Tomatoes

Tomato – the edible, often red, veg of the plant Solanum lycopersicum, commonly known as a tomato plant. The plant belongs to the nightshade family, Solanaceae (potatoes, auberinges/ eggplants). The species originated in western South America.

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Wild versions were small, like cherry tomatoes, and most likely yellow rather than red. A member of the deadly nightshade family, tomatoes were erroneously thought to be poisonous by Europeans who were suspicious. This was exacerbated by the interaction of the tomato’s acidic juice with pewter plates. The leaves and immature fruit in fact contain trace amounts of solanine which in larger quantity would be toxic, although the ripe fruit does not. Aztecs used the fruit in their cooking. The Nahuatl (Aztec language) word tomatl gave rise to the Spanish word “tomate”, from which the English word tomato derived. The exact date of domestication is unknown, but by 500 BC it was already being cultivated in southern Mexico. The Pueblo people are thought to have believed that those who witnessed the ingestion of tomato seeds were blessed with powers of divination. The large, lumpy variety of tomato, a mutation from a smoother, smaller fruit, originated in Mesoamerica, and may be the direct ancestor of some modern cultivated tomatoes. Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes may have been the first to transfer the small yellow tomato to Europe after he captured the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan, now Mexico City, in 1521. Christopher Columbus may have taken them back as early as 1493. The earliest discussion of the tomato in European literature appeared in a herbal written in 1544 by an Italian physician and botanist who suggested that a new type of aubergine/ eggplant had been brought to Italy that was blood red or golden color when mature and could be divided into segments and eaten like an eggplant – cooked and seasoned with salt, black pepper, and oil. It was not until ten years later that tomatoes were named in print by Mattioli as pomi d’oro, or “golden apples”. Taken to Europe, the tomato grew easily in Mediterranean climates and cultivation began in the 1540s. It was probably eaten shortly after it was introduced, and was certainly being used as food by the early 17th century in Spain.

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Tomatoes were grown mainly as ornamentals early on after their arrival in Italy. For example, the Florentine aristocrat Giovanvettorio Soderini wrote how they “were to be sought only for their beauty”, and were grown only in gardens or flower beds. The tomato’s ability to mutate and create new and different varieties helped contribute to its success and spread throughout Italy. However, even in areas where the climate supported growing tomatoes, their habit of growing to the ground suggested low status. They were not adopted as a staple of the peasant population because they were not as filling as other fruits already available. The earliest discovered cookbook with tomato recipes was published in Naples in 1692.

 

Tomatoes were not grown in England until the 1590s. However, by the mid-18th century, tomatoes were widely eaten in Britain, and before the end of that century, the Encyclopaedia Britannica stated the tomato was “in daily use” in soups and broths. They were not part of the average person’s diet, and though by 1820 they were described as “to be seen in great abundance in all our vegetable markets” and to be “used by all our best cooks”, reference was made to their cultivation in gardens still “for the singularity of their appearance”, while their use in cooking was associated with exotic Italian cuisine.

Botanically speaking, a tomato is a fruit, a berry, consisting of the ovary together with its seeds, of a flowering plant. However, the tomato has a much lower sugar content than other edible fruits, and is therefore not as sweet. Typically served as part of a salad or main course, rather than at dessert, it is considered a culinary vegetable. One exception is that tomatoes are treated as a fruit in home canning practices: they are acidic enough to process in a water bath rather than a pressure cooker as vegetables require.

Tomato plants are vines, initially decumbent, typically growing 180 cm (6 ft) or more above the ground if supported, although erect bush varieties have been bred, generally 100 cm (3 ft) tall or shorter. Tomato plants are dicots and grow as a series of branching stems, with a terminal bud at the tip that does the actual growing. When that tip eventually stops growing, whether because of pruning or flowering, lateral buds take over and grow into other, fully functional, vines. Tomato vines are covered with fine short hairs. These hairs facilitate the vining process, turning into roots wherever the plant is in contact with the ground and moisture.

