(Authors Note: Recommendations for early May sowing and planting are for gardens in USDA Zone 5. Readers who garden in Zone 3 should delay these activities by two weeks, those in Zone 4 by one week. If you garden in Zone 6 or 7 and have yet to do these activities, there is still time, but don’t delay any longer!)
It is the last week of April and Spring has arrived, manifested in Marjorie’s Garden by the emergence of garlic shoots and the swelling of woolly serviceberry buds. In southern Maine the flowers of red maple have opened on naked branches and bright yellow forsythias are everywhere. At Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Marjorie and I spent a good part of this past Wednesday, the still leafless branches of Yoshino cherries and star magnolias are covered in pink blossoms and the sulfur-yellow flower clusters of sugar maple quiver in the slightest breeze.
With May at hand, it is time to direct sow pea seeds and a host of other early season vegetables, including beets, carrots, chard, green onions, lettuce, radishes, and spinach, the later with hope that spring will stay cool long enough for a decent harvest before the plants bolt. Early May is also the time to set out transplants of the brassicas, including broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, and kohlrabi, using row covers to thwart the cabbage butterfly’s efforts to lay her eggs on the plants. The row should stay on for the entire season, since pollination is not an issue with these crops.
Transplants of onions and leeks should already be in the ground, but if not you can still plant them during the first week of May. If you like growing your own transplants of summer crops, the first of May is the time to sow seeds indoors of peppers, tomatoes, tomatillos, and eggplants. Wait until the middle of May for indoor sowing of cucumber and squash seeds.
Early May is a also a great time to scatter seeds of edible flowers along the edges of the vegetable garden beds. The self-sowing annuals discussed below will become permanent residents of your vegetable garden, but only if you get them started by scattering their seed.
This self-sowing annual, also called Poor Man’s Saffron, grows in drifts and patches throughout our vegetable garden, its orange and yellow flowers serving as magnets for native bees. Every few years, when the seedling populations seem sparse, we scatter a few fresh seeds along bed edges, but in most years there are more than enough volunteers popping up everywhere. Calendula seedlings are easy to transplant if you want them somewhere else in the garden.
When I harvest peas and lettuce, I gather a few heads of calendula and pepper their petals over our supper salad. The petals add a subtle flavor ranging from bitter to spicy.
We always grow pansies in pots on the porch railings. Despite efforts to keep them floriferous by snipping off fading blooms, a few seed pods ripen on these plants, some of the seeds ending up in the beds beneath the porch. Each May, new seedlings appear in these beds beneath the spreading arms of elderberry shrubs, and, as the season progresses, these self-sown pansies bloom in colors totally unlike their parents. Volunteer pansies also populate the vegetable garden, the seed introduced from the compost pile where potted plants were discarded at the end of the previous season.
The flowers of pansies are often used to add a touch of color as well as flavor to desserts, soups, and salads. Eaten alone, the petals have a very mild green or grassy flavor, while entire pansy flowers have a much stronger grassy taste. The small flowers of johnny-jump-ups (Viola tricolor), with their white, yellow, and purple petals, have a mild wintergreen flavor.
One year I placed pots of nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus) among the vegetables to create a moveable feast for bumblebees. The following year, nasturtium seedling were popping up in beds where the pots had rested, evidence that their seeds can survive the winter. Yet there are years when there are no self-sown nasturtiums and we have to start with pots again. Perhaps winter survival of seeds is dependent on depth of snow cover.
I cut flowers from the garden’s volunteer nasturtiums and add them to salads. After quick scrutiny for hiding insects, the blossoms are tossed in whole to provide a sharp peppery taste, much like the flavor of radishes. Nasturtium leaves are also edible, and the seeds can be pickled as an inexpensive substitute for capers.
Three important rules
Gardeners interested in eating the flowers of these and other plants, such as daylilies, should follow three important rules. First, never use pesticides, even organics, on any plants that you plan to eat.
Second, never assume that all parts of a plant with edible flowers are edible. For example, elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) flowers are edible, but all other parts of the plant, including uncooked berries, are toxic. Once cooked, however, the berries are harmless and often used in making jams, jellies, and elderberry wine.
Third, use flowers sparingly in salads and other recipes. Large quantities often lead to digestive disorders. Johnny-jump-ups, for example, should always be eaten in small amounts, primarily as a garnish, as they contain saponins which in large quantities can be toxic.
Combining edible flowers with traditional vegetables, gardeners can enjoy colorful and delicious summer salads throughout the gardening year. Each meal will be unique, a combination of whatever is available in both traditional vegetables and edible blossoms.