Thursday, May 1, 2014

Midwest Tropics

Head cabbage looking like a rose

The other day I was reading an advertisement from one of my favorite on-line nurseries:  Annie’s Annuals and Perennials.  Annie’s is from that state that’s a world of it’s own, California.  They embrace the unusual much like New Orleans except with better weather.   But I digress. 

Annie was featuring edibles used as ornamentals; something I’ve been preaching for several years in this column.  Now some of those edibles are absolutely FAB-U-LUSIOUS! 

Beautiful purple Kale
You may wonder:  “Does Diane really buy plants from California?”  Well, no I don’t.  Even though Annie carries some of the most FAB-U-LUSIOUS plants I’ve ever seen for sale, the shipping from that side of the US is more than the plant.  I read Annie’s columns, enjoy her photos and think of ways to adapt our Midwest varieties to her ideas. 

Then. I realized I wasn’t looking at our varieties with the same “eye” I use when I look at her photos.  I’d accepted vegetables as commonplace – maybe because we live in the middle of soybeans and corn. 

For those of you who need visualization in the form of photos, check out my blog.  For those of you with a hefty amount of imagination, I’ll paint a tropical picture using veggies.

Red cabbage roses
Cabbage plants (no matter what color) look like really HUGE roses blooming wherever they’re tucked. 

The herb Sage is from the Salvia family.  It resembles silvery Lambs Ear and Dusty Miller except it is very VERY fragrant if touched and is a perennial in my yard. 

This will grow into 3 foot Kale

Kale is the new “every chef has to use it in every recipe and wax on about how wonderful it is”.   Fact is its extremely good for you.  Now the pretty part:  The plant is dark blue/green and the long leaves can reach three foot in some varieties.  Truly tropical looking much like a pineapple plant.

Other beautiful “greens” are the brightly magenta or gold Chards, deep green collards and spinach.   

Grapes are a perennial vine that needs little fussing and has the benefit of fruit.  A great alternative to climb a trellis, oblique or fence.

Lettuce comes in such a large number of colors, sizes and textures, it can be added to pots, flower boxes or in front of beds. 

Need color?  Cherry and pear tomatoes come in white, yellow, red, purple and a deep chocolate.  Pepper plants in the same colors and many shades of green.  They can climb or there are dwarf varieties.

The herb Rue - host food to caterpillars of butterflies
I could list every herb known to man and most of the list would look tropical in the Midwest garden.  Some would be annuals.  One that many love is Cilantro.  It has lovely little leaves and near the end of the season pretty white flowers.

Looking for height, plant a few tall okra plants.  The leaves are large and funky and if you have even a little southern in you, you’ll be tossing these babies in soups and other stuff that simply grosses me out – sorry…

A rhubarb patch has “pie” written all over it and the large leaves and red stems accent the garden.  It will gradually increase the patch size over the years.  It sends up a large flower stalk at the end of the season much like a yucca plant.

Sweet corn, maze, popcorn and others in this family certainly look like a tropical forest if planted in a circle instead of in rows.  Much like bamboo without all the invasive habits.

Can this eggplant's color get any prettier!
Eggplants are such a surreal luscious color of purple it begs to be in with your flowers.  One of the best plants if you are into neglecting your garden and a perfect plant to help make hummus.

Asparagus looks like Asparagus fern only much larger.  In green, shades of pink and a rich purple, a corner of the garden is perfect for this perennial and wonderful plant. 

Have I listed every vegetable and herb that would be perfect in flowerbeds?  Nope, not by a long shot.  Next time you visit a local nursery looking to enhance your yard and planters, stop by the vegetable section first.  The cost is comparable to flowers, often cheaper, and they do double duty.

 Midwest tropics?  It’s as easy as a sunny day.



  1. Lovely! Have you been to Cantigny Park in Wheaton? They use lots of vegetables in their many flower gardens. I used to visit when I lived there. Would be a great road trip. Thinking of you.

  2. I haven't been to Cantigny Park - it should go on my "to do" list. Tks!