Edible Flowers

Short version:

There are plenty of edible flowers that can be both beautiful and tasty. There are some that taste a bit rubbish or look a bit boring and there are some that you may already eat without thinking about it.

I have tried hard to maintain my “if I can’t eat it then I won’t grow it rule “so of course my little one has consistently kept up a campaign of asking for flowers. She absolutely loves flowers. I have in my ‘lockdown, terrible home teacher, nanny TV, trying to squeeze working in and ignoring her’ guilt, caved. During our lockdown exercise walks (where photos of lovely things were gathered for ‘My Beautiful neighbourhood 2’)  little one saw lots of beautiful, scented wisteria over many lovely houses. Near the start of lockdown, around April/ May they were glorious in their purple clustered beauty. I agreed to get one, but only because the Thompson and Morgan website, that I purchased the flowers from, said that wisteria flowers were edible.

Quote:

Wisteria: The flowers are the only edible part of the plant and can be made into an aromatic wine. All other parts of wisteria are poisonous.

We won’t of course eat it till more research is done. That’s a problem for future me anyway as it won’t bloom for a least a year. Apparently, it can take up to 15 years for a wisteria to bloom. In hindsight I have realised that this is probably going to be a mistake. Wisteria also lives to a ripe old age and can get very very large. I’m sure my very small garden will not be able to support it without some very heavy-handed pruning. Future me will not be grateful for current me being bested by a 4 year old.

Whilst I was at it, possibly still under the influence of terrible lockdown parenting guilt, I bought seeds for dahlias, forget me nots, aquilegia, and a variety of violets…. And er… some fuchsia plants as I know these are edible. Apparently, some taste better than others. As a bonus, fuchsia berries are also edible.

So now, I thought it might be worth writing about some edible flowers. If you thought about it, you’d probably realise that you already eat some flowers. You may also be growing edible flowers as ornamentals.

We have in the past grown, or are currently growing a few edible flowers. Where flowers are highlighted (in red), hover for a link you can click on for more info on the plant.

Brassicas

Broccoli or cauliflowers (the clue being in the name) are the flower buds of the plant. Sprouting broccoli is basically the flowering shoots. You can also eat the flowering shoots of kales, Turkish rocket or radishes too.

Chard – Beta vulgaris

You can eat the flowering shoots of the chard, though the flowers are not much to look at. Different coloured chard can be grown as ornamentals too with their interesting coloured stems. The young flowers shoots are very tender when cooked and taste like spinach.

Artichokes – Cynara cardunculus

It is the young flower buds that are eaten. These are great boiled for 20 mins, then you eat the fleshy bottom of each ‘petal’. They make an excellent vegetable with plenty to eat. If left to mature the flower resembles a thistle and is loved by bees.

Squash flowers – species within the Cucurbita genus

We very rarely eat the flowers because we want the female flowers to develop into squashes/courgettes and the males are crushed a little in hand pollinating. So, I’ve only eaten the flowers when there are an abundance of male flowers and no female ones. However, the female flowers with their young squashes would make a beautiful dish. Both sexes are versatile and fun to cook with. The pistil and stamens (the sticky out reproductive bits) need to be removed. They can be stuffed with cheese and baked, fried in butter or steamed. They taste much like the squashes do.

Nasturtiums – Tropaeolum

We can’t really get enough of these. It’s amazing to find such large, lovely flowers that taste good. They are really quite spicy with a watercress taste so may not be everyone’s cup of tea. We have a lovely climbing variety that self seeds every year. The leaves are also edible, and cooking makes the flavour much milder so even the little one will eat quite a bit. The petals are great sprinkled on hot food to wilt them and reduce the spiciness. They have a little cone of nectar at the back that my little one sometimes pulls off to suck.

Borage (starflower) – Borago officinalis

This is my little munchkin’s favourite snack flower. She will happily graze on these cucumber tasting beauties that bees also love. They look lovely in ice cubes and work well in Pimms and in gin.

Violets – Violaceae

These gorgeous little flowers have a wintergreen flavour, which is like a minty/menthol taste. Pansies are also from the violet family and can be eaten. Little viola tricoloreating (also called heartsease, johnny jump ups and wild pansies) are very mild due to their size and are also gorgeous frozen into ice cubes.  

Elderflowers – Sambucus nigra

We don’t grow these but we have foraged for them or our neighbour sometimes drops some round from their tree. The flowers make great cordial and sweet fritters. They basically taste how they smell, with a lovely floral yumminess. Do not eat the leaves or stems.

Calendula – Calendula officinalis

This one comes up quite often on lists of edible flowers. They can be grown easily from seed and give a lovely splash of orange for long periods. I’m afraid we didn’t like these much. They taste a bit bitter. The petals can be sprinkled into salad though for a bit of colour.

Chrysanthemum – Chrysanthemum

This is one we have grown as ‘chop suey greens’, so say the seed packets. They have a strong taste that I remember from childhood (it’s sometimes used in Chinese cooking), but it’s not one that I’m sure I like. Cooking doesn’t change the flavour much. It’s a specific flavour that is difficult to describe. Chrysanthemum tea is rather pleasant though.

Cornflower (bachelor’s button) – Centaurea cyanus

Little one loved the colour of these as they are indeed beautiful. Bees also like them. We don’t bother to eat these anymore though as the texture of the petals is a bit papery and the taste is a bit bland.

Roses – Rosaceae

We are only growing these because they were here when we moved in. I was going to dig them up and replace with fruit bushes or kales, but they were beautiful, smelled lovely and the little dictator forbade it. I’ve read that all rose petals are edible, but not all taste good. Where the petal attaches to the base should be removed as it is often bitter. We don’t eat these often, but we do love making crystallised rose petals.

Musk mallow – Malva moschata

Marshmallow (althaea officinalis) flowers (and leaves) are edible. Their roots used to be used as a thickener for the sweets that carry their name. We’ve been growing musk mallows from the same family. These rather large pale pink flowers taste a bit like a sweeter version of lettuce.

There are of course plenty of flowers of vegetables and herbs that can be eaten that basically taste like the rest of the parts that you are used to eating.

