Nasturtiums

Short version:

With large attractive blooms in warm colours, these rampant self-seeders can be bushy or trailing/climbing depending on the variety. The flowers, leaves and seed pods are edible and when raw have a peppery taste similar to raw watercress. Its pungency is dampened by cooking.  

Eating the flowers

I’m surprised that people still visit me when I often chase guests with things I’ve just pulled from my garden, demanding that they eat it. Proffered nasturtiums meet the most resistance. People often don’t believe that something that pretty and boldly coloured is edible. They range from red, through shades of orange and yellow, to a pale peachy colour (which I sadly don’t have). The trumpet shaped blooms are around the size of a ping pong ball and the petals are soft and velvety.

I often warn people that they do taste rather peppery. Children are attracted to the appearance, but often put off by the taste. It doesn’t sound like I’m selling it well but around the peppery taste there is this unusual sweetness. We sometimes eat a couple in the garden as an interesting snack. Though, I’m afraid, we find it unpalatable to eat a large quantity of raw flowers, so they are often consigned to being a garnish or torn and sprinkled liberally in salads.

I’ve discovered that my 4 year old is a sly one and rather than eat the flowers she goes straight for the nectar.

This ‘cone’ at the back of the flower is where the nectar is stored and if you nip off this tiny bit to eat then it is very sweet with only that slight hint of pepper.

Bee friendly flowers

This brings me to the next plus point. On top of being attractive and edible, they’re great for bees and other pollinators. Nasturtiums are a good source of pollen and nectar. The shape of the flower also provides a little landing pad for the bees too. They also have a decently long flowering season – from May to September. Even with my little monkey pinching out the nectar from as many flowers as she can, there is always plenty for the bees.

Vertical gardening

It’s also fortuitous that I grow the trailing/climbing variety in my garden. Munchkin can only really reach the lower third of the plants. The bushy varieties make a stunning display in a plant border but in my small enclosed garden the climbing ones have a small footprint whilst providing a large amount of eating. Where they haven’t climbed up the supports, they trail along the ground and make good ground cover to crowd out the weeds around the base of the perennials.

They self-seed

I sowed nasturtiums in 2017. They can be sown indoors, in individual pots, just before the last frost. Individual toilet roll pots are best because the stems are easily snapped. For ease sow in situ in from April onwards. I planted the variety ‘Gleam’ as they are a climbing variety and an ‘African Jewel’ mix, another climbing variety which also has variegated leaves for something cool to look at. Since then they’ve come back every year without any intervention from me. One of the great things about edible self-seeders like these is that any unwanted seedlings can just be pulled and eaten.

Great for kids

The seeds are nice and large, so they’re easy for kids to handle. They germinate quickly so little ones don’t have to wait so long. The leaves are also hydrophobic, as in, they repel water. They make a fascinating plant to play with and then of course they’re pretty to look at and edible later.

If you grow nasturtiums then try this game: Put a large drop of water on the leaf, try and throw the drop in the air and catch it again in the leaf.

Eating the leaves

So, both flowers and leaves are edible, raw. They can be added to salads, but at our table I wouldn’t dare to add much beyond a few shredded leaves. Both the husband and the infant would have a tantrum. It’s the same with raw watercress. Blanched watercress, however, pleases the husband but not the child.  

A light stir frying of the nasturtium leaves takes away much of the pepperiness and leaves a pleasant taste that I’ve not found anywhere else. Again, the husband will accept this but not the child. She will, however, eat nasturtium leaf crisps. You can make them like kale crisps. Spray lightly with oil and oven bake in single layers for a few minutes on a medium heat. Alternatively, a hot, non-stick frying pan with oil will crisp up leaves very quickly but the leaves must be done a few at a time in a single layer. You can imagine I don’t do this often as it’s a bit too much work for someone who wants to eat out of the garden lazily and easily. Also, I suspect all the oil and heat makes it all much less nutritious and healthy.

Easy to grow

In addition to the happy self-seeding, nasturtiums grow well in poor soil. This means that they will grow readily in soil that is not fertile enough to grow vegetables. This doesn’t mean that you need to deliberately seek out rubbish soil. If the soil is fertile you will just get more leaves, which isn’t a problem as you can eat them.

