Rainbow Vegetables; Having Fun With An Edible Garden

Color is an important aspect of most gardens, of course, along with texture, form and scale.  But when it comes to planting the vegetable garden, people often don’t think about color with the same sense of significance. Happily, it doesn’t have to be that way…color can be fun and tasty as well.


giant red mustard greens

A Japanese Giant Red Mustard plant combines with Golden Hops for garden drama. Photo; Joy Albright-Souza


Harnessing the beautiful hues of vegetables can be every bit as satisfying as planning a traditional cutting garden or creating a long-blooming perennial bed. Fortunately the popularity and availability of brightly colored vegetables is greater than it’s ever been, so it’s easy to create, what’s often referred to as, a rainbow garden.


shaved rainbow colored carrots

Branch out from classic orange carrots, with yellow, white or purple. Most purple varieties come with the added surprise of an orange or yellow center. Photo; Joy Albright-Souza


Hook the Kids; I’ve been interested in growing unusual varieties of vegetables since I was a child, with my first garden.  Brightly colored varieties are a wonderful gateway for kids everywhere to appreciate their vegetables.  As an adult, I’ve also had the good fortune of knowing two women who are undeniably Rainbow Gardening Royalty, and credited for coining that term.


purple kohlrabi

Kids love the sweet and crunchy kohlrabi that looks like it comes from outer space. You can get them in purple or green.


The Queen of Seeds. Renee Shepherd was an early advocate of heirloom vegetables. As the founder of the renowned Shepherd’s Seeds, then Renee’s Garden Seeds, she was one of the first to bring unusual varieties of vegetables to the American market. She pioneered the idea of rainbow packets which combine compatible color combinations, packaged together for the home gardener.  I had the pleasure of enjoying her trial gardens on a daily basis, when I worked for her before starting my design business.


edible collage Creasy Shepherd seeds books

Renee Shepherd and Rosalind Creasy are pioneers in rainbow vegetable gardening.


The Guru of Edible Landscaping. Then there’s Renee’s friend and long-time colleague, Rosalind Creasy. Ros was at the forefront of the idea of pulling out your lawn to grow beautiful edibles, which she has chronicled in many of her popular books. She literally wrote the book on Rainbow Gardening and coined the term Edible Landscaping, with her first book published in 1985. Ros did much of Renee’s photography in the early years, and I was often her field assistant on photo shoot days.  She is officially credited as “The Guru” by Sunset magazine in their Small-Space Edible Gardening publication.


edible garden reds and greens

Back-lighting increases the stunning beauty of red leaved lettuces and beet greens, which contrast dramatically with other bright green edibles in a classic garden bed. Photo; Joy Albright-Souza


Color in and outside “the lines”. There’s nothing like a traditional raised bed that’s been planted with an eye for harmonious color combinations as well as for an abundant harvest. It can be such fun to plan different compositions each year. But the charm of colorful vegetables is how wonderful they are to incorporate into the “regular” garden as well.


purple broccoli romanesco trio

Broccoli comes in purple as well as green and don’t forget the swirling lime green of tasty Romanesco.


In the Garden. There’s no doubt that many leafy vegetables and other edible plants, have leaves every bit as striking as the most desirable ornamental plants. So they can be wonderful additions to a planting scheme, whether you eat them or not. Then there are the lovely colors of pea and bean blossoms twining through the garden. Or the beauty of cruciferous vegetables blossoming to maturity and adding colorful and tasty charm.


garden purple blossom edible peas

Most edible pea flowers are white, but Dwarf Gray Sugar Peas have a dowdy name but beautiful bi-colored blossoms. The pods are green however. But purple and golden podded peas can be found as well. Photo; Joy Albright-Souza


On the Plate. The joy of growing a rainbow garden is the easy-beauty you can bring to any meal. How much more appealing is a salad when it incorporates a gorgeous color combination? The Japanese principle of go shiki will come naturally to a colorful garden; the idea that the food at each meal should always include five colors, to create balance and well-rounded nutrition on every plate.


