Vegetables popular for fall outdoor decorating

Vegetables such as peppers, lettuce, beets, eggplant, and sweet potatoes can all be used for outdoor decoration.

Gourds and Indian corn, as well as decorative vegetables, make great outdoor decor, symbolizing the harvest at Thanksgiving. The average American household spends an average of $45 a year on decorating in fall. That's second only to Christmas. (Dean Fosdick/Associated Press)

Fall is a busy time for decorating, second only to Christmas, and the period when vegetables are valued more for their beauty than their flavor.

Back when America was largely rural, bringing in the harvest was cause for celebration. Corn stalks were bundled into "fodder shocks" — stalks, ears, tassels, and all — and stacked upright around light poles and near entries, and fed to livestock.

Then came Halloween pumpkins, and Thanksgiving with its fresh fruit and colorful gourds gracing dining room tables.

"We don't just decorate for Halloween anymore but for the entire fall season," says Amanda Sears, an extension agent with the University of Kentucky's Department of Horticulture.

Many farmers and roadside retailers make financial hay selling multicolored ears of Indian corn, pumpkins, gourds, corn stalks, and straw bales for home decorating.

"We have some commercial growers in Nebraska who started with gourds and have expanded into Indian corn and little straw bales — the whole package," says Dale Lindgren, a plant-breeding specialist with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Such "ornamentals" are sold to big-box stores as well as to farmers' markets.

The top three items used in fall decorating are pumpkins, gourds, and Indian corn, says Brad Bergefurd, an Ohio State University horticulturist who researches ornamental corn as a niche crop for area farmers.

"Back 20 or more years ago when I was raising it on my own farm, ornamental corn was pretty blah," Mr. Bergefurd says. "But there have been a lot of advances from crossbreeding the old varieties. Ears are neater now, with better sizes and shapes. More colors are available. More people are raising and selling it, so it's easier to find."

Indian corn also is called calico corn, flint corn, and maize. Its colors range from red and maroon to cream and black.

"Consumers don't want just one or two colors but as many as they can get," Bergefurd says. "I'm fond of the pinks and blues. You also can get ears with kernels in red and green and white — traditional Christmas colors."

Most varieties aren't eaten, although some can be ground into flour or meal, and others, mostly miniatures, can be used as popcorn. "It's pretty starchy once it matures, and doesn't have much taste," Bergefurd says.

Indian corn usually is offered in bundles of three or more ears; figure on paying anywhere from $3 to $5 per bundle.

"In some cases, it's sold stalk and all," Bergefurd says. "Growers bundle 12 to 20 stalks, pull back the husks, and with the ears showing, it makes a pretty arrangement. More and more of the breeders are working on stalk coloration, too — mainly red — to make the displays even more colorful."

One trend is integrating Indian corn, gourds, pumpkins, and squash with ornamental plants still in the ground, says Mr. Lindgren: "Don't forget to work the landscape into your fall decorating. Things like peppers and kales can be blended into flower gardens. They're absolutely gorgeous."

Lindgren says people are getting more imaginative in using ornamentals. "Ten years ago, it was petunias and marigolds. Now it's sweet potatoes, peppers, and leafy vegetables. The whole seasonal thing has exploded."

People tend to pay more for decorative plants than for those grown simply for eating, Ms. Sears says. "They're willing to buy into the entertainment value. Pumpkins, the primary example."

Other ornamentals that can liven up landscapes and homes include:

: The dark green foliage contrasts nicely with the many fruit colors, including some that mature into Christmaslike reds and greens. "The fruits of these plants are edible, although usually extremely hot and often bitter, so be cautious about eating them," Lindgren says.

Flowering kale
: Its colors intensify as temperatures drop in the fall. The green outer leaves surround an assortment of crinkled white or reddish-purple inner leaves, making the plant look like a large flower.

Leaf lettuces, radishes, mustard, spinach, and low-growing herbs
: Look for lettuce cultivars with curly leaves, red coloration or deeply lobed foliage, Lindgren says. "These mixes also include radicchio, endive, and other edible greens."

Beans and other vine crops
: Scarlet runner beans often are placed alongside flower seeds in garden stores or seed catalogs. "Although they are grown for their showy red flower, the pods are edible," Lindgren says. Squash, gourds, pumpkins and cucumbers also are vine crops with lush foliage and showy blossoms, plus interesting fruit.

: The fruit matures into many colors, from white, violet, and lavender to the standard dark black-purple. Shapes range from egglike to cylindrical.

Swiss chard and beet
s: Swiss chard has bright and distinct ribbed leaves with stems ranging from red to yellow. "While most people grow beets for their edible root, the tops also are edible and can be quite ornamental, creating interest in plant borders or salad bowls," Lindgren says.

Sweet potatoes
: Ornamental sweet potatoes have become popular, primarily as container plants. "They're valued for their trailing vines with lime-green, purple, and multicolored foliage."

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