Watercress – Nasturtium officinale

These tiny flowers pack a punch. They have that same peppery taste as the leaves when raw (with a bit of sweetness), but like the leaves, are much milder and really tasty boiled.

Purslane

Winter Purslane flowers (claytonia perfoliate) have the same lettuce like taste. Siberian purslane (claytonia sibirica) are prettier and pink, unfortunately they have quite a bitter earthy taste, like the rest of the plant. Summer purslane (portulaca oleracea) has pretty little yellow flowers and have the same refreshing sour tang as the leaves.

Peas – Pisum sativum

It does seem a shame to eat the flowers when they could develop into something more. However, we’ve been growing lots of peashoots from cheap, supermarket bought dried peas in lockdown and when these are left to grow a bit too much the flowers develop. Because these are dried peas for eating rather than growing – the pea pods produced are rubbish. We eat the pea tasting flowers with some of the shoot attached as an easy garden snack or as a salad addition.

Alliums

We’ve eaten three cornered leeks, Chinese chives, chives and wild garlic flowers. They all basically taste of some mix of garlic and/or onion. All the alliums have edible flowers that taste like the rest of the plant. They make great garnishes or go great for that garlicky or oniony kick in salads. Cooking makes the taste milder and sweeter in all the ones we’ve tried.

Herbs

Oregano, marjoram, rosemary, mint, coriander and dill flowers have been used in our cooking the same way we use the leaves. The flowers are generally small and unremarkable, but they do make pretty garnishes. We especially love the dill flowers because we think they look like little fireworks. The coriander and dill can be used in fairly heavy quantities in salads too.

Fuchsias

This is the first fuchsia flower we have ever grown. Apparently all fuchsias are edible but they vary in taste. The berries are also edible, but again they vary in taste. We of course had to taste it (literally this morning). The petals were pleasantly succulent. It tasted a bit peppery with a slightly bitter after taste. I doubt they’ll survive to berry stage if my little one, with her fondness of picking all our flowers, has anything to do with it. There are a couple more varieties still to bloom in the garden so we’ll have to wait to be sure if these are worth growing.

I’ve been trying to introduce bellflowers, purple clover and daisies into the lawn for both colour and food but have so far been rather unsuccessful. I’ve also been trying to grow daylilies and dahlias. The dahlias have become happy little plants, but no flowers so far. Dahlias flowers (and tubers) are edible, but they can taste very different. Hopefully I’ll continue to find edible flowers that I love that I can share with you in another post.   

These, below, aren’t dahlias that we’ve grown but are photos I took in the Lost Gardens of Heligan in Cornwall as an example of how beautiful they are. Didn’t think it was acceptable (or safe) to taste them. That will have to wait till we’ve grown our own.

Warning

Please don’t eat anything that you cannot confidently recognise. Please also do some research and read sites that you feel are trustworthy for information. Please also be aware that you may have unknown allergies e.g. if you have a ragwort allergy – chamomile tea is not advised. My daughter used to be allergic to watermelons. This was connected to ragwort pollen allergies. Luckily, she has grown out of it. My brother-in-law has a raw apple allergy and that is connected to birch tree pollen allergy. Anyway, the point is – try a small amount of anything new first after you are sure it is edible. There are similar looking species like the three cornered garlic flowers look much like white bluebells, though the allium smell of the flower is unmistakeable. Bluebells, lily of the valley, snowdrops and foxglove, amongst others, are really very toxic.

Worrying – but necessary to mention. Still, there are plenty of flowers that are already in a typical diet and there are plenty more that can be added. You might be surprised how beautiful a salad can be.

Mulberries (Morus)

Short version:

Mulberries are worth growing as they are one of the things that you can’t get in shops. They are less fussy about soil than raspberries and blueberries. They don’t need pruning the way blackberries and raspberries do. They taste like a cross between a grape and blackberry, but without the pips. The leaves can also be edible (but see warning at the end).

Mulberries are something that you either have to grow yourself or forage for. You’ll be hard pressed to find fresh mulberries in the shops. Ripe mulberries make a squidgy mess easily so they would never be suitable for transit or storage. Even underripe mulberries come apart easily.

I only have a limited experience with growing mulberries as I’ve only had my bushes for just over 2 years and both are a dwarf variety called Charlotte Russe, bought from the Suttons website. I have sadly read that this variety, despite winning awards, isn’t particularly great tasting. The best tasting ones must be amazing then. I like the ones we have anyway, and they’ve received the seal of approval from my little fussy eater.

Mulberries come in red, white and black. We have the black ones (M. nigra). The black mulberries are supposed to taste the best and are they are the hardiest. The white mulberries are the ones that are often dried. The leaves of the white mulberry are those that silk worms eat and are apparently smoother and easier to eat than those of the black or red. Oh yes, the leaves are edible. However, I have ready that some varieties can cause stomach upset, so maybe test with a small quantity first.

How to grow

Mulberries are a great berry to grow as they requires less attention than most of the other berries. Raspberries and blueberries need ericaceous soil. Mulberries are tolerant of soil type. They do like deep fertile soil that retains moisture and drains well though. They like full sun, but can tolerate light shade.

Raspberries and blackberries grow on 2 year old canes so you need to allow the canes to grow in the first year without letting them shade out the fruiting canes. Then the canes that have fruited need to be pruned after harvest has finished. With mulberries you can just let them grow. Pruning is only required to keep its shape or to remove dead or diseased wood.

A typical tree can get very large, so if you have a small garden like we do then I would suggest a dwarf variety. The Charlotte Russe is a good one as it fruits after a year, unlike full size mulberries which can take around 8 years after planting before producing fruit. The dwarf ones do well in pots. They arrived in April 2018 and by June 2018 their branches had grown a little already. In early 2019 we repotted, one into a larger pot and one into a much larger old water tank. That year we had our first taste of mulberries. There wasn’t much difference in the size of harvest of the 2 pots. There were about 20-30 fruit on each. This year you can see a clear difference in the size of the plant and there are more fruit on the bush in the larger water tank.

The branches of mulberries can be a little delicate so some protection from strong winds will be beneficial. However, mulberries can be late frost tolerant. This year the young leaves had started to form (it is deciduous) when a couple of cold nights hit. The developed young leaved did die back, but then it had new growth and recovered fine. When a similar thing happened to our one of our grapes, the whole vine died.