As a companion

They are very attractive to aphids and cabbage white. This may sound like a bad thing as you don’t want to attract either to your garden really, but what they do is they ‘trap’ the pests and they feed on the nasturtiums rather than on your other crop buds or brassicas. The best thing is that nasturtium is so prolific that the plant doesn’t seem to be affected much by the aphids. The caterpillars can eat a good chunk of plant but it’s really easy just to pick all the leaves affected by pests and bin them all. If you’re not too squeamish you can take the leaves with the aphids and soak them in very salty water (literally a large bowl filled with water and about 2 tablespoons of salt) for 10 mins. It’s quite satisfying to see the water crowded with aphids. These are now pests no longer in your garden and you can still rinse the leaves and eat them. I’m afraid I’m a bit too squeamish to do this with the caterpillars.

Seed pods

Lastly the seed pods are, apparently, a substitute for capers. I’m afraid I’ve never done anything with them. Maybe one day when I’m feeling more adventurous. I let you know when I get there!

As a parting image – this is a photo taken 27th August. Seedlings are still appearing and the current plants are still going strong. This is really with no effort at all on my part. I don’t sow or transplant. All I do is play with the leaves, snack on the flowers, allow my little one to steal all the nectar, harvest leaves and pick off leaves with aphids as I’m harvesting (wash the aphids down the sink and eat the leaves) and experiment with different ways of cooking/preparing them.

Passiflora Caerulea

Short version:

I chose this passion flower because it was frost hardy perennial climber that grew in some shade, was evergreen and provided edible fruit. It has done brilliantly in my garden and has amazing flowers followed by orange, egg shaped fruit. 

Passiflora / passion flowers are gorgeous as both a plant and a flower. The whole structure with its many dangling vines can transform a bare surface, whilst the individual flowers look incredibly exotic. There are many passion flowers of varying colours – but you may have noticed, I’m only interested if a plant is edible. I’m therefore, only talking about passiflora caerulea because it ticks all of my boxes.

Flowers

I really think they are stunning. It has a long flowering season. It can begin flowering (here in London) in late May and can continue till September. This will depend on the weather from year to year. The bees love them, and I often see them buzzing around the vines. This is of course also important for pollination so that the flowers will set fruit.

Fruit

Of course, it would be wonderful to grow passiflora edulis as these are the passion fruit that we recognise from the shops. Unfortunately, these wouldn’t survive the winter outdoors (I have neither the space nor the patience for greenhouse growing) and it certainly wouldn’t be warm enough in the UK alfresco for the fruits to fully develop. The caerulea is a decent substitution. The fruits are a gorgeous orange colour with a size and shape similar to a hen’s egg. These are edible – WHEN RIPE. When not ripe enough the fruit can cause tummy troubles. The fruit does need a good summer to ripen. A word of warning though – only the pulpy seeds are edible. The rest of the fruit should be discarded and the rest if the plant is also toxic. If this sounds worrying then to put your mind at ease – or maybe give food for thought – potato leaves are also toxic. Potatoes, along with tomatoes and aubergines are part of the nightshade family and none of the leaves of those plants should be eaten either. With any unusual edibles it’s a good idea to do your own research and read websites that you trust for information. I think that the Royal Horticultural Society is a good resource.

Taste is also important. I won’t lie. They don’t taste much like the passion fruit we’re used to – but it tastes OK. Nothing amazing, but pleasant enough.

Vertical gardening

It uses tendrils to climb up anything that will support it. In my garden it climbs the blackberries and the grape vine. It’s woven itself though the blackberry bushes and has resurfaced again about 4m away from the original plant. 

The tendrils are great because this is not a plant that will damage brickwork, unlike ivy – which tunnels roots into mortar and is impossible to remove. I did mistakenly allow ivy to climb up a house once because I thought it was beautiful. When we came to move, I spent about 10 hours trying to remove the ivy. I yanked, scraped, scrubbed and brushed, but you could still see the debris of tiny roots entrenched in all available pores.

The climbing also means that it takes up a small footprint, which is a bonus for small gardens. You could have it scramble over a bike shed or to add colour and interest to a fence or wall.

Hardy perennial in British weather

The different varieties of passiflora vary in how hardy they are. Caerulea will survive outdoors fine and ours didn’t seem to be bothered by frost. In our garden in London it can be evergreen. It is deciduous to evergreen depending on how warm the local area is. Being evergreen means that it has made a great living screen by our fence. It has hopefully given our neighbours some protection from my child’s mooning (yes, that’s not a typo – but she is only 3 – and getting naked on private property seems to be her thing) and screaming (something else I think is also connected to being 3).  

