12 Ways to Add Edible Plants to Perennial Gardens
Planting a perennial garden is a joy in and of itself. But something that can make your perennial garden even more interesting is adding some edible plants to your ornamental display. In this article, certified master gardener Laura Elsener shares some of her creative ideas on how to add edible plants to your perennial garden this season.
When I first started gardening professionally, I quickly found my niche creating and tending to beautiful perennial gardens. I love the long curvy beds and layers of lush foliage with flowers exploding like a perfectly planned symphony.
But I also remember going to my grandparents’ house as a kid and seeing row upon row of peas, carrots, and all the other types of vegetables. There is nothing like homegrown vegetables. However, as much as I tried, I always seemed to struggle with a traditional vegetable garden.
Weeding and tilling never brought me any joy. I also live in an urban area where my yard doesn’t have much space for a dedicated veggie garden. But still, there is nothing like a homegrown tomato or freshly cut lettuce.
Over the years, I decided I had to combine my love for perennial gardens with my love for garden vegetables. Here are 12 ways I mix edibles into my perennial gardens to get the best of both worlds.
Start With Beautiful Herbs
If you don’t do anything else, add some beautiful herbs to your garden. This is one of the easiest things to do. Then you can just come out and snip a few herbs for your dishes. Just make sure your herbs aren’t in a high-traffic area that dogs frequent.
Chives are perfect for this. They are in the allium family and have pretty purple orbs of flowers as garden alliums. They pop up in early spring, and you can snip them for eggs and salads all season long. The purple flowers are also delicious. Make sure to deadhead these flowers before they go to seed, or you’ll end up with chives everywhere.
Lavender is the ultimate beautiful herb. The long grayish foliage with the distinct purple flowers is a classic perennial garden plant. Grow lavender as a border and snip off bits of it for cookies, tea, Epsom salt blends, or sachets.
Rosemary is another beautiful herb. This woody shrub can be used as a hedge or trimmed into a topiary. Or it can be left loose and airy. Snip off bits of it for cooking.
Thyme is a creeping ground cover that I always use in perennial gardens. It has beautiful purple flowers and can be snipped and used for cooking.
Try Some Beautiful Yet Tasty Foliage
I love foliage in a garden. Textured and colored foliage are everything! Adding edibles that have interesting foliage is an easy way to seamlessly add vegetables to a garden.
There are so many odd yet delicious varieties of lettuce. I like getting a cutting blend and sprinkling it around the front border of my hostas. Shadier areas of the garden are perfect for lettuce. I like looking for blends that include purple and speckled varieties.
Kale has such a fun texture and is a great addition to any garden. Dinosaur kale is a type of kale that has a pebbled texture and dark green foliage. It’s easy to plant as a border or as pips in a shade garden. Then just snip and use in smoothies.
‘Curly endive’ or ‘frisee’ is another interesting leaf to add to gardens. The loose curly foliage is as beautiful as it is tasty.
I also really like basil in gardens, they have a pretty leaves and take full sun. For an even more interesting look, try mini-Greek basil or a purple variety.
Use Fruit Trees and Shrubs
If you’re planning on adding a new tree or shrub to your garden, consider adding one that bears fruit. Fruit-bearing trees flower beautifully in the spring, and fruit in the late summer-fall.
Shrubs are also an option for fruit bearing. Consider blueberries, raspberries, currants, gooseberries, etc. However, do be careful, as some fruit bushes and canes can be rather aggressive in small spaces, like raspberries and blackberries.
Fill in The Gaps
I love the look of a full garden. I don’t have much space in my garden where you can see empty patches of soil. If there are big gaps, it’s the perfect place to add a vegetable or two. I like to add easy vegetables that I can chop out and eat as my garden grows.
In early spring, I plant romaine lettuce starts in the garden. As the garden fills in, I chop out the lettuce and eat it.
I will also grow cilantro or parsley in my spring garden and cut them off and use them before the summer heat causes them to bolt.
Another sneaky thing I do is plant garlic bulbs in the fall through my garden. Then I eat the scapes and dig out the bulbs in the summer. The twirly scapes add interest and height for a couple of weeks.
Carrots can also fill in gaps. They are fun to find and pull throughout the season. I sprinkle seeds in the garden and will thin them out while I’m weeding. The ferny foliage is pretty.
Radishes are also great. Radishes only take 21 days to mature so you can plant them just about anywhere there’s room for a quick harvest.
If there is a bit of soil, you can plant lettuce or nasturtium. In a sidewalk crack or the soil around a raised bed. You’d be surprised at the nooks and crannies cutting lettuce, arugula, or nasturtiums will grow. I learned this when I spilled a seed packet of lettuce.
Use Edibles in Containers
If you are short on space or just want to add edibles into pots, there are ways to do this and still have them visually appealing.
When I create a container, I always use the thriller filler spiller method. This means you want something big and amazing that is the thriller of the pot. Then you want plants that fill the pot. Finally, you want plants that spill over the edge of the pot.
When using edibles, you can still use this concept. You can also use all edibles or some flowers and plants with sine edibles mixed in.
Thriller edibles could be a cherry tomato or a pepper plant. Filler edibles I love are swiss chard or pansies. Spiller edibles that are great are hanging varieties of mint or nasturtiums.
Make sure when planning your edible container that you choose plants that all like the same sun and water conditions.
I love flowers that can double duty as food. There are lots of edible flowers in the garden.
Sunflowers are a great option. You can enjoy the bloom, harvest, and then roast the seeds.
Pansies and violas can be edible. While they aren’t much of a meal, they are fun to add to salads and cakes.