Mulberries, as far as I can tell are wind pollinated.

How to harvest

The ripe berries come off the branches easily with a little stalk attached. This stalk is also edible. If it is underripe it won’t come away easily. However, if left too long the berries become dull and dried.

What actually happens in this house is little one goes into the garden and picks fruit straight off the tree and eats it. Our dwarf bush produces plenty of berries within an infant’s reach. She struggles a little with the larger bush. With lockdown she has been out there every day grazing. There isn’t a huge glut of berries produced at once. It’s hard to tell with the little marauder, but I think there have been about half a dozen ripe mulberries (between the 2 bushes) a day since the beginning of June. This was about 3 weeks earlier than last year and may be due to the early hot weather. There are still plenty of unripe berries, and even a few flowers, on the bush so I guestimate that they will continue to produce for another couple of weeks at least.

There is a red mulberry bush in a local park. I have only noticed the ripe fruit on it this week and there are hundreds of unripe berries, but it’s hard to know about fruit in public spaces. I may not have seen any ripe berries yet because there may be someone removing them before I spy them.

I have read that if you have a very large tree then an easy way to harvest is to spread a large sheet underneath it and shake down the ripe ones to collect in the cloth.

How they taste

I’m afraid I can’t account for how all mulberries taste. This is part of the joy of growing them. I have never been able to find fresh mulberries elsewhere. The first mulberries I had seen were on a mulberry tree in the Botanical gardens in Birmingham, but they weren’t ripe at the time.

Our Charlotte Russe variety tastes like a bit like a grape crossed with a blackberry, but without the blackberry pips. There is a definite mild mulberry taste that I’ve also tasted with dried white mulberries. The dried mulberries are sweeter and remind me of raisins crossed with that mulberry taste.  

The red mulberries in the park are almost twice the size of ours and taste a little less sweet than our black ones, but have a stronger flavour.

It’s like all fruit. There can be variation within varieties.

The leaves from our black mulberry, when stir fried in a little oil with a pinch of salt, remind me of dried, crispy seaweed. Not the fake seaweed made of cabbage, but the seasoned stuff that is like the nori used in sushi. I wouldn’t eat this as a bulk vegetable, maybe more as a snack or pretty side dish. I also don’t like to eat many of the leaves as I think this would affect berry production. The leaves are a bit tough. I’d like to try white mulberries leaves one day to see how they compare. They are, however, one of the few edible leaves in the garden in the hungry gap that aren’t brassicas. Pick the youngish leaves, but leave the shooting ends alone.

Warning

I have read that the milky white sap can be mildly toxic to humans, causing stomach upsets or skin irritations. I think the effects vary wildly for different cultivars. Little one plays with our tree constantly and has not had any problems. We have also eaten the leaves with no concerns.

My Beautiful Neighbourhood 2

Short version:

Since posting about ‘My Beautiful Neighbourhood’ I’ve come across so many more amazing gardens and edibles in public spaces in a wider radius around Streatham…and I’m still singing the song by Space. I feel I have to stress that their neighbourhood is nothing like mine. Streatham truly is lovely.

I wrote this post with two friends of mine in mind. One has a front garden, but no back garden and until recently she was under the impression that it was not the done thing to grow food in the front. This will hopefully give her some inspiration and some ideas of what grows well in the area. One is thinking about moving to South London and I’d like to show her how lovely the neighbourhood can be.

During lockdown we have been exploring further afield in search of more remote areas of green. Until recently we had no idea that South London contained so many pockets of mini woods. The husband tells me that most of them used to be part of what was called the Great North Wood (as opposed to the South ones in Surrey) that have been cut into and built upon as London expanded. There are some wide expanses left like Sydenham Hill Woods or Dulwich Woods and some smaller closer ones like Biggin Wood, Grange Wood or Unigate. We’ve also been exploring parks like Norwood Park, Palace Road Nature Gardens, Norwood Grove Recreation Ground, as well as our old haunts like Tooting Bec Common, Brockwell Park and Streatham Common.

Walking to these places we’ve come across some fantastic things in gardens and in parks themselves. We’ve seen plenty of the usual fig trees and crab apples, but there are a few more fun things in gardens:

Edibles are still being used to create structure:

Edibles are found in all sorts of places:

I love seeing every conceivable space used:

I can still appreciate things if they’re not edible:

Of course not everything has to be in gardens. These are some great things in public spaces:

Of course I am most impressed when a front garden has lots of edibles:

This one has tomatoes against the house, runner beans in the pot on the left with the canes and either some chard or beetroots in the blue pot.

I noticed this garden for the escaping squash and nasturtiums. Upon closer inspection I saw masses of raspberry plants in the left side of the garden, then spied a rhubarb nearer the house and some sort of brassica.

The residents here are really going for it with the pots. I love it because it shows that you can use just about anything for a pot. There’s a pear tree in an old storage box and there’s a young cherry tree in what looks like a bin. There were also plants off to the right and more plants in the public space on the other side of the iron fence. In this garden, all in pots, I could also see spinach/chard plants, lettuce type things (mizuna I think) potatoes, blackcurrants, raspberries, some sort of onions and a plethora of herbs. I’m sure there were plenty of things I didn’t recognise and I last saw this garden in April, so there may have been many additions since.

This house below is my favourite. I even spoke to the lady who owns the garden and she said, “What else would I do with it?” I thought that it was a fantastic response. It’s true. If you have a lovely large space in the front, you live on a hill (and there’s no dropped curb) so parking in the front garden is difficult and the road isn’t so busy that you need to worry about pollution. I spied the rather large strawberry bed on the right first, with the large blackberry bramble hedge. I then noticed the pots in the middle with runner beans twisting round the bamboo canes. The ‘hedge’ on the left side was made of raspberries (just off shot), with a thornless blackberry cane in the middle. You can see the feathery ferns of the asparagus bed on the left with a blackcurrant in front, and then a lily (which I’d love to think is an edible daylily). I didn’t get too close a look, as I didn’t want to intrude too much, but I think there was also chard, courgettes and lots of herbs like mint and lemon balm. I’m sure there were plenty of hidden gems not visible from the road. There is of course the lovely wisteria that is making its way over the house. Little one managed to guilt me into getting her a wisteria, which I only did because I read that the flowers were actually edible. More research is still needed, however.