It also seems to do fine in shade. Its roots and the first 4 feet of the plant spends most of the time in shade. If you’re looking for edible fruit though, you’ll want it to grow in decent amounts of sun.

It returns year after year, despite freezing conditions. It does follow the adage: first year sleep, second year creep, third year leap – or it did for me anyway. First year it was a sorry looking thing with a few scraggly vines. The second year it provided a bit of privacy and one orange fruit.

This being the third year it covers a good 2 square metres or so. It has wonderfully flexible vines so I could weave it in and out of the frame however I liked. It also has about 20 or so fruit which are now all turning orange. With our current blackberry canes going mental and a grape vine in the middle, it is a little difficult to see where one plant ends and the other begins.

Doesn’t need looking after

In South Africa it counts as an invasive species that takes over indigenous plant life. I haven’t read anything that makes this plant a cause for concern in the UK. It doesn’t propagate particularly easily here, and I have never seen it anywhere in the wild. This does mean that it grows brilliantly, even with plenty of neglect. I’ve read that it in fact does best when allowed to get a little unruly and not kept too neat. They do grow to be quite large plants, though some patience is required in early years. When the plant is in its first couple of years and doesn’t look like much, don’t be tempted to fill in the space (like I did – doh!) with other perennials. If you want something vertical you could grow some peas, beans or maybe a cucamelon or another annual to fill in the gaps because this passiflora really will fill out.

This is an arch in Vézénobres in France. In July the fruit was already ripe and it looked stunning. It seemed quite a popular plant in the local area.

It’s vigorous enough to cover a surface – but not so overly aggressive, like ivy, that you’ll continuously need to hack half of it down just to keep it in check. It’s easy enough to remove whole vines if you do need to keep it small. Pinching out the growing tips of the vines can help it to branch more.  

If you’re looking to grow something that tastes amazing, I’m afraid this probably isn’t it. I’ve decided that there are still plenty of other reasons to grow these and I’ll continue to do so until I decide I need the real estate for something else. That something else is going to have to have all the bonuses of climbing, being hardy, being evergreen, be able to thrive on neglect, be bee friendly, be beautiful and then taste pretty wicked in order to trump passiflora caerulea.

Tromboncino

Short version:

A great summer squash to grow upwards if you don’t want to give up too much space for courgettes on the ground but have lots of vertical space.

In my constant hunt for ways to fit as many vegetables into my garden as possible I came across tromboncinos. A neighbour told me that the word means little trombone in Italian. I could see why it would be called that.

I’m giving this a separate page to pumpkins and other squashes as I like to think of courgettes as every day vegetables that everyone has eaten, if not cooked. I’ve seen it be one of the go tos for mums who want to squeeze as much vegetable as possible into their little ones – hidden in the pasta sauce, hidden in the cake (yes, I said cake – like carrot cake, but courgette cake instead), in the ratatouille, boiled, baked or roasted. Technically it is a fruit as it develops from the ovary and contains the seeds.

Just growing tromboncino is fun for it’s uniqueness, but there are also practical reasons:

  • The leaves of a courgette plant will radiate from its centre as does the fruit. It will take up around a metre or so squared and grow to maybe 60cm high. Tromboncinos take up the same footprint, but with long vines they can grow many more fruit than a ground-based courgette.
  • All squashes need good sun. Courgettes will need it at the ground level where the plant grows. Tromboncino’s rambling vines can be trained up behind other plants to reach more sun.
  • The tromboncino also grows much bigger fruit than the courgette. When courgettes get big, they become tasteless, watery marrows. The tromboncino can grow a couple of feet long and still retain its taste. If you leave a tromboncino ‘too’ long the skin will become hard and yellow and it will need peeling. If left long enough the flesh will become yellow and like a butternut squash.

It is in fact the same species as the butternut squash – Cucurbita moschata, and so the two squashes can pollinate each other. Courgettes, as well as pumpkins and a variety of summer squashes, like spaghetti squash, are of the species – Cucurbita pepo. Members of the pepo cannot pollinate the moschata. This is important because without pollination and fertilisation there will be no fruit.

Those in the Cucurbita family produce separate male and female flowers. This is where they get quite tricky. The plant will often not produce male and female flowers at the same time. You can read why in ‘Pollination, Fertilisation and Variety’. This means that to get a better chance of pollination you need more than one plant. You can, however, grow butternut squash with tromboncino as a pollination partner. You may also have to do some pollinating yourself.

