There is a clear division of labor when it comes to the gardens at our house. My husband plans and manages the vegetable gardens. I help in various ways – picking out new varieties of vegetables; planting, weeding and harvesting; and most importantly, cooking with the garden produce.
I, on the other hand, love to grow flowers. I love annuals, perennials, even “weed” flowers. I have a shade garden, sun gardens, native prairie plots, and more than a few whatever-comes-up places. I manage our flower gardens and my husband is a most excellent helper when I need him.
But last spring, inspired by a book I found at our library (that most inspiring of places), I decided to devote one of my flower beds to completely edible flowers. I wanted a designated place where my daughters could gather little snacks and where I could easily grab a wealth of beautiful delights for cooking and garnishing.
I started simply with a small garden bed. I had a few edible flowers that I started from seed or transplanted from other spots, but most of my plants came from starts that I bought at our farmer’s market or local garden shops.
My girls helped me decide the layout and spent a few minutes digging holes before they went off on other adventures. They also helped make markers for the plants. I wrote the name of the plant on a stake and they stamped each one with a flower symbol so they knew they could eat it. I planted the flowers in amongst herbs with flowers that were also edible (rosemary, chives, lavender, and sage). I tried to harvest the herbs before they sent out flowers, but if I didn’t make it in time (which is often the case), at least I knew the flowers were safe to eat.
First, decide what flowers you would like to have around. I have dabbled with at least a dozen different edible flowers, but I have a few mainstays that will remain in my garden for years to come. The following are my top five edible flowers. They are easy to find, easy to grow and easy to eat!
First on the list is Violets/Johnny Jump Ups Viola spp. They are mild and slightly sweet.
Johnny Jump Ups are the larger purple flowers pictured in the salad photo below.
Anise Hyssop Agastache foeniculum
Delicious minty licorice taste. The leaves are as tasty as the flowers.
Scarlet Runner Beans Phaseolus coccineus
Fresh, slightly crunchy with a mild bean flavor.
Nasturtium Tropaeolum majus
Spicy, vibrant burst of flavor.
Calendula Calendula officinalis
Mild, neutral taste.
Planning the Space
Next, decide where you are going to put your plants. None of these flowers take much garden space. The Scarlet Runner Beans are the exception: they are climbers and thrive if they have a trellis of sorts to meander up. You can devote an entire bed to edible flowers or intersperse them with vegetables. They will also thrive in pots or other containers on decks and patios.
After you have made room for a few plants, start searching your local farmer’s market for seedlings of all of these plants. Starting by seed is also a fun way to engage in the entire process of seed to flower. In fact, it’s quite easy to collect and save seeds from the Scarlet Runners, Nasturtium and Calendula and plant them again next year. Then again, the Anise Hyssop, Johnny Jump Ups and Calendula have proven that they don’t need any help from me in finding new places in my garden to show up! Beware that you may need to weed out your edible flowers from time to time (if you don’t eat them first).
Once you plant your flowers, routine maintenance is required – as with any garden plant. I suggest mulching your plants with straw or compost to help keep moisture in and weeds out. The flowers are ready to eat as soon as you seem them!
Most importantly, an adult must be available to teach kids what is okay to eat. Whether you are a parent, neighbor, grandparent or friend, create in this endeavor a learning experience and have fun together. Here are some ideas for how to promote safe eating.
:: Designate one area for just edible leaves and flowers.
:: Engage your children with the entire process– from choosing plants, selecting a location, planting and labeling.
:: Label plants with symbols of what is edible (leaf, flower or both).
:: Sample the different flowers with your children as you teach them what they can eat. Together, describe the taste and texture of the flower. Do you like it?
:: Help your children form the habit of asking before they eat. My four-year-old would do this incessantly – pulling a leaf off the same plant I just approved and asking again. I was not dismissive but encouraged her “just makin’ sure, mama.”
:: Impress upon young people how important it is to only eat what you approve.
:: Finally, you know your child the best. If you are concerned about imprudent plant nibbling, you may simply choose to create edible bouquets from which children can snack.
We mostly eat edible flowers right off the plant as a tasty treat when we’re outside. I like to use them while cooking, too, to add a distinctive flair to our everyday foods. The easiest way to use edible flowers is as a garnish in salads. They make any salad so beautiful it’s hard to dig in! Edible flowers also dress up any dessert, turning the ordinary into the exceptional. You can add chopped calendula petals to sugar cookie dough for a pretty, yellow-flecked cookie. We like to put flowers in our sandwiches or on top of a cheese and cracker snack. You can mince flowers and add them to softened butter, cream cheese or chevre for a pretty and mildly flavorful smear. My daughters even use flowers with their tea parties for their babies.
If you are looking for more inspiration or information, check out Rosalind Creasy’s book The Edible Flower Garden. Adding edible flowers to your yard, garden or patio is a simple way to beautify your outdoor space while providing a unique eating opportunity. Last spring, I started simply with a small garden bed but by the end of the summer, I had managed to squeeze in edible flowers all over the yard and gardens. This summer, my husband and I might have a less defined division of labor as I start to encroach on the vegetable gardens with my beautiful, edible flowers.