I would hazard a guess that if you toured an art museum, the artwork depicting flowers would outnumber the art showing vegetables by ten to one. Or maybe 100 to one. Flowers? Georgia O’Keefe and her poppies spring to my mind, Monet had his famous paintings of Giverny with its water lilies. Van Gogh had his sunflowers. And so on. But few painters have focused on kohlrabi or lettuce. And why is that? Vegetables are as beautiful as flowers if properly grown and displayed.
I was recently at the Rhode Island Flower Show and was struck by the artwork of Bill Chisholm of Somerville, Mass. (www.billchisholm.com). He had big, bold paintings for sale of vegetables and fruits. I bought a big tomato, a smaller artichoke and a delightful clove of garlic. I hung them in my kitchen, next to the stove. He paints in oil, and then has reproductions printed on canvas using a technique called giclée. The canvas is stretched on wood frames, just like an original, but at a small fraction of the price.
Much of my life is devoted to my vegetable gardens in the spring, summer and fall. I start seeds now, indoors. I baby the infants outdoors in May and June. I harvest and process the food much of the summer and all of the fall. So now, in winter, it’s nice to see veggies on the wall -- in addition to those in the freezer. My new art got me thinking about the veggies we will plant this summer.
As you plan your garden this year, think about planting veggies in artistic ways. Choose cultivars for color and leaf texture, and plant them as you would if you were planting a flower garden -- or creating a painting. Here are some of my favorites;
I love lettuces. They come in so many colors and leaf textures. I start lettuce in the house in April and May in six-packs, each week starting a couple of different varieties. I plant green leaf lettuce, red lettuce, lettuce of multiple hues. In the garden I like to space lettuce six inches apart so that each head reaches full size, and is not crowded. But I like to interplant reds with greens, frilly lettuces with shiny leafed-lettuce. Arugula with Romaine or Oakleaf -- and so forth.
I get seeds from numerous sources. Renee’s Seeds (www.reneesgarden.com) packages lettuces in pairs or trios of colors. This allows you to create a colorful array of leaf colors with just a package or two. Johnny’s Selected Seeds has an amazing array of lettuce seeds aimed not only at the homeowner, but also the CSA manager and farmer. In their catalog are a few pages showing the diversity of leafs you can work with.
Of the purple-leafed veggies, one of my favorites is orach. This is not a lettuce at all, but a relative of the amaranths, and is sometimes called "summer spinach". It doesn’t bolt the way spinach does, and can get to be three-to-four feet tall. It will self sow if you let it -- I allow a few plants to get big and make seeds, and it comes back each year in my garden. I use if in salads, but I’ve read that it is also good as a cooked green. Available from Johnny’s Seeds.
Other gorgeous vegetables include purple kohlrabi, eggplants, artichokes, and cauliflower. Visitors to my garden look at kohlrabi and seem to ask the same question: "What is that? A space alien?" The plant is fat globe that sits on the soil surface and sends up "arms" from the bulb, with leaves on top the arms.
For sheer production value, you can’t beat a variety of kohlrabi called "Kossack" from Johnny’s Seeds, which produces globes bigger than softballs. But the purple-skinned ones, while smaller, are my favorites for their beauty. Renee’s Seeds sells a package of mixed purple and green varieties. I chop up kohlrabi and use it is salads and stir fries. It’s crisp and mild flavored, with a bit of a cabbage taste. They are fast-growing and should be started by seed in the garden.
Cauliflowers can be gorgeous, too. I have grown a purple cauliflower variety but have to admit that, like most cauliflowers, it is awfully fussy. If the soil is too wet or too dry, the plants get big but don’t produce anything but little buttons -- not the big heads you see in the grocery store -- or want to eat. And the purple color fades away on cooking.
Artichokes are beautiful plants, but take a long time to grow. In California they are perennials, but not here. This year I started a few seeds in January, but little plants are sometimes sold at good garden centers if you haven’t started any yet. I grow a couple of plants each year mainly for their looks and get a few artichokes to eat, but they are quite small. Some years ago I visited the Giant Artichoke Restaurant in Castroville, Calif. It had a sculpture of an artichoke that towered over me that I remember fondly -- too bad I can’t have one like it in my garden.
So as we move towards spring, think about the art value of your veggies and create your own living artwork. Tasty can be tasteful and pretty, too.
In addition to writing, Henry Homeyer teaches pruning to homeowners. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He lives in Cornish Flat, N.H.