Sally Gehrke, owner of the Sustainable Dream Greenhouse east of Whalan on Highway 16, shows the colorful rhubarb crop she's already started. (Republican-Leader photo by Lisa Brainard)
Sally Gehrke, owner of the Sustainable Dream Greenhouse east of Whalan on Highway 16, shows the colorful rhubarb crop she's already started. (Republican-Leader photo by Lisa Brainard)
When you're growing plants in your backyard or in a pot on the patio, why not use plants that will produce food you can eat?

That's the message of Sally Gehrke of Sustainable Dream Greenhouse of rural Lanesboro. She calls beautiful, colorful plants that produce food "edible ornamentals."

Ideas could include an apple or plum tree, raspberry or blueberry bushes, or a grape vine, for example.

But Gehrke has focused on garden plants as the ornamentals in talks she's given in Rochester and Caledonia.

"You want it local... grown in your backyard," she stated. "You give and nurture... It should give back."

Gehrke moved to the area eight "seasons" ago, following work in Madison at the Jung Seed Company and later at Home Depot. She said talking with older ladies who came into Jung's instilled her with their "real gardening knowledge." At Home Depot she learned marketing.

At Sustainable Dream Greenhouse, Gehrke does not use insecticide, fungicide, herbicide or rodenticide.

She said, "There are good reasons why I don't use them. Everything is connected. Nothing goes to waste."

Cold and warm plantings

To help gardeners organize their plantings - a step that everyone can use and something that might fluster beginner gardeners - Gehrke organizes plantings into groups.

"It's easier to understand how to treat a vegetable," she explained.

As soon as the ground is "workable," she stated, some perennial vegetables and perennial herbs can be planted.

Gehrke further defined "workable" as ground where the frost has gone out and is not too wet. However, you won't need to worry about it getting cold at night for the plants.

Potatoes and some types of onions can be planted early.

Members of the cabbage family can go into the ground. They include broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, kohlrabi and pakcoi.

"People usually buy them as plants. Or you can direct seed them into the ground. But most buy them as plants," Gehrke said.

There also are "root vegetables" including radishes, carrots and beets. Gehrke said to treat them pretty much as those above.

"Leafy vegetables" that include lettuce, Swiss chard and spinach, also can be planted early.

So, those are the "cold crops." Gehrke said to know when to move on to planting the "warm crops," a person should listen to the farm report and keep an eye on farmers. Note when they are planting their corn and soybeans, typically around mid-May.

She advised considering ornamental millets in the garden. It's a corn with dark purple kernels. "It lends height to your plantings," she said. "You could eat it, but it's more of a grain."

Another in this category is the amaranth, which looks like broomcorn. "As a grain it's tall. When it's young you can eat it in a salad. There are different kinds."

Gehrke also lumps sunflowers in with corn and beans. "They grow quickly and kids love them."

Then you move into planting the "warm crops," including peppers, tomatoes and eggplants (all which need to be protected from frost danger); vine crops like watermelon, cantaloupe, cucumbers, squash and zucchinis; and tender herbs, basal, lavender and rosemary.

Ornamental gardens

Now Gehrke gets into the backbone of her talk. The groups above "help people get organized in their heads." Then it's time to turn on the color.

First, she noted some perennial vegetables and fruits "aren't really that pretty... but they can be." They include asparagus, rhubarb, strawberries, raspberries, grapes, horseradish and Jerusalem artichokes.

"Edible ornamentals are really the most beautiful annuals," smiled Gehrke.

In the allium family there are shallots, leeks, garlic, chives and onions, which she said have really pretty flowers. "They're very striking."

Also colorful and pretty are purple cauliflower, red cabbage, green and red kale, purple broccoli and red Brussels sprouts.

"Many of them (above) are purple. Some of them, like kale and Brussels sprouts, are enhanced by an end-of-the-year frost. Carbohydrates in them turn to sugar after they get cold. But you really should harvest root vegetables before they turn to mush."

As soon as the ground is workable, some leafy vegetables can be planted by seed. They include five-color silverbeet (also known as "bright lights"), lettuce, argula, endive and mescalen.

"We are told to eat more colors. Why grow white?" asked Gehrke.

Also, get root vegetables into the ground, such as carrot, beets and the like. However, she stressed, "The 'leafies' are probably the show stoppers. Use them throughout the garden."

She believes the prettiest of all vegetables is seen in the laciness of carrots. "The purple and yellow carrots, kales, chards and lettuces are beautiful."

The warm crops sometimes have exotic sounding names: black pearl ornamental pepper with gorgeous, variegated foliage. Tomatoes come in green and white and much more. Now there's a fuzzy leaf and a silver leaf available with them.

While "pumpkin on a stock" sounds like a fair food, it's actually an eggplant. Gehrke dished, "It's edible, but it doesn't taste good."

Peppers that are sweet and/or hot come in many colors.

Season's end

As people get more into gardening, Gehrke advised them to consider leaving stuff out for winter interest. She said red tree dogwood is noteworthy, as is asparagus . . . coneflowers, too. Also, obviously some plants can make nice dried arrangements.

"It all makes for seasons of interest." She said you can get into a succession of crops, where you're planting every two weeks.

"Edible ornamentals is a trend. You might as well grow something you can eat. Heirloom seeds, too, are involved," said Gehrke.

She noted she supports the work of Seed Savers of Decorah. "Sustainable Dream Greenhouse will use Seed Savers heirlooms almost exclusively," she added.

Gehrke also thanked David Cavagnaro of Seed Savers for the use of his beautiful photography in her presentations.

Sustainable Dream Greenhouse is located a few miles east of Whalan. The address is 37689 Highway 16 at mile marker 247. Hours are Mondays 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Fridays 9 to 5, Saturdays 9 to 5 and Sundays noon to 5.

For more information, one may call Sustainable Dream Greenhouse at (507) 467-3314 or check their website,