The poor taste and lack of sugar in modern garden and commercial tomato varieties resulted from breeding tomatoes to ripen uniformly red. This change occurred after discovery of a mutant “u” phenotype in the mid 20th century that ripened “u”niformly. This was widely cross-bred to produce red fruit without the typical green ring around the stem on uncross-bred varieties. Prior to general introduction of this trait, most tomatoes produced more sugar during ripening, and were sweeter and more flavorful.

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Here are some to try growing: 

Garden Pearl (Determinate) – Sweet cherry tomatoes, happiest in large pots outdoors.

Marmande (Semi-determinate) – Large irregular fruits with excellent flavour, happiest grown outdoors.

San Marzano 2 (Semi-determinate) – Classic flashy Italian plum tomato, happy in the greenhouse or outdoors.

Golden Sunrise (Indeterminate) – Distinct sweet flavour, happy in the greenhouse or outdoors.

Red Cherry (Indeterminate) – Prolific crops of sweet ‘cherry toms’ happy in the greenhouse or outdoors.

Tigerella (Indeterminate) – Good flavour and novel stripes on the skin, happy in the greenhouse or outdoors.

Sungold F1 (Cherry) – Attractive golden fruits with a very high sugar content balanced with some acidity, Indeterminate.

Shirley F1 – A much loved variety famed for its heavy yields of well-flavoured fruits – an outstanding hybrid.  Indeterminate.

Loretto F1 – sweet cherry sized fruits with excellent flavour and a good choice for outdoor containers. Resistance to blight is one of the major benefits of this cascading ‘bush’ tomato. Indeterminate.

Alicante F1 – One of the best for flavour and very reliable yielding a good crop of medium sized tomatoes. Indeterminate.

Ferline F1 – A top quality tomato variety producing high yields of large and tasty fruits. Trials have shown that tomato Ferline F1 has excellent resistant to blight. Indeterminate.

Indeterminate – these varieties of tomatoes are the most common and are grown as cordons (single stemmed plants with side shoots removed). They will grow very tall – sometimes taller than 2.5m in very warm conditions.

Bush/Determinate – these varieties stop growing sooner than indeterminate varieties with the stem ending in a fruit truss. They are referred to as ‘bush’ and ‘dwarf’ types (suitable as hanging basket tomatoes) and don’t require any pruning.

Semi-determinate – these are similar to indeterminate varieties (grown as cordons) only they produce shorter plants.

Types of tomatoes:

  • Beefsteak tomatoes – 10 cm (4 in) or more in diameter. Their kidney-bean shape, thinner skin, and shorter shelf life makes commercial use impractical.
  • Plum tomatoes, or paste tomatoes (including pear tomatoes), are bred with a lower water /higher solids content for use in tomato sauce for canning and are usually oblong 7–9 cm (3–4 in) long and 4–5 cm (1.6–2.0 in) diameter; like the Roma-type tomatoes.
  • Cherry tomatoes – small and round, often sweet tomatoes, about the same 1–2 cm (0.4–0.8 in) size as the wild tomato. Probably my personal favourite.
  • Grape tomatoes – are smaller and oblong, a variation on plum tomatoes.
  • Campari – are sweet and noted for their juiciness, low acidity, and lack of mealiness, bigger than cherry tomatoes, and smaller than plum tomatoes.
  • Tomberries –  tiny tomatoes, about 5 mm in diameter.
  • Oxheart tomatoes can range in size up to beefsteaks, and are shaped like large strawberries.
  • Pear tomatoes are pear-shaped and can make a rich gourmet paste.
  • “Slicing” or “globe” tomatoes are the usual tomatoes of commerce, used for a wide variety of processing and fresh eating. The most widely grown commercial tomatoes tend to be in the 5–6 cm (2.0–2.4 in) diameter range.

Heirloom tomatoes are becoming popular amongst home growers as they tend to produce more interesting and flavorful crops at the cost of disease resistance and productivity. The definition of an heirloom tomato is vague, but unlike commercial hybrids, all are self-fertile varieties that have bred true for 40 years or more.

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How to grow tomatoes

In England, we can be kind-of lucky and get some tomatoes off the vines when we grow them outside, but really it is easier to do it in a greenhouse as they will prefer warmer growing conditions.