And finally… After nosing in other people’s gardens I thought it only fair that I should share ours too. I think this is a good example of how little you can see from the road and how many edibles can be hidden in a front garden. From left to right. Hidden behind the wall is a newly planted wisteria that we’ll wind through the brickwork. After that there are 2 squashes that should hopefully make their way up that trellis leant against the bike shed. On the bike shed in pots are cuttings of gooseberry and chilean guava, some wild rocket, some fuchsias and other edible flowers. After that you can see the roses which we’ve only used for crystallised rose petals so far. The bush next to it is a physalis. Making their way up the sides of the arch are peas and beans. Down the wall on the right are watercress, a tromboncino, an artichoke and 2 honeyberries. Under the windows in pots are a serviceberry, sweet potatoes, scorzonera, potatoes and a blackcurrant.

Chilean guava

Short version:

This evergreen, hardy to -100C, bush that can grow to around 1.5m tall by 1m wide in almost any soil conditions will produce fragrant flowers and sweet aromatic berries that are unavailable in the shops.

The ugni molinae, also called strawberry myrtle, is one of my favourite plants. I’ve never ever seen these yummy little berries sold in the supermarkets. This means that the only way to get them used to grow your own. I’ve read that they used to be grown in Cornwall when they were a favourite of Queen Victoria. I’m not sure where this resurgence of this plant has come from but I’m grateful.

How to grow

As far as I know this can only be bought as a plant. I haven’t seen any seeds and I don’t know how successful seeds would be. I bought mine online from Suttons in the James Wong collection. It was called ‘ka-pow’ (that made me cringe a little). This isn’t an easy one to make cuttings from in my experience, then again this may be because I’m lacking in experience. I’ve only had about 10% success rate with cuttings.

This is a perennial evergreen bush that prefers sun but will handle some light shade. I wasn’t quite sure how it would handle the winter, especially as a young plant so I kept it in a pot for the first 2 years and brought it indoor for 2 winters. It is supposed to be hardy down to around -100C. It can grow to around 1.5m tall and a 1m wide within 10 years so I didn’t think it would be happy in a little pot for long. Besides my little one loves the fruit so much I thought it deserved a spot in the raised beds. It was absolutely fine in the garden, in a spot with a bit of light shade, over last winter and kept its leaves throughout. A couple of the leaves went bright red which added a splash of colour in the dullness of January.

Advice seems to be that any soil, at any pH, is fine as long as it is moist but well drained.

When it arrived in the summer it was a little thing (sold as 9cm) and it wasn’t until it had been with us a year that it grew around 20 lovely smelling flowers. Unfortunately, it didn’t set any fruit. In the second summer with us it had plenty of flowers and some lovely fruit.

Now it has been with us for almost 3 years it is around 1m tall and about 50cm wide. It has masses of flowers just opening so we’re hoping for a good year.

How to harvest

You have to wait as long as your patience holds up. The’ berries go a lovely appealing pink and they smell delicious, but you must wait till they turn a deep red. They’ll be slightly soft to the touch. So far, we’ve only had about 20 berries ripen over the course of a few weeks in October (not bad for a 2 year old plant). The Sutton’s website says August to September, but upon further internet research, it seems that October may be around right. I’ll wait to see when they ripen this year before I pass verdict. It’s hard to get a photo of clusters of ripe berries because they’re a bit too yummy. Once they’re ripe someone (mostly the little monkey) tends to go for it. For us, they’re like little 1cm diameter sweets that we just pick and eat straight off the bush.

How they taste

I find this one really hard to describe. The flowers smell like floral candy floss. The berries taste how they smell. They’re like an alpine strawberry mixed with candy floss and with something aromatic that is hard to place. I think the closest I can think of is possibly clove. The first time you try, the berry tastes stronger than you expect. That’s why we treat them a bit like sweets and eat them one at a time. With the strong taste and unplaceable aromatic I thought the little one wouldn’t be a fan. Boy was I wrong. She absolutely adores them, which is why I shall continue trying to propagate.

Potatoes

Short version:

They can be grown from grocery potatoes, they’re easy and they’re an exciting one for little ones. With a craft knife you can make a pot that allows for little ones to see the potatoes as they grow and for sneaky harvests in the growing season. They self propagate very easily. Only the tubers are edible.

I usually only try to grow things that are hard to get in the shops, are expensive or taste much better home grown.

Potatoes don’t under usual circumstances fall into any of these categories. The taste of potatoes generally depends on the variety grown. However, I adore potatoes. I adore them as a really tasty carbohydrate, and I adore them because they are prime example of life wanting to survive.

When I was 8, I came across some potatoes that were sprouting. Out of curiosity I planted them in the garden. I was amazed when these massive plants grew. I was even more amazed to see flowers develop into fruits that looked like small green tomatoes (don’t eat these – or anything other than the tubers as they are all poisonous). In the autumn, when I pulled each plant up, there were 5-9 fist sized potatoes. Thus, began my love affair with growing my own. I then proceeded to accidentally inoculate my mum’s whole garden with potatoes over the next few years, as I tried to practice crop rotation. I now know that potatoes will grow back from any tiny potatoes left in the soil, even if they are only the size of a bean.

They basically want to grow. We practice hole composting, which is exactly as it sounds. Dig a hole, dump in kitchen vegetable waste and then cover. This means that potato peel often ends up in the garden and if there is a large enough piece of peel it can grow into a potato plant. We think that all our potato plants will produce Maris piper potatoes because those are generally the potatoes that we buy.

So, with the plants popping up in the garden as weeds, only getting groceries in every 3 weeks in the lockdown and these being a fabulous plant for the wee one to see growing, I felt like it was just meant to be.

How to grow

Now, in June, it is generally too late to buy seed potatoes, which are basically small potatoes that are certified virus free. Potatoes are generally planted March to May in the UK. As it’s late, I would suggest growing baby potatoes. Then again, as it is only early June, you may be able to squeeze in some decent sized potatoes into the growing season.

