Nasturtium at work in the garden

Nasturtium is an easy to grow from seed, easy care, cheery, prolific self-sowing annual that will brighten any Connecticut garden.

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Nasturtium flowers are edible. I often use them to dress up a potato or tossed salad. Nasturtium leaves impart a wonderfully subtle peppery flavor when added to a leafy green salad. But nasturtium serve another purpose in many gardens, they attract aphids.

I’ve planted nasturtium in multiple locations around my house and gardens, in the front beds, rear beds, and among vegetables. I love the intricate flowers and the shape and color of the leaves. Last spring I planted nasturtium in a long narrow raised planting bed (38 feet long with a two foot wide planting area). It’s a bed that does not drain well – I’ve written about it before. I think the landscape fabric lining has become clogged with tiny soil particles and this causes the soil in the bed to really hold water. In seasons with heavy rainfall the soil in this bed becomes downright soggy. To combat the sogginess, and still use the bed for heat-loving vegetable plants while my new raised-bed vegetable garden is being constructed (a two-year project), I plant heat-loving veggies in clay pots that I partially sink into the soil in the bed.

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The above photo is how it looked in June 2011 before the nasturtium, planted in the soil between the pots, sprouted. The clay pots dry quickly, keeping the veggie roots happy (cherry tomatoes and hot peppers really like life in the pots). Turns out the nasturtiums love this steamy, moist environment. They completely filled the gaps between the pots last year. Strangely, though, I did not see one aphid last year so the nasturtium provided color, lots of it, until frost.

Lots of nasturtium flowers means lots of seeds. When I cleaned out the bed in preparation for winter I let many of the matured nasturtium seeds remain in the bed. I figured I’d have a few self-sowers. When Connecticut’s mild last winter gave way to early spring warmth, nasturtium volunteers started popping up here and there in the bed. So this spring I arranged clay pots full of hot pepper and tomato seedlings around the nasturtium volunteers, moving only a few aside.

By mid-June, nasturtium filled the bed. What a cheery sight!

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The self-sown nasturtium were so happy I had to train and prune them to prevent them from smothering the veggie transplants. They stayed happy until recently, when black aphids, hundreds of them, found the row of nasturtium an attractive food source. Aphids are piercing/sucking insects. They feed on plant nectar after poking tiny holes in plant surfaces. Nasturtium parts are filled with the nectar aphids love.

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When aphid numbers are small, it’s easy to control them by washing them off with a gentle spray of water from a hose. If this doesn’t work, organic sprays will kill aphids, but will also kill other, possibly beneficial, insects. If you’re lucky, ladybugs move in for an aphid feast. The infestation on my nasturtium this summer, however, required a drastic, surgical control. As the aphids spread from nasturtium to nasturtium, I cut away infested stems. I bagged infested plant material and sent it off with the trash (no composting for bug-infested plants).

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Such is life in the world of nasturtium … the plants are doing their job.  If conditions favor new growth and new blossoms in late summer I’ll be doubly … no, triply … blessed. A free, no-work nasturtium show early on, a workhorse plant that attracted aphids away from nearby veggies, and a second showing later.

What more could a gardener ask for after simply standing back and working with nature?

Garden thoughtfully …

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4 comments for “Nasturtium at work in the garden

  1. July 24, 2012 at 9:00 am

    I love that first photo of the brilliant colors of your nasturtiums. Not so much the aphid photos — ick. What a wonderful mix of color and full foliage in that long narrow bed!

    My nasturtiums have few aphids so far this season, but as you point out, they can move in and take over fast. So far so good. (I like your clay pot solution to the drainage problems in that strip)

    • July 26, 2012 at 9:08 am

      Laurrie, I hope my nasturtiums send out new growth now that the aphid infestation required cutting the nasturtium back so severely. I, too, love the look of nasturtium foliage and flowers in the long, narrow bed. Hope your aphids remain controlled.

  2. July 29, 2012 at 9:55 pm

    Joene, I love that bed’s design, and the gray makes those reds pop. Your mentioning ladybugs feasting reminds me I haven’t seen many of those little insects this year. I bet you know what if anything is going on with them.

    • July 30, 2012 at 11:36 am

      Lee, glad you like design. I’ve only seen one ladybug so far this year in spite of the aphid explosion on my nasturtium. Don’t know why. Perhaps the late frost or heavy spring rainfall cut their numbers. I’m holding out hope that more ladybugs will emerge as summer continues.

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