a cascading fashion, such as in a hanging basket or multi-level container, make an excellent edible ornamental.
“Here in this part of Texas, strawberries are on an annual or 8-month cycle,” he said. “They do better in the fall and winter months and into early spring, as they don’t tolerate the summer heat very well. For homeowners in this region, the harvest time for garden strawberries is typically March through May. And strawberries, like some other edible ornamentals, produce a small flower that attracts pollinators and other beneficial insects.”
The horticulturists agreed it’s a win-win situation to incorporate garden plants that are not only colorful but tasty.