How to grow

Sow March to May indoors in separate pots.

Plant out June. The plants will need fertile soil and lots of water. Try not to grow them in ground that has had squashes of some sorts in them the previous couple of years to help avoid diseases. They can be planted in pots, but they really do need very, very large pots (mine is currently in my largest pallet planter) if you’d like them to provide food. The vines can grow very long (one of mine is currently over 12 feet) and you may get some branching. They have little tendrils for attaching to support and these will curl around anything they can. Wooden trellises will provide a strong support, but the tendrils will not be able to curl around anything thicker than a bamboo cane. You will need to tie up the vines in most cases. Even with bamboo canes some intervention is often needed.  

If left to their own devices I have still generally gotten about 5 fruits per vine. There are generally about 3-4 times as many female flowers as that. If you want more fruit from your squashes then you can help by hand pollinating.

Alternatively, if you’re worried that the flowers aren’t pollinating successfully, you can also eat the flowers. Personally I find this a waste. I don’t really want to eat a flower with a small swelling when I could wait a month and have a huge squash that is enough to provide the vegetables for 3 family meals. What I do instead is wait to see if a fruit is developing well. If it looks unpollinated I will cut the small fruit to be eaten.  

I have found that they don’t tend to be too bothered by much in the way of diseases. The aphids don’t seem particularly interested. Because they’re off the ground and have quite prickly stems they tend to be left alone by slugs and snails. I have experienced powdery mildew with them. This is a problem I often face with brassicas too. I assume it’s because I try to pack too many things into my small garden so air doesn’t circulate as well around the leaves. Keep an eye out for it. I love wandering around the garden to see what’s growing so this isn’t a chore. As soon as I spot powdery mildew I remove all the leaves that are affected and then spray the rest of the plant with a solution containing half a teaspoon of bicarbonate soda, half a teaspoon of oil and a few drops of washing up liquid.     

Harvest July to September. They can be harvested as soon as you like. You can experiment to see how large you want to grow them before you eat them.

They can be cooked in any way a courgette is cooked. They don’t tend to be bitter like courgettes can be. I put it into pasta sauces or cook it with garlic, cumin and tomatoes. My favourite way, mostly because it’s easy and I’m lazy, is to just slice into little discs about 1cm thick and fry in a little oil. A pinch of salt and a tiny sprinkle of sugar is all it needs.

If anyone has had any experience with the ‘little trombones’ please do comment and let us know what you think, if you know of any diseases to watch out for or we’d love to hear if you have any great recipes. These definitely lead to giggly growing.

Before anyone says anything rude… this was my vegetable elephant with leafy ears. The poor elephant was roasted with garlic and a pinch of chicken stock, beetroot leaves and all!

Peas and Beans

Short version:

As legumes they are a good crop to plant before brassicas in crop rotation. They can be sown generally March to July in successional sowings to provide a long and bountiful harvest. Depending on the variety they do well in part shade to full sun but with support can grow to around 6ft in order to reach extra sunlight. This height makes them an efficient use of space in small gardens.  

Legume family

Most of the legumes are pod producing plants that harbour nitrogen fixing bacteria in nodes in their roots. These bacteria convert nitrogen into nitrates, which is the form necessary for assimilation of nitrogen into plants. Nitrogen is a necessary component of protein molecules which, I assume, is why peas and beans are a good source of vegetable protein. It has been said that legumes are good for crop rotation due to these high levels of nitrates. However, most of the nitrogen will be in the plant structure so in order to benefit from this, after the plants have finished producing, they should be chopped down and buried back within the soil to decompose.

I am often enthusiastically recommending growing peas and beans to any poor soul who stumbles across my path. There are several reasons:

They’re productive and tasty

You need to pick varieties that you like, though the catch 22 is, how would you know if you like them until you’ve grown them and eaten them?

Please excuse the round courgette plonked on top. This is one day’s harvest from about 15 plants. At this peak time we were collecting this amount every other day.

Out of the beans I would recommend ones with edible pods, like runner beans and French beans. The long pods, especially runner beans, means that each pod provides a larger amount of food in the growing space and for your effort. I’ve grown a few varieties of runner beans and they generally taste the same so I would just say find a string less one and if unsure if a pod is ready, pick the pods early as opposed to late. Picked early they’re sweet and tender but you may not be getting as much food out of it as you potentially could have. Picked too late the pods are fibrous and the beans are floury, and therefore, worthless. I think there’s more of a variety in taste in French beans and I would recommend ‘Blue Lake.’ If anyone has any varieties (for any legumes) they’d recommend, feel free to drop them in the comments. Reviews are always appreciated.