You can grow potatoes from the ones you get in your groceries. The only difference is that they may not be disease resistant. Find a potato that you like, as the resulting tubers will taste the same. Then chit them. This basically means to leave them somewhere light to grow shoots. It can help to stand them in egg boxes to ensure the end with more eyes is on top, though I’ve never bothered.

Potatoes will grow well in almost any soil, which is probably why they are a very popular crop. They are easy to handle and produce wonderful large harvests. This makes them particularly exciting for kids. Bury your chitted potato about half a foot deep between 30-60cm apart. The difference in distance apart depends on how early you want to dig them up. The earlier you intend to harvest the closer you can grow them. I.e. baby potatoes can be 30cm apart.

I like to grow potatoes in pots as it makes the harvesting easier and I like to use specially made pots that allow harvesting whilst the plant is growing. It’s easy to make your own. Take 2 of the same cheap plastic pot. Cut panels all around the sides of one. Nestle the cut pot inside the other and grow your potatoes inside this double pot.

Some people like to make mounds by gathering soil up to the stem or like to add compost to pots as the plant grows. I just add soil if the potatoes appear at the surface to stop them going green. I find this sometimes happens when I water with a strong spray. Watering is especially important when the tubers start to form. Fertilising when the plants are around a foot tall (when mounding up can be done) can help to give a good sized harvest.

How to harvest

The longer you leave the potato plant to grow, the bigger the tubers tend to be. You can wait for the plant to begin to die back in late autumn. To harvest grasp all the stems of one plant and gently pull and wiggle the potatoes out of the ground. With our heavy clay, large tubers and fragile roots, a couple of the tubers are often left in the ground after pulling. I often cut a potato in half accidentally with a trowel or stab them with a fork as I try to dig these out because I sadly lack X-ray vision.

The best way around this is to grow potatoes in pots. At harvest time you can tip the whole tub either onto a sheet of plastic or into another slightly bigger pot. You will then get all your potatoes, except for the teeniest ones. Also, when planting in pots I tend to use compost which gives a crumbly substrate. The clay soil in the ground is very difficult to rake with your fingers to find potatoes.

With the funky panel pot you can harvest baby potatoes through the year. This is a nice crop to have through the summer. The video shows how you can pull the inner pot out and you can see potatoes. Little one was excited to get involved in her first potato harvest. There are also potatoes in the centre, but I usually leave those for a late harvest.

How they taste

I do not need to give you any information on what potatoes taste like. I’m sure you also know that potatoes can taste very different between varieties. The good news is that whatever potato you plant will produce potatoes that taste like those as they produce clones. If you’re going to go to the effort of planting potatoes, you may as well plant the tastiest ones you can find, or unusual tasting ones.

Warning

Potatoes are a member of the nightshade family as are tomatoes and aubergines. It’s worth repeating that all the parts of the plant that are not the tubers are poisonous.

Elderflowers

Short version:

Now is the perfect time to forage elderflowers if you don’t have any of your own growing. They make an excellent cordial and great fritters. They taste like they smell. Eat only the flowers. Green parts contain toxins.

This feels like a cheat because we’re not growing our own flowers, but this is definitely one for the little one. Our neighbours two doors down have an absolutely amazing elderflower tree that is around 14 feet tall. My little one looks at it longingly from our garden. Lucky us, the lovely neighbour has brought some round for us during lockdown. However, it is no hardship taking daily exercise in one of the many amazing South London parks or wooded areas. I am astounded at how many elderflower trees there are. I’m afraid I have no advice on how to grow these. We would love to grow our own, but I’m afraid our garden is much too small to accommodate another tree. To be honest our garden is too small to accommodate any trees but I was still determined to shoehorn a small pear, apple, cherry and one ever expanding fig tree. We have two mulberry bushes, but they are little dwarf things, so I don’t count them as trees.

How to harvest

If you are foraging then find a nice park, away from roads, with no obvious ownership. Even in non-COVID-19 times I would advise picking blooms that at head height and above. The elderflowers I’ve seen tend to be around the edges of parks or by railway fences. The kind of places that I’ve seen people when they’re caught short. Little one gets to harvest by sitting on hubby’s shoulders.

Look for clusters of flowers that are newly opened. Avoid any that look like they are starting to turn brown at all. Give them a little shake to dislodge any insects. I have read that picking them early in the morning is when they are most fragrant. We have just made do with whenever we have managed to persuade little madame out. She absolutely loves picking the flowers. She loves the smell and she loves the taste.

How they taste

They basically taste how they smell.

They are great in a cordial. Click here for this recipe from River Cottage we used, except (with lockdown shopping hinderances) we had no lemons so I used clementines instead. We also had no citric acid and made half the quantity and used around 350g of sugar rather than 500g.

We tried a second batch a few days later and again, with the lockdown, we used sugar that I pulled out from the back of the cupboard. As you can see, it is a much darker colour. The taste was quite different. It had the more honeyed sticky taste of brown sugar.

We also tried adding dried lavender to another batch. If you do this, add the lavender after the mixture has cooled a little. Our lavender one had a tea quality to it.

There is something rather lovely about home-made cordial, although maybe it’s the whole process of foraging with the little one, having her help with the stirring and straining and watching her wear the funnel as a hat and charge around the kitchen that just makes it wonderful. She absolutely loved the cordial. She loved it most neat. That was ok though as I had added more water and less sugar when making it. So er…. Maybe in fact we looked at the recipe and then ignored it.

We’ve also made elderflower fritters using this recipe. These were light, crispy and very tasty. We served it without the extras and it was still lovely. It would have been amazing with vanilla ice-cream though.

Warning

The only edible parts of this plant are the flowers and the RIPE berries later in the year. All other parts contain cyanogenic glycosides. This website here explains about the chemistry of it. When using the flowers for cordial or fritters cut away the large green stems. The smaller ones that hold clusters of flowers together are fine. Cooking breaks down the toxins, so elderflowers are considered safe to eat. However, as with all new (and foraged) foods, it may be wise to start with trying a little as you may have unknown allergies.  

