6 Ideas for Beautiful Veg

 Dreadlock amaranth in Chris' garden.

Dreadlock amaranth in Chris' garden.

“Every vegetable plant to me is beautiful. I’m biased,” says Chris Gark as he tells me about interesting veggies that he’s growing.

Chris has introduced me to a number of neat crops over the years in his trial garden at Martin Farms, a wholesale grower of veggie plants for homeowners.

Chris usually has lots of unusual edible plants on his radar. He says that this year he’s really focusing on greens. Here are six crops he’s stoked about:

1. Sea Kale

“It’s a relative of kale that doesn’t peter out like a lot of greens do,” says Chris. The large leaves and fragrant, edible flowers make it a fun addition to the garden. As a perennial, it’s a good fit for permaculture gardening.

2. Oyster leaf 

“It’s really quite an ornamental plant,” he says as he talks about the vibrant green-blue foliage. The flowers remind him of borage. The leaves are tender with a slight seaweed flavour. “It’s good for salads and garnishes,” Chris adds.

3. Red Ursa Kale

Unlike Sea Kale, this is a true kale. This beautiful heirloom has leaves with both frilly edges and attractive colour. Like many kales, you can harvest young leaves to eat fresh in salads and cook larger ones.

4. Kosmic Kale

“I had the first plant in Canada,” Chris tells me. Like Red Ursa kale, this is a true kale. But it never goes to seed. See my previous blog post. It’s stunning. https://stevenbiggs.ca/stevebiggs-blog/2018/4/19/a-great-ornamental-edible

5. Dreadlock Amaranth

“I eat the greens, but I ultimately love the flower!” says Chris. This is a plant that he grows year after year.

6. Biquinho peppers

“They are the size of large marbles with a point, like inverted teardrop,” Chris says. The name of this little pepper from Brazil means “little beak.” And the plants themselves are beautiful. Chris says that even in the cold, wet weather last year the plants performed very well.

A Great Ornamental Edible

 Kosmic Kale

Kosmic Kale

KALE CAN BE STUNNINGLY BEAUTIFUL. I made it the focus of my front garden one year, a broad band of purple-blue leaves right across the garden. It’s a great ornamental edible.

But chewy stir fries, failed attempts at kale chips, and a couple of accidentally steamed caterpillars turned me off of eating kale.

I decided to live life on my terms…and that meant no more kale in my diet. Sure I would grow it for its looks—for the colours and textures it adds to the garden—but would eat no more kale. Chewy kale be gone.

Last year Chris Gark at Martin Farms offered me a cutting of ‘Kosmic Kale.’ Chris trials lots of neat edibles. (I’ll write about that in another post.) I declined the kale cutting at first, but when he raved about how tender it was and what a great pesto the leaves made—and when he said it wasn’t chewy—I thought I’d try it. His plant was 5 years old and had grown to four feet across and four feet tall. He even pruned it into a topiary for a while!

Impressed with this ornamental edible, I called Alice Doyle at Log House Plants in Oregon. Alice is a wholesale grower who introduced the plant to North America. She tells me it was bred by Dick Degenhardt in Boskoop, Netherlands. An “amazing guy,” she says. She had been sending him unusual plants to use in his breeding program. One day he said to her, “Hey I got something you might be interested in.” She says he worked for years to breed ‘Kosmic Kale.’ “He gave it to me,” she said.

Because ‘Kosmic Kale’ doesn’t flower, it is reproduced by stem and root cuttings. Alice explains that she originally named it ‘Dick’s Picotee Kale,’ but now calls it ‘Kosmic Kale.’

Alice has a plant that’s over 6 years old. She finds that the leaves are tender whether the weather is hot or cold. As I write this blog post I pinch myself because I’m writing about kale—so I go to my cold frame to pick the oldest leaf I can find on my plant. It’s not chewy!

Plants are hardy to about -12°C (10°F.) and do best in full sun. This summer I will be growing mine in a big container that I can stow in my garage for the winter.

NOTE: This plant is not easy to find here in Ontario. I was in touch with Paul Zammit at Toronto Botanical garden--who told me they expect to have a few plants at their upcoming plant sale on May 12 and 13 (May 11 is for TBG members only). Click here for details.

