Growing Decorative Yet Ordinary Vegetables
Now for the more decorative forms of ordinary vegetables. Runner beans were originally introduced into our gardens in the seventeenth century for their visual qualities (so, incidentally, were tomatoes). Because they climb so willingly, runners can become colourful screens and focal points in gardens, trained up strings, canes or poles, over fences, even up trees or the sides of houses. In these last two cases make sure there is plenty of moisture and richat their roots. Most modern varieties are white-flowered, but for visual effect try the old-fashioned variety ‘Painted Lady’, which has red and white flowers, or the newer ‘Sunset’, with pale pink flowers, and ‘Red Knight’ with red flowers.
Marvellous value too are the purple-podded, found in both climbing and dwarf forms. The pods are deep purple and the flowers and foliage often have a pretty purplish tinge, but quite apart from their looks they are well worth growing for their excellent flavour. Climbing forms are usually called simply ‘Climbing Purple’. ‘Royalty’ and ‘Royal Burgundy’ are two named dwarf varieties. There’s also a purple-podded pea, a tall-growing old variety, handsome in both bloom and pod.
A very recent development in the pea world is the leafless pea, bred for mechanical harvesting for the processing industry. The fragile-looking stems twine together to give an impression of green barbed wire, and with the dainty white flowers make a pretty patch in the garden. Their novelty value may be higher than their culinary worth, but try the variety ‘Bikini’ now available from Thompson & Morgan.
The asparagus pea is not, technically, a pea at all, but has curious triangular pods which are delicately flavoured if used young. It is a very pretty, neat plant, with attractive foliage and lovely scarlet-brown flowers. If used to line the front garden path, no one would suspect its promotion from the kitchen garden.
A lot of beauty lurks in the pumpkin andfamily. Where you have a dismal piece of waste ground or an ugly corner, pumpkins and to a lesser extent make splendid, if unorthodox, ground-cover plants. To make sure their roots are in a fertile piece of ground, prepare a special hole filled with well-mixed earth and manure, and then allow them to romp freely in any direction. The morning dew on the huge spreading leaves of a healthy pumpkin plant is an unforgettable sight, while the large yellow flowers (which can be made into fritters or soups) and ripening pumpkins can be spectacular.
The range of picturesque pumpkins and gourds available in Europe and in the USA is far greater than here, eg the huge ribbed and warted French pumpkins, and the beautiful double-decker Turk’s Cap or Turban gourd, with its marvellous subtle combinations of white, yellow, pink and orange. They occasionally turn up in packets of mixed ornamental gourds, but they are not merely ornamental; they store well and make good pies. Several marrows, which are both decorative and useful, can be bought in Britain, for example the fluted yellow custard marrows, the white ‘Patty Pan’, the green scallopini squashes, and the golden. As these are all bush, rather than trailing in form, they can be adapted to smaller spaces.
There are several colourful types of tomatoes: the tiny yellow currant tomatoes, red cherry tomatoes, plum- and pear-shaped tomatoes, and yellow- and orange-fruited tomatoes. These last I have always found exceptionally well flavoured. Of the many types of sweet pepper, the pendulous yellow-fruited and the flat ‘bonnet’ or tomato-shaped are particularly decorative. Chances of success with peppers are enhanced if they are grown with some protection, but they are nothing like as difficult as people imagine. A novelty which looks promising is strawberry corn, an edible popcorn with strawberry-shaped cobs and mahogany-coloured seeds.
The ornamental cabbages and kales or borecoles are among the finest of the decorative vegetables. Stunning effects can be created when they are used as bedding plants in flower borders, or in a kitchen garden. They are usually variegated in colour, mixtures of cream, green and pinks, the leaves often beautifully fringed and veined. The colours tend to deepen during the winter months. They are edible, but are not generally as tender as standard cabbages. Ordinary curly is also a pretty vegetable, especially the dwarfer varieties which are now available.
Japanese, green ‘Mizuna’, is a vegetable I have taken to in a big way; it is very decorative, easily grown, hardy and useful both cooked (Chinese ‘stir fried’) or raw in salads. The leaves are deeply indented, and the plants can be kept neat using the cut-and-come-again technique, to which it responds magnificently, or allowed to grow to 30cm (1ft) in height. The small young leaves are particularly tender.
The leaf beets or chards include some wonder- fully decorative plants, for example Ruby chard, with its purple foliage and crimson stems, and ordinarybeet or Swiss chard, with its crisp white mid-ribs and brilliant glossy foliage. I hardly dare mention foreign varieties again, but travellers on the Continent should look out for the gorgeous pink-stemmed Italian chard (‘Bieta a coste rosate’) — a magnificent, robust vegetable.
Many of the salad vegetables described in ‘Salad Bonanza’ make very colourful patches in the garden, such as the red and green ‘Salad Bowl’ and oak-leaved lettuces. As only a few leaves are picked at a time, the overall ‘pattern’ is not spoilt when they are used. Other colourful salad plants are red chicories, curled endives,, claytonia, golden summer purslane and iceplant to name a few.
Then there are the red-skinned but white-fleshed— ‘Mammoth Red’, ‘Brunswick Blood Red’, ‘Red Italian’ and ‘Get Set Red’. Most of these are suitable for both summer use and storage for winter.
When youin flower beds; remember that vegetables are more demanding than flowers, so work plenty of manure or into the ground, give them plenty of space and light, and keep them well-watered. It is easier to establish them if they are transplanted rather than sown direct, and it is best to grow them in clumps or patches, or where appropriate as single specimens, rather than in rows.