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Yardsmart: Cool-season flowerbeds provide delectable winter greens

November 20, 2009|By MAUREEN GILMER / Scripps Howard News Service

In states with mild climates, a garden doesn't go to bed for the winter, it simply changes character. By Thanksgiving, the beds and borders are filled with plants that crave cooler temperatures. Try to grow these same plants in summer and they'll promptly wilt or become infested with wooly aphids. In the fall, low light and moderate temperatures create the perfect environment for what are loosely called cool-season annuals.

The key players in the off-season flower garden are violas, pansies, primroses and calendulas. Two of these offer a second value of having edible blooms. Calendulas are pot marigolds from Europe with delightful yellow and orange daisies and edible petals. They brighten salads, float on soups and make a lovely garnish for any dish. The other edible flower is the viola. In the Middle Ages, when small violas came into gardens, it was common to dine on a salad of viola leaves and flowers mixed with onions. These flowers also make a charming garnish for cakes and a tasty accent for fresh greens.

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This year, take the cool-season flowerbed a step further. Consider blending your cool-season annuals with cool-season greens. These greens aren't grown for their flowers, but for their delicious leaves that can be eaten fresh or cooked in savory winter dishes. Outside of the Deep South, cooked greens aren't as well known, yet they make fine winter dishes that are both delicious and healthy.

The best choices of greens for beginners to blend into winter flower gardens are the coles. This is a group of closely related greens under the genus Brassica, all of which are members of the cabbage family. Flowering coles include broccoli and cauliflower, which need the lengthening days of spring to produce their crop. But the rest of the coles are grown for their leaves, which is why they do so well during the off-season when days are short.

In the north, coles are often planted in very early spring and eaten until summer arrives. Then, these leafy plants "bolt" and flower in response to both temperature and expanding day length. When a plant bolts, the stems between each leaf extend like a telescope, turning a dense rosette into a tall, gangly spire. Bolting obviously spoils its shape, but it also changes the flavor of the foliage. Some say they become bitter.

In warm winter climates, leaf coles are best planted in the fall. As the days are still growing shorter, they do not bolt. In fact, exposure to mild frost can actually improve the flavor, making them taste sweeter as the foliage grows large and lush. These leaves can be picked all winter long for immediate use in the stockpot, thereby retaining nearly all their vitamins and minerals.

Of all the coles, kale is the most fail-safe. It's a beginner gardener's dream crop that can be worked in among your seasonal annuals. Kale is considered the predecessor to modern cabbage and was the primary vegetable of the European Celts (inherited by the Romans), and it remained central to diets into the Middle Ages.

Today's grocery store kale is Brassica oleracea, which bears crinkly, wrinkly blue-green leaves on long stems. But this is just one of many varieties that offer more visual interest through unique colors. The brightest are the ornamental or flowering kales that are edible, but are bred for their color, not flavor. You'll find much better productivity and savory taste from varieties such as Russian Red and Vates Blue.

To find a great selection of kale as well as other gourmet greens for mild winter climates, go to Seeds of Change (www.seedsofchange.com) or Johnny's Selected Seeds (www.johnnyseeds.com). These sites offer extensive sections devoted to plants that are powerhouses of winter vitamins and minerals.

The beauty of winter greens is that they do not have to flower and be pollinated to produce edible fruit. For anyone who enjoys creativity in the kitchen, don't miss out on this opportunity for healthier, fresh winter fare. Just add kales to your winter bedding flowers and discover how easy it is to stay fresh all year around.

Maureen Gilmer is a horticulturist. Her blog, the MoZone, offers ideas for cash-strapped families. E-mail her at mogilmer@yahoo.com.

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