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Winter Color Good Enough to Eat

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Winter Color Good Enough to Eat

By Mary James

Treat handsome edibles to showy spots in the gardens ... and on the table

As the year ebbs, so do many gardens. Most need a boost, and generally get it from cool-season annuals-pansies, Johnny jump-ups, fragrant stock, primroses and the like that brighten bare spots left by spent summer and autumn flowers.

But what if you could have winter color...and eat it too? You can, if you fill in with pretty-and tasty-cool-season edibles. 

San Diego’s mild fall and early winter are blessings of our Mediterranean-style climate that keeps temperatures moderate and brings welcome rain. Take advantage of this “second spring” to plant some easy-to-grow vegetables and herbs that you’ll enjoy viewing in the garden and harvesting for meals.

These days, there’s a growing selection of vegetable and herb starts in nurseries, but to enjoy the widest selection and some gourmet varieties, it’s best to grow from seeds.

Renee Shepherd of Renee’s Garden scours the world for seeds and trials them in her Felton, California, garden. She tests for everything from germination rates to flavor and garden performance. Listed are some of her selections for edible landscapes here in winter.

ChardChard - Although often good for more than one season in gardens here, chard can look weary and tattered this time of year. Start a new crop with ‘Neon Glow’, a striking duet with leaves ribbed and veined in magenta and gold. Both would be pretty edged with gold-eyed burgundy pansies. Or opt for the elegant ‘Italian Silver Rib’ with its deep green leaves divided with snowy white ribs, or the sweet flavors of heirloom ‘Bright Lights’ with a rainbow of stem colors including orange and crimson.
fennelBulbing Fennel - Not to be confused with towering bronze-leafed fennel, this veggie grows only about 18 inches high with attractive ferny leaves above pale green bulbs bursting with anise flavor. Shepherd sells a tasty French hybrid called ‘Trieste’.
lettuceLettuces - For a gorgeous show of winter color, Shepherd recommends the new ‘Stardom Mix’ especially packaged for edible landscapes. Its magenta and emerald oakleaf lettuces form plate-sized rosettes. Another recent introduction, ‘Garden Ferns’ is an Italian heirloom with upright loose leaves that resemble fern fronds. Picture them surrounded by daffodils. For those who prefer “cut and come” leaf lettuces, she suggests growing ‘Farmer’s Market Blend’ with sweet leaves in shades of green and red and ‘Asian Baby Leaf’ with spicy leaves ranging from celadon to burgundy. Combine them in the salad bowl for your own gourmet blend.
arugulaArugula - This peppery herb, good on its own or in a salad blend, can span seasons here. Grow ‘Runway’ with its unusual serrated leaves or opt for the more traditional ‘Italian’ with its deeply lobed rounded leaves.
chervilChervil - Another attractive herb coveted by gourmet cooks, chervil brings its lacy feathery leaves to the edible landscape. ‘Fancy French’ bears leaves with the classic anise-parsley flavor that can be a substitute for tarragon.
dillDill - ‘Dukat’ is a 1 to 2-foot tall Danish import with elegant blue green leaves that can season food and even fill in floral arrangements. Left to bloom, which it does more slowly than other varieties, ‘Dukat’ produces golden seed heads ideal for pickles.
CabbageCabbage - Unlike full-size varieties, ‘Pixie’ produces 5 to 6-inch heads of wrapped green leaves veined with cream. Plus it matures early and handles hot and frosty weather. Treat each head like a jewel and surround with purple sweet alyssum.
peasPeas - Add height to winter edible landscapes by planting snow, pod or shelling peas that will twine 3 to 4 feet up bamboo and metal tuteurs or A-frames. This year, Shepherd added a sweet English shelling pea, 'Sabr'’, to her offerings.
brocollirabeBroccoli Raab - This handsome Italian green has deep green leaves topped by bud clusters that suggest mini broccoli heads. Shepherd’s ‘Super Rapini’ can be harvested when about 8 inches tall.
winter greensGreens - Reserve a corner of your edible landscape for the good-looking gourmet salad makings in ‘Crispy Winter Salad’. Seeds are included for ruby red radicchio, satiny leafed escarole and the frizzy leafed frisee or curly endive. Sow together and enjoy the “thinnings” while the remaining un-crowded plants mature. If greens make you think of leaves you saute, try the new gourmet ‘Beet and Chard Mix’ combined with braising in mind.
RadishRadishes - Most of the beauty of this salad staple is underground, but they deserve a space in the winter edible landscape because they are easy and rewarding for kids to grow. Try the classic bright red ‘Round Romeo’ or experiment with ‘Easter Egg II’ with its mix of plum, rose, white and cherry-red radishes.
kaleKale - Ornamental kale is classic winter color, but why grow it when you can plant edible varieties to enjoy freshly cooked. The Portuguese heirloom ‘Tronchuda Beira’ is prized for its tall heads of blue-green leaves veined in white. Equally attractive and succulent is ‘Lacinato’ with deep green crinkled leaves.
Photo courtesy Renee's Garden

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