GARDENING / Peculiar plants

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THERE IS something oddly shocking to gardeners about the idea of growing vegetables beyond their pick-by date, because doing so encourages them to produce flowers. Anyone who has allowed lettuce or rocket to start the

vertical ascent towards flowering and the ultimate goal of setting seed, will know that the more ornamental the vegetable, the less edible its leaves become.

If you can get over the guilt attached to growing vegetables for purposes other than eating them, there are several plants to choose for the flower border. Spinach, lettuce, chicory and sea kale in flowering mode can usually be relied upon to produce a 'What on earth is that?' reaction. Atriplex hortensis is garden orache, similar to spinach, and in its reddest form 'Rubra' is often used in bedding schemes in large public gardens. It grows to about 4ft tall, has leaves the colour of cooked beetroot and small plumed flowers that are slightly darker than the leaves. Like the greener plant spinach, it is an annual and the odd leaf might be picked to add to a salad, but if you keep it cut down and stop it flowering it will be more productive and delicious.

Ornamental lettuces are very bitter and might be too unwieldy for small flowerbeds, but they are pretty at this time of year. They used to be called Lactuca but are now found listed under Cicerbita. C. bourgaei is a thug, but as it can manage in damp shade, its towering 6ft presence and purple daisy flowers might be just the thing for an awkward spot in August. C. plumieri is a slightly more polite form and C. alpina the best

behaved of them all. All ornamental lettuces have the same mauvish range of daisy flowers.

The lettuces might be more of a talking point than an adornment, but the chicories are worth including in any flowerbed. The tallest perennial has small, blue daisy flowers for weeks at this time of year. But at 4ft tall, it needs staking - although if it is pinched out as it grows, it will be less top- heavy. Cichorium intybus comes in pink, blue and white forms. The pink and white are shorter and a lot more manageable.

This year a great excitement here has been generated from the flowering of what I think is Cichorium spinosum. This has much bluer flowers than intybus and is half its size. It is airy-looking and I am thrilled by it, but this may be because it is the product of seed collected on an Italian holiday near Todi two summers ago. Two nurseries list this form in The Plant Finder, and if it continues to perform as well as it has this hot summer I plan to use it again.

Sea kale is so delicious that it seems mad not to eat it. Crambe maritima begins to shoot from old crowns in April or May. If these new shoots are blanched, which means covering them, they taste like a sort of nutty asparagus. Sea kale pots, which are smaller versions of rhubarb pots, can be bought from Whichford Pottery at Shipston on Stour, Warwickshire. If you did not mind having the pots in the flower bed in spring, you could have a few helpings of this delicious vegetable before settling down to a summer of enjoying its leaves. Large and crinkly blue-grey, they are a more original bold leaf to use than a hosta. The flowers are white and smell of honey in late May, and sea kale is easy to manage and seems to get no diseases. It grows to 1ft tall and likes well-drained but rich soil. This is the vegetable to grow if you want to have your kale and eat it.