A Cook's Garden

These plants are as good in the vase as on the plate

By Barbara Damrosch
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, September 23, 2010

Flowers and edibles can sometimes be seen hanging out in the same garden and even in the same salad bowl. But recently, at our place, they got together in the same vase.

I sell bunches of cut flowers along with the vegetables at our farm stand, and this year the blossom business was unexpectedly brisk. At the same time, summer's early start caused many flowers, both annual and perennial, to end their performances too soon. Later on, a drought put the zinnias out on strike. The result: a flower picker from whom nothing was safe. Wildflowers, ferns and flowering shrubs all fell to the florist snips. A greedy rustler stalked among the herbs.

The idea was not a new one. I'd long ago discovered how dill flowers, with their lacy yellow umbels, can fill out a bouquet. Last year I'd planted a whole row just for that use and rejoiced to see it had gone to seed in the same spot this year for another go.

Chive and sage blossoms, both of which appear early in summer before annual flowers have time to work up a head of steam, were godsends once again. But soon, any spot of color would draw my eye. The long lavender-blue spikes of anise hyssop proved to be beautiful mixed with phlox. Purple-pink oregano blooms were indispensable, especially a dazzling variety called Zorba Red, which I bought from a mail-order nursery named Richters (http://www.richters.com). With long, straight stems and red-purple bracts dotted with tiny white flowers, it mixed well with everything. Garlic chives were a blessing, too. Originally planted for their pungent foliage, they produced white flower clusters on long, sturdy stems and kept right on coming from midsummer into fall.

I went after foliage as well. I had never used branches of gray-green sage in bouquets, but they were fragrant and beautiful -- a blending color. The gorgeous leaves of purple perilla, also known as shiso, were a dramatic filler and didn't wilt as look-alike purple basil would have done. I tried any edible foliage in a vase first. The stems of many garden greens, such as rainbow chard, might look stupendous in the row but drooped when picked.

The champion of them all was a complete surprise. Normally our artichokes bear into September, but this year's weird weather robbed us of the edible buds and caused the plants to bloom early instead. Suddenly I had a field of stunning, neon purple-blue, thistle-like flowers that lured nearly as many buyers as they did bees.

The flower season is on the wane, but I can't stop looking. A few scarlet runner beans, in a shady corner, are still showing sprays of vivid red flowers. They just passed the vase test. But each of them will, if left on the vine, produce a fat pod of shell beans -- and leave them I will. On this farm, in the end, the table wins.

Damrosch is a freelance writer and the author of "The Garden Primer."


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