Michael Fahey, Merrifield Plant Specialist and ISA Certified Arborist
With fall on its way we are all starting to think about our cool season vegetable gardens. I personally enjoy growing a variety of edible foods each autumn, but you might be surprised to learn that in addition to well-known fruits and vegetables there are also a wide variety of edible annuals, perennials, trees and shrubs which you may already be growing ornamentally in your landscape. By learning to incorporate these plants into our cooking, we can add some unique flavors to our meals.
Whether you are new to edible gardening or are just looking for some new plants to add to your established fall garden, consider adding some of these herbaceous edible plants to your landscape this year.
Taro: Generally grown for its foliage, with one of its species often called “elephant’s ear” due to the size and shape of its leaves, taro has an edible corm which can be used in the same way as a potato. It is known for its purple color and can also be used to make chips, tea, ice cream and candy. Taro is grown commercially as a food crop in Hawaii and many other parts of the world, and grows well in wet soil, making it an excellent choice for areas in your garden with poor drainage.
Pansy: A popular flower for fall containers and garden beds, the petals of pansy flowers have a mild, fresh flavor and can be used as a garnish for cocktails, salads, soups and desserts. Try sugaring them to make a beautiful candied garnish for baking.
Tuberous Begonia: The flower petals of tuberous begonia have a light citrus taste and crisp texture. These are commonly used in salads, sandwiches, yogurt or ice cream, or you can use them as a garnish – sugared or plain. Edible varieties of begonia include: B. annulata (aka B. hatacoa), B. auriculata, B. barbata, B. gracilis, B. hernandioides, B. malabarica, B. mannii, B. picta, B. palmata, B. Semperflorens and B. fimbristipula (used to make a tea).
Sunflowers: In addition to the seeds, the entire sunflower plant can be eaten from the roots up to the flower. Eat sprouts thinned out from your garden bed on salads, tossed in dressing or olive oil and black pepper. Try a sunflower bud, which tastes like an artichoke – these are delicious roasted in garlic butter! Mature sunflower leaves can be used in stir fry provided you remove the tough center ribs, and stalks can be used in the same way as celery for their crunchy texture and mild flavor. If you want sunflower seeds, place sunflower heads in a bright location and allow them to mature so you can collect the seeds for use in your cooking and snacks.
Many of the vegetables we know and love come in beautiful, ornamental versions – which are still edible! Make the most out of every square inch of your landscape by filling in your garden beds with the beautiful foliage of vegetables like ornamental cabbage and kale, or with onions and garlic which produce lovely blooms (think of allium – they are in the same family). You can then use them in your fall cooking, just as you would the non-ornamental variety.
Important Tips for Using Edible Plants
Before you begin your edible garden, it is vital to remember the following rules when deciding which plants are safe to eat from your garden.
- Be conscious of which plants you will be eating when applying pesticides and fungicides. Knowing which products are safe to treat plants you are growing for food is very important as any plant you eat must be grown organically, without the use of pesticides or other chemicals.
- Be certain you are using an edible variety of plant. If you are not sure that the plant you have is safe to eat – bring it in for us to identify, or start from scratch by purchasing the correct varieties (or seeds of those varieties) and planting them in your landscape.
- Start small. Our stomachs need time to adapt to new foods. Try eating small amounts first and give your body time to adjust to new ingredients. If you have food allergies, be especially conscious of the foods you are consuming.
If you have questions about starting your own edible garden, I encourage you to come in to any of our stores to talk with a plant specialist, or come to our Merrifield location on September 9 at 10 am, where I will be hosting a seminar on edible gardens.