Turkish rocket

Short version:

A hardy, perennial, shade tolerant, self-seeding vegetable with a long taproot that can be eaten all year round. The best bit to eat though are the flowering shoots.

I have no idea why it is called Turkish rocket (latin name – Bunias orientalis) as it is nothing like what people typically think of as rocket (Eruca vesicaria subsp. Sativa) or wild rocket (Diplotaxis tenuifolia). All three of those rockets are, however, all part of the Brassica family. Bunias doesn’t look like the other 2 rockets and it doesn’t taste like them either.

How to grow

They can easily be grown from seed. As far as I know seeds are only available online but be careful and make sure you are buying Bunias orientalis because I’ve seen seeds marketed as Turkish rocket that look like they are just rocket. Turkish rocket can be slow to germinate so you do need to be a bit patient. I’d recommend starting them in pots indoors as they can look quite a bit like dandelion seedlings at the start with a similar rosette of leaves. This also gives you time to decide on a permanent patch.

The plants like a bit of sun but they do very well in quite a bit of shade. Our Turkish rocket patch is by the apple tree next to a tall fence. In the summer it sits in the dappled shade of the little apple tree in the morning and the shade of the fence most of the afternoon but in the winter I don’t think the low sun shines on it at all. They don’t do particularly well in pots because they have a deep taproot. However, they do very well in just about any type of soil. They have thrived in our heavy clay. This deep taproot can reach down many feet to get nutrients and water. This means it does very well in drought. This also means you need to choose your patch wisely because once it establishes itself it becomes quite hard to dig up. I haven’t seen it for myself, but I have read that if any of the root is left behind, the plant will return. It can also self seed merrily, but we’ve not really left any of the flowers.

Most of the leaves are in a rosette around the base. The flower stalks can extend up to around 80 cm tall. If left to flower you get yellow flowers with the four petals typical of brassicas.

The plant is very hardy and can survive a very cold winter and come back fine the next year. I found with the mild winter we had last year we still had the rosette of leaves at the base.

How to harvest

The leaves and the flower shoots are edible. Leaves are available all year round. I don’t usually harvest any over the winter as it doesn’t seem to have many leaves, whilst my perennial kales and purple tree collard do very well over winter. The flower shoots start in late spring (making it a good edible for the hungry gap) and can continue in flushes through the summer. If you don’t want it to self seed, it’s no chore to eat all of the flower shoots. They are best when the buds are still closed.

How to eat

I wouldn’t recommend eating the leaves raw. They can be a bit bitter especially in the height of summer. To combat the bitterness, you can blanche with some salty hot water, then drain and discard that water. Then cook again in any manner of choosing, e.g. frying in a bit of oil, boiling, adding to sauces or stews.

The flower shoots are the best bit and can be eaten like purple sprouting broccoli. They taste a little bit like a cross between purple sprouting broccoli and mustard greens. The texture doesn’t quite have the same bite as purple sprouting broccoli. It is more like the stems of the Chinese vegetable choi sum.

Problems

I only added this bit because one of the best things about this plant is that I have never seen any pests on it. It seems to be untroubled by my usual brassica diseases like powdery mildew. It grows like a weed and doesn’t need any tending at all. It’s true that I have only had it for 2 1/2 years but in that time after the original sowing and then planting out all I’ve done is harvest and eat.

Encouraging birds

Short version:

Spring is when you want to encourage small birds into the garden. Most nesting garden birds feed their chicks protein so they will hunt out and devour the population of bugs that have been destroying your plants. You can attract birds with food, water or shelter. It’s a great thing to interest the kids and to help them learn about wildlife.

I am very new to the wildlife side of the gardening. I spent the first year in our new home (with our first proper garden) digging up the barren flagstone wasteland, laying turf, building structures and trying to establish lots of new plants. You can see some of that work in ‘lawns.’

The second year was spent trying to nurture the perennial edibles, establishing what annuals would grow well in the conditions and trying lots of new edibles.

In this third year, I’ve finally had a chance to try and make our garden more visitor friendly. I’ve written a post about why pesticides are an issue, but this comes from my science background and is more theoretical. This is the first year that I’ve really been able to see the result of any of those ideas. We’ve seen plenty of frogs. The garden is often filled with the pleasing sound of buzzing bees, especially by the raspberry and blueberry bed that has a long flowering period. I have seen many a ladybird adult and nymph. However, it is only recently that we’ve begun to get more birds. This is probably mostly due to the increased amount of tree like growth that provides shelter from the vast number of local pet cats.  

Making a feeder with kids

Attracting birds is something that my little one has become very excited about. In lockdown, one of the educational videos she came across was about feeding birds, so she made a bird feeder with hubby out of an old bottle.

They took a bottle and cut a hole about the size of a penny in it for the seed to fall out of it. Under this they cut a smaller hole and one on the side opposite. They threaded an old straw with an old lid stuck on it, to provide a little platform for any spilled seed to fall onto and a little place for a little bird to land on. The small hole and small platform hopefully mean that the bigger birds or squirrels have less chance of gobbling it all up. 

Attracting birds in spring is important because It turns out that even the seed eating garden birds in the UK will feed their chicks protein. Protein in the garden means bugs. Now that we’ve started learning about the birds, we can continue to provide food into winter and be able to help them more when food is scarce.

We chose to hang the feeder under the blackberry arch because it is covered and protected from the rain a little. It hangs from a frame that a cat should find impossible to climb and it is surrounded by greenery, which is hopefully more welcoming to the birds. It is also above the grass so that any seed that falls and sows itself won’t be a nuisance in vegetable beds.

I saw a robin trying to land on the little platform that caught the bird seed. Unfortunately, this is not how a robin eats. They prefer to pick off a solid surface. I just spread a bit of seed in a dish on the table. I was pleased when I came back to the dish and I saw evidence of it having been used. It turned out to be a pigeon. Humph!

As an alternative, I let the little one paint a ceramic bird feeder. It has a space inside for a robin to sit. Hopefully, the robin will fit, but bigger birds will not.