Tomato seed is normally sown 6-8 weeks before the last frost date (March/April) although they can be sown earlier for greenhouse cultivation. Sprinkle your tomato seed thinly on the surface of good quality seed compost. Cover the seed with about 1.5mm (1/16in) of compost and water lightly with a fine-rose watering can. If only a few plants are required sow two seeds into a 7.5cm (3in) pot and after germination remove the smaller plant. The seeds generally germinate in about 7 to 14 days at a temperature of around 21C (70F). Keep the compost moist. Pot on the tomato seedlings when large enough to handle, taking care not to touch the stem. Handle the plants by the leaves and transplant them carefully into 7.5cm (3in) pots. Take care not to expose the plants to frost, cold winds and draughts as this may kill them. Tomatoes need a lot of water and feed (high potash) to get the best fruit. Water little and often for the best results. If growing outdoors, plant approximately 45cm (18 in) between the plants and 75cm (30in) between the rows. Regularly pinching out of tomato side shoots will concentrate the plant’s energy into producing fruit.

One of the most common problems when growing tomatoes is tomato blight, which spreads quickly throughout the plant in wet weather, causing the plant to die and the fruits to decay. The symptoms are brown patches on all parts of the plant. It is much more common in tomatoes growing outside than tomatoes growing in a greenhouse.

Start picking your tomatoes as the fruits ripen and gain full colour. When frost threatens at the end of the season, lift any plants with unripe fruit on them and hang them upside down under cover.

Tomatoes contain excellent amounts of fiber, vitamins A, C (to resist infections), and K, potassium (controlling heart rate and blood pressure), and manganese. Good amounts of vitamin E (alpha tocopherol), thiamin, niacin, Vitamin B6, folate, magnesium, phosphorus, and copper are other resources. In daily value, tomatoes provide 38% of what is needed in vitamin C, 30% in vitamin A, and 18% in vitamin K. Tests suggest tomatoes may be a preventive factor against prostate cancer. Lycopene flavonoid antioxidant has the ability to protect the cells even as it protects the skin from ultraviolet damage, and as a possible result, skin cancer. Lycopene in tomatoes has been proven to decrease oxidative stress and risk of osteoporosis and prevent serum lipid oxidation, thus exerting a protective effect against cardiovascular diseases. The coumaric acid and chlorogenic acid, in tomatoes, fight against nitrosamines, which are the main carcinogens found in cigarettes. The presence of vitamin A in high quantities has been shown to reduce the effects of carcinogens and can protect you against lung cancer. Tomatoes keep the digestive system healthy by preventing both constipation and diarrhoea. They also prevent jaundice and effectively remove toxins from the body.

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There are so many ways of using tomatoes and they are such a valuable crop to grow yourself. You can eat them raw, as part of a salad or cheese sandwich, cheese toasty, stuff them, cook with them to make a sauce for any dish, fry them to go with your English breakfast, sun dry them, bottle or can to make your own tinned tomatoes, always a handy thing to have at hand for a quick meal… 

Here are some recipes that use tomatoes. Plenty more on the site!

Recipe: Mushroom Tomato Risotto

Aubergine (Eggplant) Curry

 

Recipe: Fried courgette-tomato sauce with spaghetti

Updated recipe: homemade pizza

Quinoa – Chicken Casserole

Recipe: Baked Potatoes and Kidney Beans

Salad – Rocket – Pasta and tinned tomatoes and rocket

Keep searching for more recipes! 

Borlotti Beans

The borlotti bean (singular borlotto in Italian), also known as the cranberry bean, Roman bean or romano bean (not to be confused with the Italian flat bean, a green bean also called “romano bean”), saluggia bean (named after the town Saluggia in Italy where borlotti beans have been grown since the early 1900s), or rosecoco bean, is a variety of  common bean (Phaseolus vulgaris) first bred in Colombia as the cargamanto. The bean is a medium to large tan or hazelnut-colored bean splashed or streaked with red. They come in large beige and red pods with colours that resemble the dried beans.

