Plant Flowers and Veggies for Winter Color

— Written By
Redbor kale with yellow violas

The dark curly leaves of ‘Redbor’ kale contrast dramatically with the bright yellow flowers of violas.

You will find more than just pansies awaiting your landscape at garden centers this autumn! As the exciting trend of cool season gardening grows, more and more winter hardy annuals are making their way into local nurseries. Winter hardy annuals are plants like pansies that are planted in fall to grow during the cool part of the year, providing color through the winter and early spring. Many of these plants are both ornamental and edible and can be planted in landscapes as well as gardens.

Veggies Go Mainstream!

The biggest development in winter annuals over the last few years has been the use of vegetables as ornamental plants. Low growing ornamental cabbages and kales, with green leaves splashed in purple, rose or white, have been popular for several years. They are gorgeous in fall and early winter, but can start to look ragged by February. If you’re looking for something a little more durable and taller try ‘Red Russian’ or ‘Redbor’ kale.

Red Giant mustard

The rich color of ‘Red Giant’ mustard intensifies with cool weather.

These two varieties grow to three feet tall and two feet wide and are equally at home in the vegetable garden or flower border. ‘Red Russian’ is a delicious heirloom variety that sports feathery, jagged-edged blue green leaves and rosy-purple stems and midribs. For even more drama, seek out ‘Redbor’ with spectacular dark purple, frilly-edged leaves. Both of these varieties look good through April, at which time they produce spikes of yellow flowers that are great for attracting beneficial insects.

Charming Chard and Monster Mustard

Another vegetable that has crossed over the veggie garden fence is Swiss chard. This beet relative has large leaves with distinct, broad stalks that grow up to two feet tall. Traditionally the stalks on this plant are white, but the relatively new ‘Bright Lights’ variety sports stalks in showy colors like yellow, orange, pink, red and violet. They make quite a statement in the garden, mixed containers, or salad bowl!

A perfect companion for these colorful chards is the monster mustard known as ‘Red Giant’. This two-foot tall and wide burgundy leaved variety of mustard is commonly grown in Japan for use in stir-fries and salads. Its hot and spicy leaves certainly add punch, whether for the eyes or taste buds. The fiery flavor of ‘Red Giant’ also deters foliage feeders such as deer, rabbits and squirrels. Plants remain stunning all winter and are topped with spikes of small yellow flowers in spring.

Soothing Silver

Powis Castle artemisia

The lacy, silver foliage of ‘Powis Castle’ Artemisia blends nicely with many colors.

If you seek to cool things down a bit, try the silvery leaves of dusty miller or ‘Powis Castle’ artemisia. Dusty miller generally grows to less than one foot tall and produces yellow, button like flowers in spring, while ‘Powis Castle’ Artemisia will form two to three foot tall and wide mounds. Both of these plants have finely cut, lacy leaves and are deer resistant, drought tolerant perennials that grow best in full sun. For more fabulous winter foliage, plant winter hardy herbs like curly leaf parsley and variegated or purple leaf sage.

Edible Flowers

Show off the fantastic foliage of these plants against the bright flowers of winter hardy annuals like English daisies, snapdragons, China pinks and pansies. Especially cute are the new mini-flowered viola type pansies whose blossoms more than make up for their small size by being produced in generous amounts. Look out for ‘Sorbet’ and ‘Penny’ strains, both available in shades and mixes of blue, purple, lavender, yellow, white, and orange.

Sorbet Violas

‘Sorbet’ violas come in many colors!

In addition to adding color to the landscape, the flowers of pansies, violas, China pinks, English daisies, and snapdragons are edible, and can be added to salads or other dishes for a splash of color. Even if you don’t eat the blossoms, include these winter and spring bloomers in your yard to provide a source of early season nectar for pollinators.

Learn More!

Use Extension Search to find research based information from Cooperative Extension systems across the U.S.

Visit your local Cooperative Extension office to learn more about gardening and landscape care. Go to https://www.ces.ncsu.edu/local-county-center/ to find your county Extension center or post your questions to be answered online via Extension’s ‘Ask an Expert’ widget.

Contact your local Cooperative Extension office to get expert advice from an Extension Master Gardener Volunteer:

Visit the Pender Gardener blog to stay up to date with all the latest gardening news, or sign up to receive weekly gardening updates through our email news services:

  • Subscribe to Pender Gardener to receive updates on what to plant and how to care for your lawn and landscape. To subscribe, send an  the email to mj2@lists.ncsu.edu. Leave the subject line blank. In the body of the message put: subscribe pendergardener
  • Subscribe to Food Gardener to receive updates on what to plant and how to care for your vegetable and herb garden. To subscribe, send an  the email to mj2@lists.ncsu.edu. Leave the subject line blank. In the body of the message put: subscribe foodgardener