Edible Beauty: great looking crops for pots

nasturtiums

If you only have a small space to grow food in, you’ll probably be keen that it’s productive AND looks good. In the past it was common to have enough space to grow both ornamental plants and to have a more functional vegetable patch. But now that so many people live in cities without a garden, many of us only have a tiny space to grow in. We want attractive plants – and to be able to eat them.

You can strive for beauty in a small space in several ways. You can find attractive containers or make and decorate your own. You can arrange them aesthetically, using different configurations and different heights. And you can grow crops that look beautiful and combine varieties that look great together.

I’m always on the look out for productive, tasty crops that look great, too. I want my growing to look good for my own benefit – and for passers by!

Here are some beautiful food crops you can try –  I’d love to hear about your favourites and suggestions, too.

Edible flowers

Edible flowers are an easy way to brighten a growing space. They are great for small spaces because they also attract beneficial insects – as well as being a treat to eat! There are loads to choose from and experiment with. Favourites (for beauty combined with taste) include:

Nasturtiums: few things brighten a small space better than a swathe of bright orange, yellow or red nasturtium flowers. You can grow climbing varieties (eg to cover a water butt) or trailing varieties (look great trailing down a street side wall), or varieties that grow in big clumps. The flowers are amongst the tastiest of all edible flowers, adding zip and real flavour to salads. The young leaves are tasty, too – and their round shape adds a pleasing variety to your foliage.

Nasturtiums are cheery and tasty!

Chives flower early in the year and profusely once established. They look (and taste) great. Bees also love them.

Chive flowers add colour to your containers in the spring - and taste good, too

Chive flowers add colour to your containers in the spring – and taste good, too

Blackcurrant sage sends forth a joyous profusion of bright orange flowers throughout the summer and autumn. The flowers have a good flavour and can be used in baking or fruit salads.

Blackcurrant sage flowers for ages and looks amazing

Runner beans were first grown in the UK as an ornamental and can look very handsome in containers. They are also one of the most productive food crops for a small space. The flowers (red or white) are edible and extremely tasty. Use your creativity to create a beautiful trellis or wigwam for the beans to grow up.

It's a bit of a secret that runner bean flowers are edible - and delicious

It’s a bit of a secret that runner bean flowers are edible – and delicious

Wasabi has the benefit of growing well in a shady spot – and flowering in January or February. It’s mainly grown for the root, but the leaves and pretty white flowers are delicious when eaten fresh.
Other attractive and tasty edible flowers include day lillies, lavendar, pot marigold, viola, Japanese chrysanthemum, and the pretty flowers that most of the Asian greens produce – like pak choi, mizuna and Chinese broccoli.

The flowers of many Asian greens and mustards are pretty and edible. This is Chinese broccoli in flower - a tasty and fast growing container crop

The flowers of many Asian greens and mustards are pretty and edible. This is Chinese broccoli in flower – a tasty and fast growing container crop

Foliage colour

You can, of course, add colour with foliage as well as flowers. Here are a few ideas:
Bright lights chard is a brilliant container crop. The mix of bright red, yellow and green stems is vibrant and cheerful. You can grow it for small, pretty salad leaves. Or put it in a big pot to grow into large, stately specimens to be harvested in winter and spring. (Just take care to protect from the hungry winter pigeons!).

Bright lights chard - actually this picture doesn't really do it justice, but its the best I could find!

Bright lights chard – actually this picture doesn’t really do it justice, but its the best I could find!

Red salad leaves – there are several varieties of salad that produce red or purplish leaves (some almost black) to add contrast to your salad growing pots. These include red (or magenta) orach, lettuce red cos, mustard red giant, red amaranth and the Japanese herb red perilla (this leaf has an attractive frill, too).
Different shades of green: you can also experiment with different contrasting shades of green. The lettuce, black seed simpson, for example, has vibrant lime green leaves, while cavelo nero leaves are dark green, almost bluish.

Growing different coloured salad leaves together can look pretty, too

Leaf shape and texture

As well as (or instead of!) colour you can find beauty in foliage shape or texture. You might experiment with:

Fennel: the fronds of fennel look beautiful in containers, particularly when grown with contrasting leaves – try mixing it with the pretty leaves of Russian Kale, for example.

Fennel fronds can contrast beautifully with other leaves

Fennel fronds can contrast beautifully with other leaves

Cavelo nero: sends up a majestic plume of leaves that look fantastic in containers, particularly in winter – so, so much better than sad empty pots. It’s also as hardy as old boots and will survive frosts, snow – almost whatever you throw at it!

