Eye-catching edibles

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How times have changed since the vege patch was purely utilitarian, usually Dad's domain, and tucked away out of sight. Today's vegetable gardens often steal the limelight. They are, after all, a source of great pride and joy.

Edible plantings are as worthy of creativity as any other part of the garden. And when space is limited, it makes good sense to blur the boundary between what's edible and what is purely ornamental.

Even the most humble of vege plants have beauty - take plain old cabbages, for example. Colourful edibles can be extremely decorative, and eating a rainbow of different colours gives us more of those essential vitamins and minerals. While all edibles have eye appeal, some are a garden artist's delight. Here are six of our favourites.

1. Fancy lettuces

Easy to grow, lettuces bring fantastic colour and texture to the garden. Loose-leaf varieties are ideal because we can pick a few leaves at a time, rather than harvesting the whole plant. This doesn't just mean they look better - regular harvesting stimulates more leaf growth. Fresh picked leaves contain more nutrients too.

An enticing range of lettuce seedlings is available. You can also grow them from seed. Until the soil warms up, direct sown seed will be reluctant to germinate, but sowing in trays of seed raising mix (under a cloche for extra warmth) means you can get a head start. Wait till the frosty weather has passed before planting out tender seedlings. Choose a sunny sheltered spot and dig in plenty of compost. Water gently after planting and don't forget the slug bait!

Lettuces need very little space and they grow quickly. In fact the faster they grow, the tastier they will be! To grow fast they need relatively warm soil and mustn't run out of moisture or food. Be sure your soil is well drained. Avoid cold wet soil overnight by watering in the morning.

Cold soggy soil is the main obstacle to early spring growth, but this can be overcome by planting in containers.

2. Rainbow chard

Otherwise known as silverbeet, this is the easiest vegetable to grow and highly nutritious. And it looks even better than it tastes, worthy of place for looks alone. Whether you plant them with veges or flowers, the large dark green crumpled leaves are a standout, ribbed in vibrant yellow, red or hot pink, with stems to match. Whenever your garden needs a lift, plant a punnet of coloured silverbeet. The bonus is that you'll never be short of a healthy green for the dinner plate. You just can't loose!

Silverbeet is a good substitute for spinach in most recipes. Closely related to silverbeet, beetroot is another very decorative vegetable. The young leaves of both silverbeet and beetroot are highly nutritious and great in salads.

3. Artichoke

The silver sheen and striking architectural form of the globe artichoke is as ornamental as an edible plant gets. OK, it needs space, but just one plant is all you need to create a huge dramatic garden feature, and one that lasts. What's more, fresh artichokes are expensive to buy, and their subtle nutty flavour is delicious. They're easy to grow in a mild winter climate garden.

At maturity they need a square metre of sunny, well-drained soil, but you can use the space for a quick crop of rocket or lettuce while your artichoke plant gets going. Artichoke plants remain productive for about four years. Cut off the first spring's flower heads to encourage a strong root system. In late autumn, mature plants can be cut down to 15-30cm above the ground to promote strong growth the following spring. In cooler areas artichokes should be planted in spring, after frosts. Protect roots in winter with thick straw mulch.

4. Cabbage

A row or a cluster of these fat green globes is as decorative as any tricky topiary.

Perfect for creating dramatic effects in the garden, cabbages can have an equally dramatic effect on your health. They contain compounds that purify our blood and flush toxins from our bodies, helping to prevent cancer and heart attacks. Cabbage also helps with weight loss and contains natural compounds that enhance skin, muscle tone and eyes.

Eating all colours of cabbages is an excellent idea if you want to stay healthy and prolong your life. The pigments in red cabbages are called anthocyanins, which have numerous health benefits.

Did you know: Whether your coloured cabbages are closer to red or purple depends on the pH value of your soil. Adding vinegar or lemon juice retains the red colour when cooking.

5. Colourful kale

This pungently flavoured vegetable has an even higher nutrient count than its cousin, the cabbage. It is very easy and quick to grow and, because it is non-hearting, you can pick it a leaf at a time. Red and green varieties of culinary kale can be found in punnets or as seed.

'Ornamental' kale comes in a range of colours from creamy white to garish hot pinks and purples. Grown mainly as a vibrant splash of winter colour, it also makes a great garnish and is edible, though best eaten when the leaves are very young.

Kale is tastiest if eaten young, but it makes a handsome feature in the garden as it ages.

6. Rhubarb

This old favourite doesn't take much space, time or effort and its big leaves contrast beautifully with other vege plants. It is a permanent feature in the garden, ideally lifted and divided every 4 or 5 years. Rhubarb will grow in any well dained soil. Dig in compost before planting. For lush healthy growth, feed rhubarb every spring. Water in dry periods and try not to harvest the stems during the first season after planting.

Rhubarb is handy to have on hand for desserts, cakes and muffins. It combines beautifully with apples and berries. Green stems are just as tasty as red stems, but rhubarb leaves contain poisonous oxalic acid, so must not be eaten.

To pick rhubarb, pull with a downward and sideways action so they pull away cleanly.


Look for these products, tips and advice at a Go Gardening Store near you.



Fancy lettuces

Rainbow chard

Globe artichoke

Vegetable planter boxes