As much as I like shelled peas, if you’re looking to get as much food, as easily as possible then sugar snap peas are the way forward. Mangetout are not bad for more food per pod, but they go very quickly from too small to too chubby with tasteless peas and fibrous shells. Sugar snaps still have tasty peas when the pods are ready to burst. The case may be a bit tough, but then they become no different to shelled peas.

If you want extra food out of your peas, the young shoots and leaves (the much paler green ones) are tasty in salads and stir fries.

They’re good for vertical gardening

You will get a decently long harvest from both beans and peas if you keep picking the pods. Once a plant has some fully developed seeds it’s happy to give up the ghost. They can also be planted in succession to provide food for longer, but I think this is something for people with a large garden or those that are well organised.

These sugar snap peas are not quite ready yet. You can see runner bean leaves all around as they were planted about a month after so that they could take over as the sugar snaps were dying. In reality the sugar snaps became over run by the runners very early on and were probably less productive because of it.

In a small garden you can grow vertical plants on all sides. This can cover unsightly fences or provide a privacy screen and means that you grow more food in a smaller space. I love that they have a small footprint and so take up little space. With their height, even if they start in part shade, they can always grow higher rapidly to make the best of their circumstances. So they also utilise garden space better. Runner beans can still do very well in part shade. Peas need full sun.

Runner beans and French beans will wind around a cane with little coaxing. Peas, however, have tightly curling tendrils and don’t do well with thick supports like trellises.

Pea and bean netting is very cheap and you can wrap this around some bamboo canes, giving you a much larger area of support and very thin strands for the tendrils to curl around.

They’re easy

They have nice big seeds that are easy to handle. You can sow them indoors in early spring. I suggest one or two seeds in individual pots or in loo roll tubes. You can sow them in situ in warmer weather. I still recommend in the pots though if you want to avoid the mice getting your seeds or slugs and snails devouring seedlings. They grow so fast and you don’t have to wait a long season for a harvest.

They have a very long sowing period. Check the back of your particular pack for instructions but most will fall somewhere between April and July. Generally peas need an earlier sowing than beans but if you’re a bit late with sowing you can always aim for pea shoots if you think the pods won’t mature before the cold weather hits.

They’re cheap

A large pack of seeds is very cheap, and they are so easy to grow that it is rarely worth buying plug plants. Each seed will provide a large plant that provides many pods. In addition, it is easy to harvest seeds from current plants for the following year. Peas and beans tend to self-pollinate and so tend to remain true to the parent plant. Of course, there can be variation within a variety. Here follows my anecdotal warning. Back in the early days of flat renting I had a small outdoor space. I grew mangetout and they were prolific and tasty. In the first year, there were a couple of shorter, less appetising looking pods that I figured wouldn’t make good eating and were best left to grow seeds. Those seeds were taken and grown the following year. Again, I only saved the most unworthy pods for seeds. Four years of growing the same mangetout from its seeds I wondered why on earth I was growing this mangetout. All the pods were short and stubby. Some of the pods only housed one pea! The plants didn’t last very long. They were pathetic. It was only after I’d thrown away all the plants and vowed never to bother with mangetout again that I realised that it could be because I had bred them that way. Maybe I had encouraged this trait of very small pods. I also didn’t know back then that you needed to keep picking in order to keep the plant producing. So, whilst it is possible to collect seeds you do need to question whether it’s worth the effort.   

Runner beans can be perennial in milder areas. I have left runner bean plants in the soil when I was too lazy busy to pull them out. I was surprised when the dead looking stems sprouted shoots and leaves the next spring. This gives an early harvest the following year for free!

These runner beans started sprouting leaves and flowers from old stems early April. In the bottom left you can see the old brown stems with little growth.

If you haven’t grown them before I hope this has inspired you to give it a go. You don’t need much space. The picture above was from an old place which was a front paved ‘yard’ with this north facing fence. Despite that you can see them encroaching on the bike shed on the right. I would also swear that freshly picked peas and beans taste so much better than the ones bought in shops…. and of course… there’s no packaging or food miles!