New to nasturtiums

And hijinks with purple hyacinth beans

Last month we reviewed two shady old standbys (fuchsia and begonia). Now I’d like to tell you about a couple of recent discoveries.

I saw the nasturtium in a nursery, loved its round green leaves and cheerful orange blooms and brought it home, where it happily served a season as a potted annual. Another time, a friend and I found some nasturtiums growing wild in a patch of lawn we were digging up for a flowerbed. I tried to rescue the plant by putting it in a container with some potting medium, but it soon wilted. That may have been due to transplant shock, but nasturtiums actually prefer poor, dry soils. Store-bought potting soil and fertilizer after a hardscrabble lawn life? That’s for sissies.

Nasturtiums have been billed as great companion plants for pumpkins, squash and cucumbers, which is somewhat ironic since these plants do, in fact, like their fertilizer. However, the nasturtiums encourage squash vine borers and cucumber beetles to take their nasty business elsewhere.

Unfortunately, they tend to have the opposite effect on aphids. Aphids are to nasturtiums as Hoosiers are to the pork chop booth at the state fair. You can almost see them lining up and licking their lips. (Whether aphids have lips is a subject for another column. Or not.)

How you approach aphid crowd control here is tricky, because the entire nasturtium plant is edible. You can use nasturtiums as garnishes for all kinds of dishes including desserts; picture one of those pretty blooms on a cupcake. They make a peppery addition to salads, and you can use them to make eye-catching and palate-pleasing herb vinegars (make sure you follow food safety guidelines for this).

Nasturtiums are flowers and may reside in your flowerbed, but if you even think you might eat them, they have to be treated as a food crop. Since aphids love nasturtiums and ladybugs love aphids, invite some ladybugs over for lunch. Another organic solution a gardener recommended online is two cloves of garlic soaked overnight in water in a quart spray bottle; shake and mist the plants. Another spray worth trying: A few drops of dish soap and maybe a few drops of oil in water.

If you want to grow nasturtium from seed, you can find other color varieties. The Black Velvet has ruby-black blooms, Peach Melba looks just like it sounds, and Flame Thrower has spiked red petals. That Flame Thrower moniker is a good reminder not to try to tame the nasturtium’s wildness too much.

Speaking of color: Anything purple catches my eye, so it wasn’t too surprising when a packet of purple hyacinth bean seeds ended up in my basket on a visit to a nursery on some other mission altogether. I’d never heard of purple hyacinth bean, but I tucked the seeds into one of the beds by the screened-in porch.

The results weren’t quite as dramatic as when Jack’s frustrated mum threw the magic bean seeds – for which he’d impulsively traded their cow – out the window. In that case, the chastened lad climbed the beanstalk that sprouted up overnight and encountered a big green guy who insisted he take his poor mother a can of corn and a family pack of frozen select broccoli florets.

What I got were beautiful, dark purple vines that wound themselves around the trellis and produced delicate amethyst blossoms, then pods that hung like little ornaments. The plants didn’t need much encouragement; a little water, some sun and they were off and running.

And running some more. They continued to climb up the front of the porch and almost to the roof, growing so thick as to shade a part of the porch that usually got full sun. I thought about cutting the plants back, but I wanted to see if they would eventually reach into the sky. Everyone should eat more veggies, and climbing a beanstalk is probably less treacherous than a trip to a big-box grocery. No such luck.

Whether purple hyacinth beans are edible or poisonous seems to be an open question. The University of Tennessee cautions that they must be completely and properly cooked – but I will not venture into that culinary realm.

My recommendation is to simply enjoy growing them as a unique addition to your garden. To that end, a little high-phosphorous fertilizer and something tall and sturdy to climb on will serve you well.

First appeared in the July 2015 issue of Fort Wayne Magazine.

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