A Tucson edible garden in winter need not add to the drabness of a seasonal landscape of dormant plants.

Actually, planting a colorful veggie garden will provide a delightful view, a healthier harvest and better growing conditions.

In Tucson, winter beds are full of leafy greens, root vegetables and the group of plants that includes cabbages and broccoli. That puts a lot of green in the garden.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Two expert gardeners want you to think about making the winter garden as colorful as the summer one gets with warm-weather-loving tomatoes, peppers, melons and summer squash.

For instance, the leaves of Swiss chard grow from stalks that come in white, pink, red or yellow. You can even buy a “rainbow packet” of seeds to easily sow a variety of colors.

Cauliflower comes in purple, green and yellow, along with its more familiar white hue. There’s purple cabbage, red lettuce and a lettuce heirloom with green leaves speckled with bronze. Pomegranates come in deep red, maroon, white and pink.

Edible flowers also add color to the winter veggie garden. Red, orange and yellow nasturtium; orange marigold and other types of calendula; white-petaled sweet alyssum and the myriad colors of pansy are some examples.

If possible, make room for non-edible annuals like vinca, periwinkle, violet, snapdragon and stock. They are safe to grow next to veggies and require the same soil and watering conditions as the edibles. Their colors can last the whole season and make the veggie garden eye-catching by mixing petals with leaves and buds.

GET A HEALTHIER CROP

A colorful veggie garden does more than draw attention. A variety of colorful food in one’s diet adds nutritional value .

“Colors imply certain bioactive compounds that are common,” says registered dietitian and nutritionist Cynthia “Cyndi” Thomson, a University of Arizona professor of health promotion science. She’s also the director of the UA College of Public Health’s Canyon Ranch Center for Prevention and Health Promotion.

Bioactive compounds, also called phytochemicals, are health-boosting elements that complement vitamins and minerals. Flavonoids, beta-carotene, lutein and lycopene are some familiar bioactive compounds.

Different colors of the same plant may contain different bioactive compounds.

For instance, both green and red kale are rich in the vitamin folate, says Thomson. But the red kale would have a higher level of antioxidants that may improve blood vessel health.

Orange carrots are high in beta-carotene, says Thomson, but purple or red or yellow varieties would have higher levels of other kinds of bioactive compounds.

“You’re not getting varied nutrients” from eating vegetables of different colors Thomson says, “but what you’re getting is exposure to a variety of these bioactive compounds.”

Pima County master gardener Deborah North will get into more detail about plant color, nutrition and the edible garden in a Nov. 17 seminar called “Planting the Rainbow.”

North was inspired to teach the seminar when she came across the concept of putting a rainbow of fruits and vegetables on your plates. Today, it’s easy to do.

“There are so many vegetables that are of different colors than what we grew up with,” she says. Today there is much research into how a colorful diet helps people avoid diseases and improve overall health.

“Then I thought, ‘Let me see if in the Sonoran Desert you can plant fruit trees and vegetables so that you might have all the colors on that plate by season,’” she says.

“Now is a really rich time for vegetable gardening,” North says about the winter season. Cooler temperatures are fine for red beets, pastel-colored radishes, turnips from white to purple, white-to-red onions and the edible yellow flowers of mustard greens.

HAVE A HEALTHIER GARDEN

It turns out that colorful edible plants also keep the garden itself healthy. Marigolds and mustard green flowers are among several flowering plants that repel insects that otherwise would attack growing edible plants, says North.

Brandon Merchant, owner of Southwest Victory Gardens, says he’s familiar with a trial that showed that purple kale was less likely to be damaged by insects than green kale.

“I really strongly encourage biodiversity,” the garden installer and gardening coach says. “As much as possible, plant as many different things as possible.”

Add winter greens that have bolted, says Merchant. That’s the condition when they issue a stalk and grow flowers.

The greens are too bitter to eat at that point, but their blooms will attract birds and insects that spread pollen that plants need to grow.

“I call it bolting for bees,” Merchant says. “I buy (edibles) and plant them without any intent of harvesting the greens. Even buying a bolting bok choy is like buying a flower for the garden.”

He particularly likes bolting broccoli, which he describes as “a big poof of yellow.”

WINTER GARDENING TIPS

North and Merchant shared some ideas on growing a colorful, edible garden in the winter:

  • Opt for purple carrots and other short-bodied varieties, which grow better in Tucson than long-bodied orange varieties.
  • Get kids excited about gardening by planting fast-growing radishes. Choose the Easter egg variety, which grows different colors in one bunch.
  • Garden centers will often have bolted plants for sale.
  • Different colors of the same type of plant — for instance, carrots or cabbage — have the same general growing requirements.
  • Don’t plant natives with veggie gardens because they have different soil and watering requirements.

Contact Tucson freelance writer Elena Acoba at acoba@dakotacom.net.