Nasturtium provides a zesty, peppery flavor to dishes that is impossible to replicate. Sadly, it's often ignored in favor of other leafy greens like lettuce and kale, but their distinct flavor makes it worth growing nasturtiums in your garden. In addition to that marvelous taste, they can have multiple colored flowers on one plant, so they're perfect when you're looking for something decorative as well as edible.
Growing nasturtiums is one of the easiest garden projects out there. In fact, if you don't ensure it's contained, some nasturtium will take over the entire area where you've planted it. There are many sizes to suit your garden, including bush or dwarf, semi-trailing, and single flower climbing.
You can eat nasturtium leaves, flowers, and seeds. The flowers add color as well as flavor in dishes, and where most edible flowers have a mild taste, nasturtium flowers have a good kick. I'll even let you in on a little secret recipe that you can make with the seeds. Convinced? Give this versatile flower a go. Here's how.
The name nasturtium means ‘nose twist' in Latin, or so I'm told. If you plan on growing nasturtium, the first step is to pick the right size and variety for your spot.
Dwarf or Bush Nasturtium Varieties:
- Alaska Mix – Alaska Mix is compact and pretty, with multiple different colors of flowers. This heirloom variety is ideal for those new to nasturtiums or with small gardens. Consider planting these in a window box or hanging basket.
- Empress of India – The leaves are slightly darker than most nasturtiums, with a pretty blue tinge. The darker leaves contrast beautifully against the red flowers. This type remains dense and won't get leggy.
- Jewel Mix – Jewel mix will sprawl but doesn't vine. It's another variety with multiple colors on the same plant. I have found that this one flowers a little longer in summer than others. I've also noticed I can get more blossoms in a cluster than with other nasturtiums.
- Peach Melba – This compact plant has lovely yellow flowers with a dramatic raspberry-colored center. Peach Melba flowers early and will continue flowering until frost.
- Strawberry and Cream – This is a dramatic variety with splashes of strawberry that look like they've been painted on. It stays a petite 12 inches and flowers from June until frost.
Other notable dwarf varieties are:
- Whirly Bird
Semi-Trailing Nasturtium Varieties:
Semi-trailing plants grow 2-3 feet tall and wide.
- Scarlet Gleam – Great for hanging baskets, window boxes or over a low wall. I have used Scarlet as ground cover, and I have seen it climbing a trellis to nice effect.
- Troika Red – While some Nasturtium varieties are over a hundred years old, this is a newer type. It will grow to around 12 inches high and spread out to 40 inches.
- Salmon Gleam – Salmon Gleam is slightly larger than other semi-trailing varieties. It spreads to around 60 inches or so. When I grew this, people commented that the flowers look like they glow in the sun.
Climbing or Vining Nasturtium Varieties:
Climbing types of nasturtium vine to 6-8 feet or longer.
- Jewel of Africa – I've grown Jewel of Africa on an unused bank, and it has taken over the entire area. Admittedly, I didn't do anything to contain it, but if you have space and want something that will fill it, this is the one to try.
- Tall Trailing Mix – This vine will travel. Like Jewel of Africa and all other climbing types, you need plenty of space – at least 10 feet per plant. The orange, yellow and red flowers are spicy, and the plant will climb walls and fences.
How to Plant Nasturtiums
Nasturtiums do well in zones 3-10.
When to Plant Nasturtiums
Plant nasturtiums in the spring. They grow quickly and spread fast. Plant after the last frost for best results.
If you're planting in pots or boxes, you can plant earlier, as long as you protect the seedlings from frost. Nasturtiums don't like frigid weather.
Plant seeds direct in the garden about 3/4 inch deep. I sow three or four seeds in a small circle. Water well and keep the soil moist until the seedlings appear.
You can also plant in indoors and transfer outside when they're ready. I have found nasturtium to be robust and quite happy to be transplanted as long as you don't disturb the roots too much. Use peat pots if necessary. Plant indoors 4-6 weeks before the last frost.
Transplant after the threat of frost and nighttime temps are about 50°F.
Plant in full sun or partial shade, though you'll get fewer flowers in the shade. Nasturtiums don't like extreme heat. However, 4-6 hours of direct sun a day will work well.
One of the reasons that I love growing nasturtiums is they grow in any type of soil. Light soil with good drainage is ideal. Plants prefer a pH between 6.8 and 7.1.
How to Care for Nasturtiums
Water nasturtiums when you water the rest of your garden. There's no need to water individually unless the leaves start to droop. Don't allow the ground to dry out like a rock, but nasturtiums don't like wet feet, either. I've had some nasturtiums for years, and I've never watered them.
Keep weeds at bay to allow growing nasturtiums the room to ramble unimpeded. Often nasturtiums are quite bushy, and by the time you see the weed pop through, it has become established.
Don't worry so much with fertilizer as nasturtiums do well without it. If they get too much fertilizer, you'll end up with lots of foliage, but few blooms.
Mulching isn't needed for nasturtiums. If the plants you mix in with nasturtiums need mulching, do it. Nasturtiums don't need it specifically.
Common Problems and Solutions for Growing Nasturtiums
Nasturtiums are prone to sucking insects like whitefly. Whitefly deposit honeydew which can rapidly turn into sooty mold. I use neem oil for long term control.
To be honest, cabbage butterfly attack everything in the garden it seems, especially anything in the brassica family. Use a knockdown spray such as organic pyrethrum.
Slugs and Snails
If you have slugs, you'll see the usual signs of a snail and slug infestation – chewed on leaves and snail poop if there are a lot of them. Use snail pellets available from all garden centers. Just remember to get ones with a bittering agent to stop children and pets eating them.
Companions for Nasturtium
A lot of gardeners say that they plant nasturtiums in amongst other plants to help keep down the pests on those plants.
The best companion plants for growing nasturtiums are:
If you're getting aphids and whiteflies on tomatoes and potatoes, interplant with nasturtiums. Interplant with squash to deter squash beetles and borers.
Although I haven't experienced it myself, some gardeners say that nasturtiums attract beneficial predatory insects into your garden.
How to Harvest Nasturtiums
Leaves are peppery and add zing to your salads and summer dishes. Pick the leaves when they are tender and small. If they get too big, they become tough. Experiment with your particular variety.
Pick the leaves early in the morning when they are plump with water.
Pick the flowers to add the peppery hit and a bit of color to your salads. Nasturtium flowers can grow quite large and really stand out in your dishes. I make the salad and then add the flowers to the top, so they don't get lost in the bowl.
At certain times of the season, the flowers can start out in your mouth with a sweet burst like honey, before being followed up with a hot, peppery hit.
One of my favorite things to do with the seeds is to make “Poor Mans Capers.” These are yummy, like a caper mixed with pickled onion and nasturtium. Pick the seeds soon after the blossoms fall. If they get too big or start going a brownish color from a bright green, it's probably too late.
Nasturtiums are easy to grow and fast. Get your children involved too because the seeds are big enough for little hands and they will see the results quickly.
Try this wonderful plant as something different to add to your food. It's one of few edibles you can plant anywhere and do little in the way of maintenance. Try a small, compact variety first and branch out from there.
Do you have any favorite ways to use the nasturtiums in your garden? I'd love to hear your ideas!