Brilliantly bright, certainly colourful and somehow happy — at least they make me smile — nasturtiums are a must for any garden, balcony and just about anywhere else it is possible to grow them. Not only do they add a blazing dash of cheer to their surroundings but, and this is wonderful, you can eat them too!

The far from humble nasturtium — also known as ‘Indian Cress’ — is a member of the Tropaeolaceae family of plants which have their origins in South America and of which there are both annual and perennial species.

The well-known and deservedly popular nasturtium is an annual, best grown over the cooler months in the plains and coastal regions of Pakistan, and from spring through summer in cooler, upland areas of the country.

The seed, which is large and round and closely resembles a dried pea, is easily found in garden supply outlets during the sowing season and is relatively low-cost, so please invest in lots of packets to have fun with and yes — nasturtiums are fun to grow.

Sow seeds in poor (yes, you read that correctly, explanation follows later) well-drained soil, an inch deep and three to six inches apart depending on whether they are dwarf, medium or climbing varieties, or just one seed per 10-inch pot. The same planting distance applies when cultivating nasturtiums in large baskets or other suitable containers which must have adequate drainage holes in the bases and which are even better if you improvise them out of something recyclable. They are also very much at home in hanging baskets but, especially if cultivating them on open rooftops or exposed balconies, they will appreciate some protection from the wind. If the winds are dry, the leaves can be burnt to a crisp with damage first being evident around the leaf edges.

If preferred — this makes sense when intending to incorporate nasturtiums in amongst other plants being grown to create a planned design, the seeds can be started off, one to two inches apart, in seed trays or pots and then carefully, retaining as much soil on the delicate roots as possible, transplanted into their designated growing position when the seedlings are large enough to handle. Seedling stems are quite brittle which means that you must handle them with special, tender care.

Nasturtiums make excellent companion plants for many vegetables; those of the Brassica family such as cabbages, cauliflower and broccoli being prime examples, as they have the inbuilt ability to repel whitefly, wooly aphids and even ants. They also assist vegetables and other plants by attracting blackfly to themselves and thus keeping it away from other plants in the vicinity and, when your nasturtiums have attracted a number of blackfly, it is a far simpler task to wipe out these pests, using an evening spray of warm soapy water, than facing the task of having to spray everything in the garden at once.

The reason for growing nasturtiums in poor soil is that when grown in good, as in nutrient-rich soil, the plants grow prolifically, making more and more new leaves but they forget to flower properly. For this reason, nasturtium plants should not be given any plant-food either.

They thrive in full sun and partial shade and will, as long as you keep on dead-heading them, continue to produce flowers for weeks and weeks on end.

Regular nasturtiums, the annual ones, come in a brilliant array of colours ranging from deep, jewel-like, velvety crimson and red shades, through fire-bright oranges and golden yellows to delicate creams that shimmer above deep green or variegated green and white, distinctly rounded leaves.

Perennial varieties such as Tropaeolum peregrinum or Canary Creeper which has bright, lemon yellow flowers and Tropaeolum speciosum boasting stunning scarlet blooms, have lobed leaves and are of a climbing habit but seed is difficult to track down.

Seed from any of the above, is easy to harvest when fully ripe. It is hard and dry and should be stored in an airtight container, kept in a cool place, until the next planting season comes around.

On the edible side, nasturtiums, the leaves, flowers and even the fresh seeds, when they are at the green, un-ripe stage, all have culinary uses. The leaves, these are high in both Vitamin C and iron, and the flowers are a wonderful, peppery tasting addition to salads of all kinds and are great additions to stir-fries as well. The leaves, finely cut, can be used to add a peppery zap to cottage cheese and raita with the flowers, cut up, adding a vivid splash of colour too. The gorgeous flowers can be used to garnish any kind of savoury dish and look beautiful when artistically arranged on top of something like a roast chicken, fish dishes and, of course, on top of fresh salad or on an open sandwich.

The fresh green seeds can be pickled in vinegar and used in place of those expensive, imported capers.

All in all, no garden can possibly be complete without the inclusion of these stunning, grown individually or en masse, plants and they are so simple to cultivate, needing little maintenance other than regular water, that it would be a sin to omit them from your planting plans.

Please send your gardening queries to zahrahnasir@hotmail.com. Remember to include your location. The writer will not respond directly by e-mail. E-mails with attachments will not be opened.

Updated Jun 30, 2013 06:13am

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