Artichokes have crazy-looking flowers. You have to cut them off before they flower if you want to eat them. But the spiky foliage and big bud are an interesting addition to a garden. I usually harvest some and let some bloom in my garden. They also look great in containers.
Roses are a perennial garden staple, and they are edible. The delicate flowers can be used to make syrups and rose water. They can also be used in salads and on cakes. Then the rose hips can be used to make an immune-boosting tea.
Plant Pest Repelling Flowers
I have some veg that I need to have in my garden. Tomatoes are one of them. There is nothing like a vine-ripened tomato that has been warmed in the sun. I also love jalapenos and bell peppers, cucumbers, and zucchini.
These vegetables I like to create space in my garden for these. But I also like visually interesting gardens. So, this is the time I will add annuals and other flowers to beautify my favorite veggies.
Marigolds are an ideal flower to plant with vegetables. Their sunny orbs of flowers brighten up any space. They love full sun, as do most fruiting vegetables (tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, etc.). Then, as a bonus, they can help repel pests and attract pollinators. I plant marigolds with my tomatoes every year.
Garden geraniums also work for planting. They stay in their place and leave room for your plants to grow.
I will sometimes grow zucchini in a big half-barrel planter and then bright red geraniums underneath. If my zucchini creeps over the geranium, I just dig up the geranium and move it since it is just an annual.
If you have a fence, a trellis, an arch, an arbor, or an obelisk, consider planting edibles that climb.
If you have a chain link fence, consider peas. Garden peas are right up there with tomatoes for me. I always find a way to add a few rows to my garden.
Just make sure you include space so you can get into your garden and harvest them. They climb perfectly on chain link fences. Or just put up some netting for them to climb a garage wall or fence.
Squash is the perfect thing to grow up an arch, trellis, or arbor. The squash grows and dangles through. It’s beautiful, and you’ll have enough squash for yourself and your neighbors.
Beans grow great on an obelisk, trellis, or chain link fence. Scarlet runner beans are especially beautiful, and they are edible.
Try Perennial Edibles
Edible plants that grow year after year in the same place are a wonderful addition to your perennial garden.
Rhubarb is a perennial plant for colder climates. The ruby red stalks are perfect for pies. The plant itself is big, lush and leafy, almost like a hosta. It is easy to grow and can handle a variety of conditions.
In warmer climates, you can grow ginger and turmeric. Let them grow for at least three seasons before harvesting some of their tuberous roots.
Lots of herbs are perennial. Chives, thyme, sage, lavender, and rosemary, to name a few. Mint is also perennial but be careful as it can be invasive. It’s better to grow in a container.
Use Hidden Garden Areas
Some vegetables I like just aren’t that beautiful. Potatoes are the big one that comes to mind for me. I love growing garden potatoes, but they aren’t very attractive plants. They also take up a lot of garden real estate if you want a decent harvest.
This is where I will use hidden areas. I also use bins and above-ground methods. Potato bins are wonderful. They grow vertically, and you keep adding soil.
I will place these bins along my sunny side yard. I will plant onions and other less attractive crops around the base of the bins if they are on the soil. If they are on concrete, this is a perfect place to stuff a bit of soil around the base and grow lettuce or nasturtium.
Side yards, back areas near a shed, or even laneways are places where vegetables can be planted. My neighbor plants potatoes in the alley every year. It’s perfect because they grow underground, so it doesn’t matter if dogs are doing their business on the foliage.
Try Hanging Fruits & Veggies
If you are short on space, consider hanging some veggies. The greenery and fruit are beautiful. You can obviously also harvest and eat them.
Strawberries work great in hanging baskets. You can buy them at the garden center this way. The delicate runners hang down then they flower and create bright red orbs of delicious fruit. They are nothing like grocery store strawberries.
There are lots of mini varieties of edibles that work great in hanging baskets. Patio snacker cucumbers work great. For something even more funky and unique, try cucamelons. They are tiny little orbs that look like tiny melons but have a sweet,tangy cucumber taste.
Some of the smaller banana-type peppers are stunning in hanging baskets. The peppers growing are as bright as flowers.
Small varieties of eggplants, squash, and tomatoes hang and spill perfectly out of baskets. Just keep in mind small hanging baskets will need frequent watering.
Choose Colorful Fruit Bearing Plants
Sometimes just planting a gorgeous edible plant is enough. Use it as a showcase piece. And before you come at me, I realize most of these options aren’t typically what we consider ‘fruit’, but in gardening terms, these are all fruit-bearing plants.
Some of the funky heirloom varieties of tomatoes are a work of art. They also taste great. Some of my favorite unique varieties include ’Pink Berkeley Tie-Dye’, ‘Green Zebra’, and ‘Indigo Sun’. These varieties will draw attention with their beautiful fruit.
Some varieties of squash and eggplant are beautiful too. I grew a patty pan squash at my front door and received a number of compliments on the little star-shaped squashes. Some of the dwarf varieties of eggplants have the most beautiful egg-shaped fruit dangling from the plant. They’re lovely.
Pumpkins are beautiful and fun, especially for kids. Beware, they take up a lot of space, but they also draw a lot of attention. Some of the boutique heirloom varieties are very popular and can cost a fortune. So, consider growing your own.
If you are a perennial gardener like me, mixing in edibles is the perfect way to enjoy garden fresh fruits and veggies without compromising the garden aesthetic. I think many of us are moving towards sustainable living and self-sufficiency.
By just taking some small steps, you can enjoy food from your garden while also appreciating its beauty. I find the more food I add to my garden, the more I keep adding in. The flowers and the food all work together in harmony.