purple cauliflower roasted corn salad

A colorful salad that Barney would love; combine butter lettuce, roasted corn, shredded cabbage and chopped purple cauliflower. Photo; Joy Albright-Souza


No-Fail Salad. Creating beautiful combinations, of raw vegetables, is a no-brainer, when you have access to fresh and colorful ingredients. You just combine what looks attractive from the garden, add a squeeze of lemon, a drizzle of good oil and a dash of salt and you have a salad – but cooking with colored vegetables may need a little more finesse.


garden spotted beans purple pod peas

Beans and peas are available with purple pods and other variations. Just take care that you don’t lose the color when cooking. Photo; Joy Albright-Souza


Cooking Surprise. One of the first surprises people get when they try to cook vegetables, that have a different color than “normal”, is that often-times the color changes or disappears when the vegetable is cooked. This is especially true with purple vegetables and is the result of both the method and length of cooking, as well as the kind of color pigment in the fruit or vegetable itself. Some types of plant pigments are more stable than others.


purple carrot shaved salad

Four colors of carrots add a rainbow to a green salad. The orangey-red ones on the right show off the color change that happens to purple carrots (bottom center) when they are lightly pickled (recipe follows). photo; Joy Albright-Souza


You can find in-depth discussions on preparing colored vegetables in other places, but I am including a cheat-sheet here;

 —–  Rainbow Veg In The Kitchen;

-Always cook colored vegetables as short of time as possible to preserve the color. Cook uncovered and in non-reactive cook-wear and serve immediately if possible or quick chill with ice-water.

-These keep their color when cooked; carrots, peppers, squash, beets and chard

-These brighten or change their color with the presence of acid (vinegar or lemon juice, etc); cabbage, kale, cauliflower, potatoes and radishes.

-These are best used raw to show off their color; purple-pod peas, colored bean pods, purple asparagus, kohlrabi, sorrel and edible flowers.


quick pickled purple carrots

Quick Dinner Pickles. The vinegar releases some of the pigment out of purple carrots, in varying amounts depending on how long they soak and how they were sliced. photo; Joy Albright-Souza


Fave Recipe; Quick Dinner Pickles – Shaved Purple Carrot Version ————

I call these Dinner Pickles, not because they aren’t’ delicious for lunch or snacks, but because that’s all the time it takes to make them. Assemble the ingredients, set them aside, and when the rest of the meal is ready…so are they.

-1 medium purple carrot  -or any color works just fine. ( increase ingredients according to your carrot quantity)

-½ t kosher salt

Shave the carrot or slice thin. Place in shallow bowl. Sprinkle with salt and gently mix then let sit for 10 min.

-Add 1/8 cup white wine vinegar + 1/8 cup cool water + ½ t sugar

Gently stir to submerge then let sit for 30 min (or longer if dinner isn’t ready yet).

-(Optional adds; cracked black pepper, ¼ t lemon zest, ¼ t cumin seed or coriander seed)

— Serve as part of a relish tray, a side dish or topping a fresh salad.  (Also great with radishes, cabbage or beets or a combination)


edible flowers rainbow chard brunch plate

A rainbow brunch; frittata is a great way to use any leafy vegetables, ruby chard holds it’s color well when cooked or pickled. Purple kohlrabi reveals its white heart when sliced and served raw with goat cheese and pesto. Red cabbage becomes more magenta when made into a quick and healthy slaw. photo; Joy Albright-Souza


So whether you like to color inside the lines or have more of a free-form predilection, be sure and add some colorful edibles to your garden and your plate.


Links, resources and additional info;

Renee’s Garden Seeds (love the new Landscaping Lettuce Combo)

Rosalind Creasy info, bio and books (her original Edible Landscaping has been recently updated)

Keeping Edibles Safe from Deer (you’re not the only one who appreciates vegetables)

Kale in the garden       Chard in the garden

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Categories: Things to Eat, Things to Grow


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