If you’ve got a space to fill, and want to add some colour to your garden, then you can do a lot worse than nasturtiums. These hardy annuals have large seeds that can be simply pushed into the soil from March to June. They don’t require any special preparation – in fact, they flower more profusely on poor soil, to it’s best not to plant them in your best spot. Keep the soil moist, if there’s a dry spell, and your seedlings will quickly emerge. They’re a good plant to grow with kids, with big seeds that are easy to handle, and rapid growth to keep things interesting.
There’s a nasturtium for everyone, as they come in a wide range of colours, from white through yellow to bright oranges and reds. Some have variegated foliage (look for ‘Alaska’ or ‘Jewel of Africa’). There are dwarf varieties (e.g. ‘Tom Thumb’) and tall varieties (try ‘Tropical Mix’), trailing and climbing varieties. There are even varieties with double or semi-double flowers, if you want something fancy. Their only requirement is a sunny spot – they’ll even put on a good show in a hanging basket.
Once your seedlings are established, you simply need to thin them out to the recommended spacing on the seed packet (it varies, according to the variety you’ve chosen) and watch them romp away. They’ll happily bloom from June (from early sowings) right through until September, or when the plants are finally cut down by harsh frosts.
As well as being exuberant, colourful, and low-maintenance, nasturtiums are useful plants. They are related to cabbages and cauliflowers (in the Brassica family) and are vulnerable to cabbage white butterflies – which means you can use them as a trap crop to help protect your veggies. The idea is that once the cabbage whites have laid their eggs on your nasturtiums, you remove the plants (or just the affected leaves) to the compost heap, which will reduce the population of pests in your garden.
There are also rumours that nasturtiums can protect plants from aphids; it’s certainly wise to have a few simple flowering plants in the kitchen garden, to bring in beneficial insects that can help with pollinating your crops and keeping pests down.
If your nasturtiums avoid becoming infested then you can eat them. The leaves have a peppery flavour, not unlike rocket, and add a spicy note to summer salads. The flowers are similar, but milder, and can turn your lunch into something really colourful. When they fade, and the plants starts to produce its green, unripe seeds, then you can collect those and pickle them for a home-grown alternative to capers (there are plenty of recipes available on the internet).
And it’s easy to save your own seeds from nasturtiums. They tend to drop to the floor when they’re brown and ripe, but their large size means they’re easy to collect and store in a dry place for next year. You can let nature take its course – fallen seeds quite often survive the winter and germinate by themselves. If any of them grow where you don’t want them, well… they’re easy enough to identify and remove, and you can always eat them!