Eat Your Yard: edible flowers-the mark of urban gardeners in-the-know

by Amy Reiley
with research by Lashanda Chadwick

With America’s newfound love for farm-to-table cuisine, backyard “farming” has become a trendy hobby for the eco-friendly or simply “foodie” among us. But you don’t have to invest your time and money in full-fledged farming to get in on the act. Just a few simple changes can get you eating hyper-local, enjoying the great outdoors and saving a little of your hard-earned dough. (Not to mention that you’ll look like the cool one among your food-loving friends!)

When we opened the Life of Reiley test kitchen, we immediately re-landscaped all the green space, not to become farmers, but because of our firm belief that lawn simply doesn’t belong in a desert climate. But, being a food-based company, we researched and tried to plant as many either indigenous or climate-friendly edibles as possible. Our yard now includes organically-grown rosemary, Spanish and Provencal lavender, spearmint, oregano, chile peppers, Mexican sage, tri-color sage, almonds, guavas and lemongrass. (All of which requires half as much water as grass!) We also keep a small, more traditional garden in which we’ve planted herbs that are cheaper to grow than buy, like tarragon, parsley, Thai basil and garlic chives, as well as a strawberry patch and rotating vegetable patch. But our favorite part of the garden is the flowers. We try to have on-hand at least a half a dozen edible flowers at any one time.

start with an edible bouquet

Even if your only growing space is a windowsill, you can have your own edible garden. Our favorite choice for a small space–or an easy starting place for growing your own food in any space–is edible flowers. You will be rewarded not only with a new ingredient for your culinary repertoire, but a living bouquet to brighten each and every day.

The best choices for edible flowers vary depending on your location, but wherever you live, consider a rose bush. The flowers are classically beautiful, long-lasting, and the edible petals have both a delicious flavor and dozens of uses. You can infuse a syrup or oil with the delicate taste of rose, candy the petals to decorate desserts, chop and add to the base for a fruit sorbet, steep in tea, flavor vinegar for a salad dressing, etc.

other edible flowers to try on the East Coast include:

Lilac – Offers slightly bitter, lemony flavor. Blooms in late spring, early summer.

Dandelion – This common weed has dozens of uses. The root can be steeped as a drink, the flowers into wine and the bitter greens sauteed or in salads.

Tulip – These beautiful flowers have an intriguing, onion-like flavor.

Wild violet – These delicate flowers with a slightly sour flavor are generally found in late spring and summer.

Borage – One of the more interesting flowers to choose, it is used as natural sweetener like honey and is known to relive stress and promote hormone balance.

Marigold – A member of the tarragon family with a peppery flavor, it is a welcome addition to any organic garden as it acts as a natural bug repellant.

Nasturtium – A hearty, easy-to-grow choice, both the leaves and flowers have a watercress-like, sweet, peppery flavor.

some flowers to grow if you live in the West:

Many of the East Coast choices also thrive in the West, but here are some additional choices to try in a long, hot growing season. (At different times of year, our garden boasts tulips, violets, and almost year-round we have nasturtiums.)

Tuberous Begonias- Both the fleshy edible stems and the flowers offer a tangy flavor.

Daylily – These bell-shaped flowers can be stuffed like squash blossoms and are insect-resistant.

Pansy – These pretty, easy-to-grow flowers have a faintly minty flavor.

Calendula – Also called poor man’s saffron, it can be used to color food with a brilliant, golden glow.

uses for edible flowers

In addition to the uses mentioned above, edible flower petals add a splash of color to a green salad. Raw, they can also be used to flavor delicate seafoods. Many are delicious steeped as teas. The flowers with thicker petals can be candied and used in desserts. We also love to use edible flowers to garnish soups and other dishes both savory and sweet. One of the most fun uses is to insert a petal or, if the flower is smaller, an entire bud into an ice cube tray to dress up ice for water or summer cocktails.

growing organic

The most important factor in growing an edible garden is knowing how your seedlings were started. If you aren’t growing from seed, (and why should you if your result is simply beautiful edibles?), make sure you know how your flowers were grown. You want to find plants that have been organically grown. Flowers sprouted with a blanket of pesticides are not considered safe to eat.

slugs – no saucer of beer here!

In your garden, it is fairly easy to keep your flowers pesticide free. In our garden, the one issue is slugs. We use organic slug pellets spread once/month (more frequent in rain) to keep these pests at bay. (On occasion, they have been known to make off with an entire violet plant or head of lettuce but for the most part, this simple preventive measure keeps them out of site. Do not try the saucer of beer method. This only attracts flying insects and suddenly you’ve doubled the problem.)

flying critters meet dawn

If your trouble is flying insects, just add a few drops of dish washing soap, like Dawn, to a spray bottle filled with water. Be sure to spray both the tops and bottoms of leaves. Spray once/week or more frequently if it rains.

If the soapy spray isn’t doing the job, try planting marigolds among the problem plants. If the problem persists, you may consider identifying the troublemaker and nixing it from next year’s planting. (For us, the problem child was dill, a lovely herb we will, in future, happily purchase at the grocery store.)

additional resources

When you are ready to move on to more challenging and time-consuming plants, there are many great gardening resources online. If you plan to grow enough to share, explore produce exchanges in your area before you select the plants to grow. Exchanges allow home gardeners to enjoy a wider variety of home grown produce than they can plant on their own—for free! If everyone in the local produce exchange is planting tomatoes and cucumbers this summer, you might want to plant a garden full of herbs and endear yourself to every exchange member’s palate.

For more on organic, edible gardening, check out
http://www.organicgardening.com/
http://www.motherearthnews.com/Organic-Gardening.aspx
http://www.rodale.com/
http://hyperlocavore.wordpress.com/2009/07/01/how-to-start-a-produce-exchange-in-your-neighborhood/

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