We added a water tray that was suspended from the blackberry support too. Especially in the summer months, birds need somewhere to drink. It is just a simple old mushroom tray that has been carefully washed and filled with about an inch of tap water. It’s not perfect, as birds prefer something much bigger, and much sturdier that they can bathe in and clean their feathers in too but I dare not make a large bird bath to go on any surface due to the cats. The water in the tray does need to be changed everyday and cleaned regularly to keep the birds that use it safe from diseases. This is also why we only have bird feeders that holds dry seed. We only need to clean and change the seed after it gets wet in the rain. A bird table that can hold scraps and other food needs to be cleaned everyday and emptied at night to avoid attracting rodents and going mouldy.

The robin is a frequent visitor. We have seen it hop around the garden and then fly off with a caterpillar in its mouth. I absolutely love this robin. Even though robins are very territorial, it’s definitely not just one robin. We’ve seen 2 in the garden at the same time. It may be possible that they are a nesting pair. This week it sat on our pergola and gave us a gorgeous tune. We were reminded by husband that this in bird language was probably something along the lines of, “Sling your hook! This space is mine!” Or, “Look at me, I’m so big, I sing so well, let’s have babies!” It sometimes follows me around as I garden, hoping for some unearthed worms. Unfortunately, this means that I always have gloves on or mucky hands and can’t get my camera out in time. We also do our best statue impressions when birds come into the garden, so we don’t scare them. So I don’t have many photos.

There is a blackbird that we’ve seen occasionally. There is a tree 3 doors down that seems to be teeming with magpies. We occasionally see one in the garden. We often hear and see great tits and sparrows. There was a house sparrow that sang very loudly and hopped in and out of our eaves for a couple of days. We think it might have been broadcasting its new home, hoping to attract a female. We really hope that it has only stopped because it was successful. We would love a nest of sparrows in the vicinity. They would help with the aphids.

Here is where we reach a gardening dilemma though. If we want to encourage birds into the garden to remove aphids, caterpillars, shield bugs, snails and slugs by providing food, then ideally, we shouldn’t be removing bugs that we find as this potentially removes the food source. I find it really hard to leave the pests and I find it really hard to look at the Daubenton’s kale with the new growth infested with aphids.

We put this nesting box in during the first year and naively thought it would be filled almost immediately. It has remained vacant. This doesn’t surprise me much now as the aforementioned barren wasteland wasn’t particularly inviting to birds. Hopefully as the trees and plants grow over the years the garden will become increasingly hospitable to birds that will happily eat our pests. I suspect this is also too exposed and becomes too hot during the day. I will move it a better spot. I just haven’t figured out what that spot is. This is all still a learning process as with the perennial edibles. Hopefully, utopia will be reached when the garden provides food for the birds and the birds provide a pest removal service.

Borage

Short version:

A self-seeding, upright annual that can grow to about 80cm tall. It has lovely edible blue flowers that bees and butterflies love. The young leaves can be used as a cooked green. Older leaves can be blitzed into soup.

My child thinks that I am really cruel for not growing her proper showy flowers in the garden. The general rule is – if I can’t eat it (or some part of it) I won’t grow it. Having a small garden in the city means that space is a premium. Even if I get a pot to put something fun in, that would still be a pot that I could grow something edible in. I won’t grow a bee or butterfly friendly flower for the sake of it. Some part of the plant also needs to be edible. I am, however, trying to convert the lawn into more of a bee friendly flower patch though, with edible clover and wild pansies. There’s more info how the lawn came to be here.

Borage ticks all the boxes for the little critters, the little critter and me. My little one absolutely loves grazing on the flowers and she loves to put them into drinks. We also like to make little ice cubes with them in.

How to grow

If you want very early plants, you can start them in individual in small pots from February. I say individual as the seedlings are rather large and they do grow quickly. Otherwise, the easiest way is to sow them straight into the ground around 1cm deep where you want them to grow between March and May. Give them plenty of space between plants as they can spread around 45cm. I like to squeeze them in, so I usually have them around 20cm apart. They like full sun best but will do fine in some shade. From seeing where my self-seeded seedlings have popped up, I can tell that they are not too fussy, but love a good compost.  

That is something to be aware of. Once you have sown borage, you never need sow again.  Self-seeded seedlings can appear as early as March, but they don’t mind being transplanted.

How to harvest

You can eat the young leaves. In fact, if they have self-seeded themselves into a nuisance you could pick lots of seedlings to eat. I love how borage can turn weeding into harvesting. I say ‘young’ leaves as borage leaves are a little prickly. The older the leaf the pricklier. After cooking the young leaves, the prickles will have wilted and not be noticeable. If you really want to use the older leaves it would be better to blitz them into soup. You would need some gloves to protect your hands. They don’t sting like nettles do, but they can be uncomfortable to handle. Once the flowers start appearing you can pick the flower off and eat straight away.

No matter how much you try to eat every flower (believe me, the kid has tried) you will never get them all. That’s a great thing. It’s good to leave some for the bees and butterflies. You can still eat the flowers after they have visited, but it’s hard to time harvesting after a pollinator has had a feed. The plant will give out plenty of flowers over a long period. This plant has been flowering for 6 weeks and it doesn’t show any sign of giving up. Unfortunately I didn’t stake it up so it has collapsed all over the place and it has also become a bit diseased.

How they taste

The leaves and the flowers have a cucumbery-lettucey taste.

The flowers have a bit of added sweetness due to the nectar. They are best eaten raw as a foraging snack, scattered in salads or sprinkled on dishes as a garnish.

The salad above was mostly picked by little madam. It had to be washed about 4 times due to the large amount of bugs. All ingredients were from the garden:

Borage (obviously), nasturtiums (the yellow and orange flowers should be added in moderation as they are spicy), siberian purslane (tiny pink flowers – their rather bitter taste is masked by everything else), winter purslane flowers (really tasty but not bitter – the flowers are so tiny that you pick the whole stem, with a circular leaf), there were some kale flowers (taste a bit cabbagey), there was some three cornered leek flowers (I added those, but she then demanded I remove them for being too garlicky), rose petals, Caucasian spinach leaves, dill and mint.

Borage looks and tastes great in Pimm’s. This is also where the borage ice cubes go down a treat. My four-year-old likes to put mint and borage together. It’s like she’s preparing herself to drink Pimm’s one day.

