I have been asked recently “What are some plants that look good in an ornamental-type garden, but also produce something edible?”. Well, to be honest, there’s no reason a useful garden cant be designed for looks from scratch. Any plant can be planted in any design, as long as it suits the style. That’s a lot to do with personal aesthetic preference, anyway, and the main problem is that many plants look somewhat less attractive after harvest. There are, for example, some highly ornamental forms of vegetables like Broccoli, the ‘Romanesco’ variety is particularly striking, with its “chaos-theory” fractal spirals within spirals. But once you chop it off to eat it, the attractiveness drops off pretty drastically.
But I guess it’s my penchant for perennials that wins over every time. Maybe I am just a bit lazy, but planting things over and over again seems like a lot of effort, and I usually look for things that can be planted once, and either keep growing, grow back, or self seed without my interference. One such plant I have grown in my garden is possibly one of the most productive and useful crops known to agricultural science. It has many names, the Lab Lab Bean, Hyacinth Bean or Dolichos Bean, but scientifically it is known as Lablab purpureus. It is a leguminous twining climber, with attractive purple or pink flowers, and large green or purple pods. It can yield up to 10 tons per hectare of fodder or green manure when grown as a field crop, and can be made used for silage, which improves nutrition for animals by fermenting the cut material. It can produce anywhere up to 4 tons per hectare of green beans, which are edible, and copious amounts of dried seed. The dried seeds is edible, too, though if it’s not cooked properly in a couple of changes of water, can be mildly toxic. Then again so are a lot of plant parts we avoid, like green potatoes, so lets not get hung up on that aspect. Humans can eat the foliage, too, though we can pretty much eat anything green and non-toxic, I guess it’s a matter of taste.
The plant itself is drought tolerant, though obviously yields better with adequate water supplies, and after picking every bean I could see on my plant, a week later I harvested 1.1kg of green beans for eating. The flavour is like green bean, the texture may take some getting used, to, though. They are a bit tougher and more rubbery than they appear, and unfortunately do not have the snapping quality of the Snow Peas they look so much like. But I have used them in stir fries, casseroles, curries, pretty much anything that calls for a mixture of vegetables. I usually string them, and chop them up crossways in strips or squares. There is so little work in growing them, they could even be worth planting even if you never use the beans.
The vine is attractive, and fast growing, usually grown from seed, and selected varieties have purple colouration in the leaves and stems, adding to the visual appeal, and they do have attractive white, pink or purple pea flowers, arranged in spikes, looking something like a Hyacinth, though without the fragrance. They also improve the soil, adding nitrogen, and cover a fence or support very quickly. While they are supposed to be perennial only in the subtropics or warmer, I have had no problems keeping mine alive over winter. In fact, the seeds I planted were collected from another vine not too far from where I live in the inner suburbs of Melbourne, so I know it is happy here. Whether you grow this vine as an emergency food supply, which may be more important in the future, or just as a quick growing cover for a fence, it’s a useful plant to have, and will, if nothing else, keep potential weeds at bay.