Grow Edibles as Ornamentals

We finally got a combination of heat and moisture in New Mexico with the monsoons, though the pattern this year is wacky. I’ll take it, though, because the vegetables are growing, and most importantly, ripening. And the healthier, fruit-bearing plants are enriching our diet, but also bringing me so much joy.

edible-ornamental-tomato
Ripening tomatoes! These cocktail tomatoes are gorgeous to look at and fun to squeeze (or harvest) as I walk inside each evening.

In April, I wrote about how growing edible plants is a smart xeric strategy. If you have lawn, garden or container space to fill and want attractive plants to look at, why not make some of those edibles? It’s true that most edibles require more water than native plantings, but they produce food in return. And since they grow here when most of our annual rain falls, we use little well water, especially by harvesting rain water.

But back to how pretty they look! Sure, maybe seedlings are a little sad at first, and until flowers set on tomatoes or cucumbers, they’re not much to look at. Once vegetables flower, however, they have pretty blooms and you want to check on them every day (at least once) to see how they’re progressing. Mix in one or two favorite flowering perennial or annual plants and you’ve got a small arrangement of colors and textures.

edibles as ornamentals
Maybe I’m weird, but I think even the wild grape tomato plants in the large container to the left are beautiful. And don’t forget bountiful! I also love how the melon drapes over the geranium. Other edibles in this photo: rosemary and a tiny pepper.

Here are a few tips to remember when growing edibles as ornamentals:

  • Make sure you amend the dirt so it’s plenty rich and full of organic matter. If you pop some carrots or tomatoes down where you formerly grew cacti, your plants won’t get the nutrients they need and the dirt might not drain or hold water as it should, depending on its makeup. The longer you can take to prep the soil, the better.
edibles in rock garden
Here’s the same area I showed in the April post I mentioned above, slightly more than three months later. But the soil needed more amendment than we gave it. The zucchini didn’t care at all, and is eating the garden. But the other plants needed more organic matter. The empty spot once hosted a tomato.
  • Check with local master gardeners or reputable sites for container sizes for various herbs and vegetables. For example, most tomatoes need  at least a 24-inch diameter pot for good root and plant growth; larger is better if in doubt. And terracotta plants are a beautiful Southwestern staple, but they dry out more quickly than plastic or glazed pots. But if you want to grow the edible more for looks than production, as long as you make sure the container drains, the sky’s the limit. Have fun with it.
  • Of course, if critters are a problem, you might have more limitations. I’ve had some tomato munching, but no action on my patio yet. We’ll see what happens when the melons begin to ripen.
  • Using a variety of colors and textures goes for gardening with edibles, just like when planning a xeric garden landscape. Many flowering vegetables, such as tomatoes, melons and squashes, have yellow flowers. Add more color with an eggplant in a container (most varieties self-pollinate) for its purple, star-shaped flowers. Or grow an okra, which has a beautiful white flower with a purple center. Beans, and especially peas, can be attractive if grown on a trellis. Just be sure to give them plenty of space!
green beans
I think these green beans are lush and gorgeous. If growing on a pretty painted trellis instead of wire fencing, the foliage and round, white flowers would add interest to any garden.