Gardener cooks would do well to remember this twist on an old saying – keep your vegetables close and your herbs closer. At the end of the day, dinner preparations can be had in only a few steps when you keep the ingredients on the patio or near to the back door – along with ornamental flowers and shrubs. Summer may not be a vacation for everyone, but fresh and handy edibles and herbs can make cooking a delight instead of drudgery.
The star of the show when it comes to combining edibles with flowers is Tuscan kale (‘Nero di Tuscana’). The leaves – up to 10 inches long and about 3 inches wide – are almost black and a pale thick vein runs down the center of each. They look – and feel – corrugated, as if they were made of seersucker. Plant it amid tall fall asters and mounding hardy geraniums. Splash a bit of orange for a color contrast, such as the blanket flower (Gaillardia) ‘Mardi Gras’. Tuscan kale can take a bit of afternoon shade in summer, and it’s a fantastic plant for fall – even tastier after a nip of frost.
Summer squash takes up an inordinate amount of room in the vegetable garden, but slip one plant into a bed of flowers, and it doesn’t seem nearly the thug. The bright golden yellow, trumpet-shaped flowers add an exotic touch to the garden. Plant it among the coneflowers – even at the base of shrub roses. Everyone knows how easy it is to overlook a zucchini – and today’s slender green cylinder is tomorrow’s baseball bat. Prevent this from happening by choosing a yellow variety, such as ‘Sunburst’ patty pan or ‘Easy Pick Gold’ zucchini.
Variegated corn (‘Vareigata’ or ‘Field of Dreams’) sports leaves striped with cream and pink. It provides color and structure to a mixed bed – at 5 feet high, it’s a giant annual among mounding perennials. Use three or five at the back of the border or be bold and set out a block. Corn is wind pollinated, and so a string of four plants just won’t work if you’re looking to harvest. Instead, plant out a 5-feet-by-5-feet square – impressive and edible.
Tuck tomatoes into the garden here and there. For a plant that doesn’t ramble around the border, choose a determinate variety, such as a Roma, which flowers and sets fruit for a single harvest. If you don’t mind the hunt-and-peck method of harvesting, set out a cherry tomato. Left to its own devices, ‘Sun Gold’ or ‘Sweet Million’ will become vine-like and you’ll discover whole sprays of sweet surprises growing among phlox.
Vegetables, just like the flowers, will need regular water and a dose of organic fertilizer through the summer. But herbs – especially those native to the Mediterranean region – thrive on neglect.
Thyme, sage, and rosemary are woody plants that do best in thin soils, so don’t dump on the compost mulch or even think about fertilizing. In fact, although many herbs will grow well in the garden – and provide a fragrant response to being brushed up against – herbs in pots are even better.
Keep the roots of those herbs on the dry side: choose a breathable container, such as unglazed terra cotta, and don’t bother with a tray under the pot. All you will need to do is step out onto your sunny patio, balcony or back porch with a pair of kitchen shears in hand and have at it. Harvest thyme by giving it a haircut – grab a handful and cut. Sage can be taken leaf by leaf. Whole stems of rosemary can become meat skewers for the barbecue.
Much-loved basil is an entirely different story. It’s an annual, living only one year. It’s also prefers regular water and a bit of organic fertilizer. Don’t let it flower, because that triggers the plant into thinking it’s done it has duty and can now die. You want it to continue growing leaves, so pinch off any flowering stem you see. And happy cooking!