While salsify has the more attractive flowers, scorzonera wins hands down as a vegetable oddity
DESPITE THE fact that I enjoy growing vegetables, I've never signed up to that idea of mixing them into my flower borders. It's nothing to do with getting set in my ways (honest), it's simply that it doesn't appeal. Of course, the other way round (growing flowers among your vegetables) can work a treat and is a common device grown to attract beneficial insects; Verbena bonariensis, for instance, looks great among virtually any type of vegetable. Stick a few brussels sprouts in a herbaceous border and ... well, you see what I mean?

Compromises might be necessary for the urban gardener with little or no room for a vegetable plot who wants to grow their own food. Tomatoes on the terrace, beans up a fence or a catch crop of radishes waiting for perennials to do their thing. Beetroot might be a contender, if you like purple foliage, but the leaves can look a bit moth-eaten especially if you grow them organically. Chard is another and is used by many for vibrant red, yellow or white leaves and stems. While these look quite dramatic in all the different hues, they can look like they're trying just a little too hard and you'll have to choose the right spot to make the carnival atmosphere look credible.

Until recently artichokes and fennel were the only vegetables I'd consider letting loose in the flower border, but a couple of strange-looking root vegetables have caught my imagination. Salsify (Tragopogon porrifolius), a biennial and a member of the chicory family, is a vegetable that should be better known. Its grassy leaves, often used as "cut and come again" greens, give no clues as to the creamy-white parsnip-like root that lies beneath. Undisturbed in its second year it will send up two-foot stems with blue-purple flowers followed by spherical seed-heads looking like dandelions on steroids. Its ornamental value therefore is obvious, suggesting a roguish element as a self-seeder popping up in the most unlikely places. It can be left to join other nomads, such as the above-mentioned verbena and fennel, the only problem being how to distinguish it in the first year from other grassy-looking weeds and, in that sense, it may only appeal to those who like their gardens a little ragged around the edges with room for spontaneity.

Known as oyster plant, salsify is still a relatively obscure vegetable, due mostly to its ambiguous taste. Some say they resemble asparagus others, as the name suggests, say oysters. For me, the delicate creaminess and subtle nuttiness is more like a refined parsnip but that still doesn't do them justice. This identity crisis is further confused by its close relative scorzonera or Viper's Grass (Scorzonera hispanica). A perennial with yellow daisy-like flowers, it was used by the ancient Romans for food and medicine (snake bites, as the name suggests) it was eventually introduced throughout Europe by the Spanish hence the name escoraza nera (meaning "black bark"). I grew both vegetables at the allotment last year (leaving some of the salsify to flower this summer) and hope to introduce it to some of the gardens I plant this season.

As a vegetable both can be baked, boiled or fried and should be cooked as soon as possible after harvesting. Scrub but don't peel the skin (it can be rubbed off afterwards) as it helps to retain the flavour. Once cooked, a little lemon juice will stop discolouration but a knob of butter is all you really need. Blindfolded, I can just tell the difference between the two, scorzonera being slightly less fibrous (strange as the lean, dark, eccentric root is exactly the sort of ingredient you'd expect to find in a Harry Potter brew). Their form is often exaggerated in stony or recently manured ground where, like carrots and parsnips, they are inclined to fork. Seeds should be sown thickly, so as not to confuse them with emerging grass weeds, then thinned to about four inches apart. Their resilience to pests and disease is probably indicative of the fact that their strains have not been weakened by cross-breeding and hybridising.

I can hear some readers muttering "what about ornamental cabbages?" Well they simply don't figure in my list of vegetables that taste and look good. As for their looks, while I personally don't care for them, I can see the appeal to those wanting to brighten up a few window boxes through winter. But unless you have a yellow brick road winding its way through your garden it's probably best to keep them out of your flower borders. E

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