The leaves, when cooked, are very soft. They shrink down a lot, like spinach does.

Problems

The only disease that has affected my borage, so far, is powdery mildew. This is something I get a lot in my garden – on the brassicas, tromboncinos and even on peas. Probably because I’m constantly trying to pack the plants into a small space. It is also because I get the little one involved in watering which inevitably leads to a spraying on the leaves. This provides perfect conditions for powdery mildew – humid air that doesn’t have space to circulate well. I’m afraid the best way to get rid of it is to catch it early and remove all affected leaves. If left too late the whole plant must be binned. It can’t even be recycled in the compost as the spores will make infection more likely next season.

Fun science stuff

The flowers make for a great acid test. If you put the flowers into an acidic drink, they will turn pink. It does takes quite a while though (20 mins) and happens very gradually.

Radishes

Short version:

Radishes can be available as early as 4 weeks from seed. They’re fine in a big pot and you can also eat the greens too. The young shoots are great stir fried if you leave them to turn into triffids. The flowers and green seed pods also make a great snack. Kids find them to grow and they’re great to carve.

Radishes are a great quick crop veggie for these lockdown times. Being so small you could grow radishes almost anywhere. They can be used to fill up space in between other larger vegetables when they are still small. They are great in borders or round the edges of beds. They are compact enough for balconies and deep window boxes. You can eat all the radish, including the greens so it feels like a triumph to waste absolutely nothing. When you buy them in the shops, if you’re lucky enough to get ones with tops on (so you can see how fresh they are), chances are they will be too wilted to be particularly appetising. They can be grown through most of the year so are a great vegetable for winter and the hungry gap. One of my weirder bonus points is that radishes come out very cleanly (unlike beetroots, which I always have to hack at with a knife and peel).

How to grow

  1. Sow straight into the ground. Radishes don’t like having their roots disturbed. This is great as this saves time and effort transplanting.
  2. Ensure that the soil is stone free and has a good amount of compost. Radishes don’t like to dry out too much, nor do they like being waterlogged. Sounds like hard work but basically, they don’t do well straight into my rubbish heavy clay, stony soil. I prefer to grow them in pots anyway as they are small and can be put anywhere (like the shed roof). Soils with more compost retain water better without getting waterlogged. Radishes do have roots that extend beyond the base of the radish so have a pot that allows about a foot depth of compost.
  3. Sow the seeds in staggered rows about 1.5cm deep and leaving about 4cm between seeds. Many recommendations say to sow in rows and then thin out. You can do this and eat the thinnings but it ends up being more time consuming and I often find that pulling up a spare seedling will disturb the other seedlings around it. If you just sow them where you intend them to grow, then your job is done till harvesting (except for regular watering of course). Alternatively, you can also sow the occasional seed here and there around bigger plants. Because the radish is primarily a root veggie, it won’t have the same nutritional needs as fruiting plants. You can sow around aubergine, peppers, chillies and squashes if you start early enough.
  4. Water the seeds in and then ensure that the radishes don’t get too dry – moist but not waterlogged. Good compost and a pot with a hole in the bottom can reduce the worry.
  5. You can sow a few seeds regularly (every couple of weeks) to ensure a consistent supply of radishes in spring and in autumn. There’s not much point sowing in summer as it can get a bit hot so the plants will bolt. You’ll get small woody radishes and thin flower stems. If you leave some radishes past their best in late autumn they will provide you with leaves over winter. In early spring they will have plenty of new growth and flower shoots.

How to harvest

When conditions are suitable you could be harvesting lovely little radishes 4 weeks from sowing. Because I’m trying to use the garden as a larder I go and gather each day. With radishes you can check they’re ready by pushing the soil away from the base of the leaves. You can see how big the radish is. Around the size of a ping pong ball is ideal (depending on your radish variety). Pick the biggest ones and leave the rest to grow.

If you don’t harvest the radishes when they’re the right size, you can leave them to grow into shoots to be used like purple sprouting broccoli. You could sow them slightly further apart or harvest and leave well-spaced plants with this intention from the start. The flower shoots and young leaves make a great green vegetable.

The flowers themselves and green seed pods make a great snack.  

How it tastes

I absolutely love the radish for being one of the few vegetables where you can utilise absolutely every part of it. They are primarily grown for the roots, but the greens are fantastic. They’re no good in salads as the leaves have slightly prickly bumps on them but when they’re cooked these completely soften.

The radish itself, when raw has that horseradishy / mustardy taste. They can be quite hot. It will depend on the variety. They have a lovely crunch when raw and are tasty and cute sliced thinly into a salad. The whole family prefer them cooked. They taste like turnips and are great sautéed or roasted. They lose their spiciness when cooked.

The greens that come with the radishes can be thrown into the pan when the radish roots are almost done. They can be used to bulk up stir fries or blitzed into sauces. The young greens from a radish pulled for the root have a chard like taste. The thing that I find it most similar to is theChinese leaf – choi sum.

The flower shoots and young leaves can be used like purple sprouting broccoli. It’s a bit softer in texture and taste like a cross between broccoli and cooked radish.

The cute little flowers can be added to salads and taste a little like cabbage, but with a hint of sweetness to it.

The raw green seed pods are juicy and have that same slightly sweet cabbagy taste. I’m afraid I haven’t yet collected enough of them to have tried cooking with them.

I generally just snack on the flowers and seed pods raw whilst in the garden.

The older leaves are a bit more prickly and even with lots of cooking can still be a little weird on the tongue. These are better added into a blended soup.

I leave you with a last image. The radishes are great fun to carve because of the amazing contrast of the pink against the white. In case you can’t tell…er… it’s supposed to be a rose. I carved it for my little one… like the cat boy Halloween pumpkin. Incidentally, radishes are a fun one for kids. The seeds, whilst small, are still manageable. She likes to drop them into the holes that I’ve made in the compost. They seedlings appear within a week. They can be harvested quick and they’re easy for little ones to pull out. They’re also an amazing colour. Littl’un asked for a radish and called it her jewel. She won’t eat the radish itself, raw or cooked, but she does like the shoots of the overgrown ones.