Plant for looks and taste with ‘edi-men­tals’

The Observer Magazine - - Gardens -  @Botanygeek

I grew up por­ing over Dr DG Hes­sayon’s The Gar­den Ex­pert . Some kids fix­ate on stuffed toys or ac­tion fig­ures, but to me it was a heav­ily dog-eared copy of this iconic gar­den­ing book. I car­ried it with me ev­ery­where I went and, 30 years later, it is still to my mind the best hor­ti­cul­tural book.

There was al­ways one thing I found fas­ci­nat­ingly quirky about the book, even as a child: the cover. It fea­tured an ide­alised 1980s sub­ur­ban semi, with oblig­a­tory crazy-paving pa­tio and gar­den fur­ni­ture, lead­ing on to an im­mac­u­late lawn and herba­ceous bor­ders that stretched into the dis­tance. So far so good. But then, right at the back, hid­den be­hind pan­els by the com­post bins and green­house, was the veg­gie patch. Even at the age of seven I just couldn’t un­der­stand what the strict seg­re­ga­tion was all about. Why do we deem edi­ble crops as look­ing so aw­ful we have to put them as far away from view as pos­si­ble, even erect­ing bar­ri­ers to hide them?

To­day, as a botanist, I am still none the wiser. The sep­a­ra­tion be­tween “or­na­men­tal” and “edi­ble” crops is an en­tirely ar­bi­trary, cul­tural de­ci­sion. Many al­lot­ment sta­ples, such as run­ner beans and to­ma­toes, were first pop­u­larised in Bri­tain as or­na­men­tals for their pretty flow­ers and fruit, while flow­ers such as dahlias and daylilies were first grown as tasty veg. As far as I can tell, even as late as the 1980s Bri­tish gar­dens were still try­ing to em­u­late the lay­outs of grand Vic­to­rian gar­dens, al­beit on a postages­tamp scale. It’s a fas­ci­nat­ing cul­tural pe­cu­liar­ity, but given how our gar­dens are get­ting ever smaller, I can’t help won­der if it has fi­nally out­lived its use­ful­ness.

In that spirit, here are two mul­ti­task­ing “edi-men­tal” crops that look as good as they taste, even at this chilly time of year.

For those of you gar­den­ing on acid soil, blue­ber­ries re­ally do take some beat­ing as hor­ti­cul­tural all-rounders. Not only are the fruit of these ex­pen­sive to buy, de­spite be­ing much eas­ier to grow than many other ed­i­bles, but they also of­fer up pretty spring flow­ers and bright scar­let leaves in au­tumn – a per­fect so­lu­tion for a full sea­son of in­ter­est both for your eyes and your palate. Plants can be grown close to­gether, too, to cre­ate an at­trac­tive, loose, low-main­te­nance hedge that won’t re­quire slav­ish de­vo­tion to prun­ing. In my ex­pe­ri­ence the best colour comes from the high­bush blue­ber­ries Vac­cinium corym­bo­sum, which will be even red­der and pro­duce heav­ier crops of sweeter berries when grown in full sun.

If you don’t have acid soil, juneber­ries, Ame­lanchier al­ni­fo­lia ‘North­line’, make an ex­cel­lent al­ter­na­tive. These are widely grown in the UK as an or­na­men­tal, but were first grown in their na­tive North Amer­ica for their blue­berry-like fruit. With a flavour like black­berry jam laced with al­mond ex­tract, they make e fan­tas­tic fanta pies, jel­lies and jams, but are sweet weet enough to eat fresh. There is even now a com­mer­cial plan­ta­tion n of them in Kent. Just like blue­ber­ries, you get stun­ning ng white spring blos­som and deep red au­tumn colour on a tiny ny 4m tree that will fit into the he tini­est plots.

Plants that mean you can have your pie and eat it? You can’t say fairer than that. ■

Singing the blues: the stun­ning au­tumn hues of blue­berry leaves and their fruit

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