Grow What You Love

 Emily Murphy, author of Grow What You Love. Her website is  Pass the Pistil

Emily Murphy, author of Grow What You Love. Her website is Pass the Pistil

I HAD THE PLEASURE of meeting author and blogger Emily Murphy at Canada Blooms this year. Emily's new book, Grow What You Love shares her passion and tips for growing herbs and vegetables. And it also shares her philosophy of living a more inspired life.

I asked Emily to share more about her thoughts on fitting edibles into the landscape.

Q: You talk in your book about how your nonno (your maternal great-grandfather from Italy) practised permaculture before it was called permaculture. Can you tell me more about some of the things he did?

A: For Andrew Bei, my Nonno (my maternal great grandfather who immigrated from Italy as a young man), reading and working with the landscape was second nature. While I never met him, this is something I understand thanks to the many years spent in the orchards he planted and the gardens he once grew. Grapes and other tender plants like vegetables needing daily attention and frequent watering were planted closer to home, which also happened to be closest to the nearest water source. Further away from home he found meadows with natural seeps and plenty of open sun, tucked between the native mix of redwoods and oak woodlands, for fruit trees. Groves of plums, apples, and even chestnuts were all strategically placed to flourish within the existing landscape. It’s easy to see he took great care with his selections, spending time to develop a deep sense of the land before planting. He was a permaculture artist long before permaculture was born.

Q: You describe a vineyard on the approach to Sonoma, California, where there’s a low rock wall skirted with asparagus—and what a great landscape planting it makes. What are some other edibles that you think make great ornamental plants?

A: Edible perennials such as radicchios, asparagus, and rhubarb are an easy match with ornamentals. So too are hardy herbs like thyme and sage, and greens like chard or ‘Red Russian’ kale. Their habits are reliable and their forms just as lovely as any ornamental grass or showy perennial. They teach us to have some fun with the spaces on hand, think outside the traditional garden grid, and utilize concepts found when interplanting — pairing plants based on maturation time,  habit, and seasonality to naturally build layers of texture, color, and interest in the landscape. Why not grow rhubarb in your perennial border? Or plant garden sage along with yarrow, Agastache, and bee balm? Rhubarb is one of the first to welcome spring and easily outshines its ornamental counterparts and sage is as powerful a pollinator plant as any other, plus it appreciates harvesting.
 Grow What You Love. 12 Food Plant Families to Change Your Life.

Grow What You Love. 12 Food Plant Families to Change Your Life.

Q: In your chapter about edible flowers, you talk about using both borage leaves and flowers. I’ve used the flowers as garnishes…but never thought to try the leaves. How do you like to prepare the leaves?

A: It’s true. The leaves of borage are edible. It’s a little impossible to believe, I know. Especially when your most recent experience with borage was most likely pulling it up at the end of the prior season, leaving your arms red and itchy. But if borage leaves are harvested when still quite young they’re tender.  Wilt them gently in a sauce pan with a bit of water and touch of salt, much like with nettles, spinach, or turnip greens, or toss them into a soup when it’s nearly ready to serve and you’ll have something wonderful and nutritious. It’s a triple win-win.

Q: You have sunflowers as one of the edible flowers. They do well for us here in Toronto (although I’ve found the squirrels enjoy them too!) I’ve never roasted the seeds, as my kids usually take the mature head and start chomping on unroasted seeds. How do you prepare and roast your sunflower seeds?

A: I like to roast sunflower seeds much like I roast pumpkin seeds. Preheat the oven to 300 degrees F, spread the seeds out on a baking sheet, and roast for 30 to 40 mins, stirring them occasionally so they’re evenly roasted. Then sprinkle them with a little salt once cool or eat them plain — I love their simple flavor which is all the better when homegrown.

Q: What are some of your other favourite edibles that look really attractive in a garden?

A: This must be a trick question — there are so many! ‘Red Giant’ mustards, with their flamboyant leaves, the frill and spritely nature of cucamelon vines climbing their way up and over trellises, and the trailing vines of summer squash with their golden flowers are just a few. Perennial herbs are another category all their own. Fragrant, often hardy (except rosemary), and with reliable blooms for cutting, eating, and pollinators. But there are so many! These are just a few. 