I love the bluish and green plumes of cavelo nero

Lemon grass: the thick grassy leaves of lemon grass can look pretty, particularly waving in the wind. You can see a picture in my October 2010 growing diary (although you can’t see the waving in the wind bit).
Sage: the silvery, furry leaves of common sage add a pleasing contrast in containers. You can also try variegated varieties – although personally I’m not a fan of these as I don’t enjoy the flavour so much.
Salad burnet: this is actually a wild flower, but I’m including it for its pretty leaves. In the kitchen, it can be used to add another dimension to salads (add in small quantities).

Sweetcorn: is a tricky crop to grow productively in containers. But even if you don’t get much to eat, the stately spires can look great.

I like the stately spires of sweetcorn and the way the leaves rustle in the wind!

I like the stately spires of sweetcorn and the way the leaves rustle in the wind!

Fruits

Fruits can add colour and interest. Here’s are a few ideas:

Blueberries are a top notch container crop for beauty and productivity – you get pretty blossom in spring, blueberries in summer, and attractive redish foliage in autumn.

As well as pretty and tasty fruits like this, blueberries also give you blossom in spring and red leaves in autum

As well as pretty and tasty fruits like this, blueberries also give you blossom in spring and red leaves in autumn

Purple podded peas: many pea varieties have beautiful blossom and some also have attractive fruits. One of my favourites is Ezeta`S Krombek Blauwschokker, which produces purple mange tout. I grew these outside the front door last year and they looked great.

These purple podded peas looked great by the front door of the house

These purple podded peas looked great by the front door of the house

Fat baby achocha: ok, so these aren’t exactly beautiful – but their weird, alien like fruits do add visual interest!
Chillies: are available in red, yellow and even purple, and the fruits look pretty and exotic.
Squash: many varieties produce fruits that are eye catching for both their size, colour and shape. Favourites include the bright orange red kuri squash, and the long snake like squash of tromboncino (Italian for trombone).

More flowers

As well as edible flowers, you can grow flowers specifically to attract beneficial insects (phacelia is a personal favourite) or crops that have pretty flowers – broad bean flowers can be very beautiful, for example.

Broad beans are not a very productive plant for small spaces - but I often grow a few because I love both the blossom and the beans are my all time favourite veg!

Broad beans are not a very productive plant for small spaces – but I often grow a few because I love both the blossom and the beans are my all time favourite veg!

What’s your favourite?

What’s your favourite crop or combination of crops for beauty?

9 comments… add one

  • Lovely page Mark! I love putting flowers on my salads. Incidentally, last winter I took a nasturtium growing in a pot into the greenhouse (I wonder if a frame will do – I will try that next winter) and it is still alive!!! Every few days I harvest a few leaves from it. I don’t think it can go on forever but a little batch each winter would be tasty on winter salad leaves!

    Reply
  • Also, out of curiosity where do you buy your seeds?

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  • This is a great post! Very inspiring for our front garden which is a slab of concrete.

    I was wondering of these plants do any of them need deep containers?

    I’ve read Beans and Chard have deep roots but I’m not sure on the rest

    Also our front garden only gets sun in the morning (when we have sun)…. I’m guessing this will stop us from growing a lot of these options?

    Thanks
    Claire

    Reply
    • Claire, for a rough guide to container sizes and how much sun different crops need, I’d download a copy of the Vertical Veg leaflet, the Art of Growing in Small spaces – its free, you just need to subscribe in the top right (you can unsubscribe any time). I’ll be doing a fuller guide on what size pot and how much sun each crop needs soon – its a bit difficult to summarise quickly – but if there are one or two plants you are particularly interested in, do let me know.

      Reply
  • Hey Mark- just bought some of the Ezeta`S Krombek Blauwschokker pea seeds following your recommendation- looking forward to trying them out- how tall do they get?- im guessing not great for a window box- perhaps outside my front door in a pot?
    Owen

    Reply
    • Pretty tall – at least six foot from memory. Good idea about growing them outside the front door – as you say, a bit tall for window sills (although you could pinch the tops out to keep them smaller). They have attractive pink blossom so will brighten your street, too!

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  • Great blog. I definitely agree on the broad beans. A friends of mine had bred some with lovely purple flowers and purple beans.

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    • Love the idea of growing broad beans with purple flowers – I think the Garden Organic Heritage Seed Library stocks these if any one is looking for them.

      Reply

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