by Nancy Dowling, Certified Master Gardener
When I plan a vegetable plot, I always include flowers. You might think that this would take needed space from the vegetables, but I argue that the flowers will pay you back handsomely. For one thing, they attract pollinators, such as bees, butterflies, and other beneficial insects during the growing period. Also, many flowers are edible, so one could argue that they earn their keep twice over. When you are already growing vegetables, doesn’t it make sense to add flowers you can eat? Over the years, I’ve come to depend on select flowers that work well with vegetables, and require just a little work to cultivate and prepare. Let me tell you about them.
Tropaeolum majus (Nasturtium)
I love this plant—both its flowers and leaves are edible! Nasturtiums provide ground cover to shield the soil from the hot sun, and to keep weeds to a minimum. They come in many colors, and with deadheading will flower late into the fall, livening the vegetable garden at the end of the growing season when tomatoes become leggy. Among many great varieties, I especially like ‘Alaska’ for its green and white foliage, ‘Empress of India’ with its nearly red color, and ‘Strawberries and Cream’ for its light vanilla coloring. The flowers, leaves, and seedpods are all edible , but I find the flowers most desirable and useful for garnishing or salads. But please don’t stop at salads—mince them into butters, salad dressings, or use them to infuse a mustard-like flavor into oils and vinegars.
Some people are repelled by the smell of marigolds , so they avoid planting them in the garden, but I can’t think of a better workhorse for the vegetable plot. Their vibrant oranges and yellows come in a variety of patterns and shades, and contrast with the green foliage of tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants. Adding basil to the tomato garden is always a good idea, but it’s pleasing to the eye to see color other than green in the plot. The smell of the marigolds seems to repel harmful insects, while attracting beneficial ones. Like with nasturtiums, weekly deadheading of marigolds rewards you with blooms into November. I love to use the petals of ‘Lemon Gem,’ ‘Tangerine Gem,’ and a newish hybrid ‘French Vanilla.’ Once cleaned, the petals can be lightly sprinkled over green vegetables like beans or broccoli for color.
Calendula officinalis (Calendula)
This is a pretty orange and yellow flower that seems to always have a bee or butterfly nearby. Varieties are single-flowered, as well as double. Blooms need to be pinched back for more budding. If you like to pick flowers for the table, this one works well in a vegetable garden. To eat, remove the petals from the cleaned flower head and use in soups, rice dishes, muffins, or biscuits. You can add them to omelets and frittatas, or sprinkle over green vegetables, as you would marigolds. Vinegar infused with calendula, dill, or thyme makes a fine gift.
Borago officinalis (Borage)
Borage is an herb with a slight cucumber flavor. I have to admit that I only like this plant for its blue, star-shaped flowers, however, its coloration contrasts nicely with calendulas and marigolds in the garden. The leaves are gray and hairy, which is probably what turns me off of this plant, but the flowers more than make up for leaf color. The leaves are edible, but should be harvested young, only after the plant is established. To eat the flower, remove the hairy sepals by gently pinching the middle of the star and pulling. The flower (corolla) should separate from the sepals. Try freezing them in ice cubes for iced tea or use in salads.
I’ll bet if you plant these flowers, your salads will become much more colorful!
Creasy, R. (1999). The edible flower garden. Boston: Periplus Editions.