Emily's blog is Pass the Pistil.

You Gotta Kill a Few

IT WAS ALL SOIL...NOT A SEEDLING TO BE SEEN! As my daughter Emma and I studied a tray of basil seeds that hadn't germinated, I thought failure would be a good blog post.

Even as an experienced gardener, I have failures—so I figure it’s good to reassure new gardeners that these things happen. (Of course, you don’t have to tell people about your garden failures, although I find that when I give talks, people enjoy my stories of failure…did I tell you about my parsnip wine?)

 Bob Martin says, "You Gotta Kill a Few!"

Bob Martin says, "You Gotta Kill a Few!"

I reached out to Bob Martin, a.k.a. The Veggie Guy, a wholesale producer of vegetable plants for home gardeners here in Ontario. He shared his top four tips. A professional grower, Bob is also one of the most down-to-earth gardeners I know. “I like to see people have fun growing,” he says.

One of the first things Bob said to me was, “You gotta kill a few before you get it right.” He recommends keeping notes so that you remember what worked and what didn't. “I still kill things,” he adds.

Here are Bob’s pointers for compact seedlings:

  1. Where: “You want the sunniest window or grow lights,” advises Bob. Ideally, a warm spot with air circulation.

  2. What: Bob suggests starting out by growing something that is easiest to grow yourself, such as cucumber or zucchini.  As gardeners get more experience growing from seed, they can progress to other crops such as eggplant, tomato, and pepper.

  3. How: “Seed into pots, cover with just a touch of soil, and cover with a clear bag to keep up the humidity,” he says. As soon as you see plants emerging, take off the plastic.

  4. Bob says that keeping seedlings cooler once they get their first “true leaves” helps to keep them compact. In his tomato seedling greenhouse, the night temperature is 15°C, and it’s only 20°C by day.

BONUS TIP: with tomato plants, he recommends a bit of stress to toughen them up. Dry them out a couple of times till they just start to wilt. “That just makes them stronger,” he says.

Sorrel and Spring


WHEN I BUMPED INTO MY FRIEND Pat Crocker at Canada Blooms, she was very excited about her soon-to-be released herb cookbook. It sounds really great, so I asked Pat if I could share a sneak-peak here!

If you’ve seen my talk Crops that Wow, you’ll know that I always mention sorrel as one of my favourite crops. It’s easy to grow, it’s difficult to find fresh sorrel leaves in stores, and it is versatile in the kitchen—all of which make it worth my while growing. (And I've cooked with sorrel on TV!)

Read what Pat says about sorrel in The Herbalist’s Kitchen. Cooking and Healing with Herbs:

Bitter Herbs

Herbalists and other natural healers champion the bitter taste of some herbs and garden greens because although aggressive, bitter flavors are also fresh and stimulating to the body and the brain. It is generally agreed that bitters support the heart, small intestines, and liver, as well as reduce fever. As one of the four official tastes–sweet, salty, bitter and sour–bitter is just now getting some respect and beginning to take its rightful place at the table.

Some ancient traditions link the four tastes to mental as well as physical effects on the body. For example, a balanced intake of bitter flavors is thought to encourage honesty, integrity, optimism, and a loving heart. Not bad for a friend that started out as a bully in the kitchen.

The astringent taste of greens such as endive, chicory, wild sheep sorrel and cultivated sorrel, radicchio, dandelion and yellow dock awakens the palate and poises it for more balanced tastes in the meal to come. The digestive tonic action promotes the secretion of hydrochloric acid, which aids digestion so take bitter greens at the start of a meal. A small light salad or a few sips of bitter greens are excellent tools for whetting the appetite.

Leafy bitter greens and herbs not only positively affect our body and brain, but they deliver vitamins A and C, fiber, iron, and calcium, all with low caloric impact. Toss any of the above-mentioned bitter herbs into an appetizer salad or use in smoothies and soup.

Herbalists and other natural healers champion the bitter taste of some herbs and garden greens because although aggressive, bitter flavors are also fresh and stimulating to the body and the brain. It is generally agreed that bitters support the heart, small intestines, and liver, as well as reduce fever. As one of the four official tastes–sweet, salty, bitter and sour–bitter is just now getting some respect and beginning to take its rightful place at the table.

Pat’s Sorrel Soup

This is a healthy, tonic soup, best if made in the spring when peas are fresh. It’s meant to strengthen invalids, but the cream and eggs may be omitted. It is thick and flavorful and if you wish to thin it down, add more broth at the end, in step 2. The recipe is adapted from Gardening With Herbs, Helen Morgenthau Fox, but it dates at least to Dalgairns, 1830 and was once called Nun’s Broth.

Makes 6 servings

  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin avocado oil or olive oil
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 2 small heads lettuce, chopped
  • 2 cups fresh peas
  • 1 cup coarsely chopped purslane, optional
  • 1 cup packed sorrel leaves
  • ½ cup coarsely chopped fresh chervil or parsley
  • 6 green onions, sliced diagonally
  • 4 cups chicken or vegetable broth
  • 2 carrots, chopped
  • 2 cucumbers, coarsely chopped
  • 2 pieces of toast, coarsely chopped
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt
  • Fresh grind of pepper
  • 1/2 cup table cream (18% butterfat), optional
  • 2 egg yolks, optional
  1. In a soup pot, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Add onion, lettuce, peas, purslane, sorrel, chervil and green onions. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook, stirring frequently for 25 minutes or until vegetables are soft. Add broth, carrots, cucumbers, toast, salt and pepper. Bring to a simmer, partially cover and simmer, stirring occasionally, for 1 hour.

  2. Transfer soup to a large bowl. Ladle soup into the blender in batches and purée on high speed for 1 minute or until smooth and return each batch to the soup pot. Repeat until all herbs, vegetables and broth are puréed. Stir in the cream and egg yolks, bring to the boiling point but do not boil, stirring constantly, over medium-high heat. Taste, add more salt if necessary, and ladle into bowls.

Adapted from The Herbalist’s Kitchen (Sterling, NY, June, 2018) by Pat Crocker, www.patcrocker.com

Olive Trees in Cold Climates


THE FIRST TIME I SAW OLIVE TREES GROWING IN THE GROUND HERE IN CANADA in Canada I was on Vancouver Island in British Columbia. The olive trees were espaliered against a house—and they had Christmas lights draped over them. I was with Bob Duncan, who runs the nursery and demonstration orchard Fruit Trees and More. He said his olive trees are warm enough most winter nights…but when it gets too cold, he turns on the incandescent Christmas lights (which give off heat), and drapes an insulating fabric over the wall.

I was surprised to learn that olives can be grown on some of the southern Gulf Islands in British Columbia. I had a bad case of zone envy as I flew back to Toronto.

I returned home from that trip with an olive tree, a medlar tree, and a kaffir lime tree in my suitcase. I had gone to British Columbia with an empty suitcase, knowing I’d be visiting nurseries. And I wanted another variety of olive so I could get fruit from the two pot-grown olive trees that I’d been nurturing for over a decade in Toronto.

It’s over three years later, and I’ve still never had an olive. It’s a bit disappointing. But nevertheless, I find my olive trees stunningly beautiful. I LOVE the way the grey leaves shimmer in the light.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Cary Cloud when I hosted the Urban Forestry Radio show recently. Cary owns Olive Tree Growers nursery in Florida. His specialty is potted olive trees. Click here to listen to the podcast and learn about growing olive trees. 

 Jean and Cary Cloud of Olive Tree Growers

Jean and Cary Cloud of Olive Tree Growers

Brugmansia Mania

 Brugmansia have spectacular, trupet-shaped blooms

Brugmansia have spectacular, trupet-shaped blooms

IT STARTED INNOCENTLY ENOUGH with just one plant, but that led to another and then another.

When all were packed into the basement one winter, I counted 50-plus brugmansias stowed behind the furnace, in the cold cupboard — even in the washroom.

My wife, Shelley, concerned by my new obsession, suggested I stop taking cuttings and making more plants every time one came out of dormancy and started to grow. I didn’t stop.

The following summer I was glad I hadn’t, because that year the plants burst into a spectacular show of 225 trumpet-shaped flowers — some nearly the size of wine bottles. Their intensely sweet fragrance wafted into the house and floated down the street.

Click here to read my story about growing Brugmansias from Garden Making magazine.