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They originated in Colombia in South America and were one of the crops that found their way into Europe with the Spanish and Portuguese explorers. The Italians were the first Europeans to embrace the borlotti bean (as well as the tomato). Now you can eat these beans in Italy in stews with polenta and in salads as well in appetizers along with prosciutto and lots of parsley and olive oil.

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The borlotti bean is a variety of the American cranberry bred in Italy to have a thicker skin. It is used in Italian, Portuguese (Catarino bean), Turkish, and Greek cuisine. When cooked the beans will lose some of their bright markings and turn a light brown colour.

Borlotti beans are potassium rich so are good for the muscles and for the proper functioning of the kidneys, as well as maintaining good blood pressure. They also contain other minerals such as sodium, zinc, selenium, copper (good for stimulating blood cell formation), calcium, manganese, magnesium, iron and phosphorous as well as Omega-3 and -6 fatty acids. They contain vitamin A and several of the B-complex vitamins including B1, 2, 3, 5 and 6. Borlotti beans also contain 18 amino acids along with dietary fibre (good for the digestion), folate (good for pregnant women and enhancing the nervous system) and protein. If you are trying to grow your own vegetarian protein, beans are a good place to start…

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Sow indoors for surest results April-May, 2.5cm (1″) deep into individual pots of compost (I use tall yoghurt pots, they give the plant lots of root room). Water well and place in a warm position. A temperature of 15-20°C (60-68°F) is ideal. Gradually accustom plants to outside conditions (avoid frosts), before planting out when 15cm tall, 25cm (10″) apart, during May-June when frosts are over. Allow 45cm (18″) between rows. Like runner beans, insert canes into the ground along with the bean plant to allow them to climb up it. If it is sunny, cold or windy when you first plant them out, rig up some covering (I use left over horticultural fleece) to give them shade or protection from the elements that might damage them before they are fully established. You can harvest borlotti beans from July-October. To harvest, pick the pods before they set seed and slice them up and cook them like you would do to runner beans. Or, leave the pods on the plants and allow them to grow very big and to set seed. The pods will turn a pale straw colour as they start to dry out towards the end of summer or early autumn. Harvest and take them inside to continue drying before you pod the beans. The pods will rattle once they are ready. You can cook them straight away, freeze them or dry them out and store them in glass jars in the cupboard. They can be shelled into trays and placed in a warm place to continue drying. The beans should ultimately be light and hollow-sounding when tapped, at which point they can be decanted into glass jars for storage in a cool, dark place. Discard the pods at this stage, they get too tough to eat.

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Dried beans contain high amounts of lectin, a natural chemical which can cause stomach upsets. Soak the beans overnight or for at least eight hours then place into cool water. Bring the water up to a vigorous boil and boil like this for ten minute before turning down the heat and simmering till soft.

Grow borlotti beans from Mr Fothergills: ‘Climbing Bean Borlotto lingua di fuoco 2 Seeds‘.

Borlotti beans can be added to any dish for vegetarian protein.

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Coconut Borlotti Beans

Serves 4

-450g borlotti beans, pre-cooked -1dsp coconut oil -1 onion, finely sliced -2 generous handfuls of spinach leaves

  1. Warm the coconut oil in a frying pan. Add the sliced onion and fry until golden brown.
  2. Add the spinach leaves. Stir in until wilted before adding the borlotti beans. Combine and leave briefly so that the beans warm up.
  3. Remove from the heat and serve with rice or potatoes, as a side dish, or in a wrap.

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A January Growing List

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Here’s some inspiration of what to start sowing (indoors) in January:

Aubergines (I’ve sown some Black Beauty seeds)

Peppers (Sown California Wonder)

Calabrese Broccoli (Ironman)

Cauliflower (All Year Round)

Peas (Meteor)

Sprouting Seeds – think speedy cress, sunflower seeds, beansprouts, alfalfa etc.

Herbs – parsley, coriander, dill etc.

Rocket (Buzz, Trizona)

Baby Carrots (cold-frame outdoors under a lot of fleece)

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Have you got any suggestions? Please feel free to share! 

 

Cranberries

Cranberries are a group of evergreen dwarf shrubs or trailing vines in the sub-genus Oxycoccus of the genus Vaccinium. Cranberries are creeping shrubs or vines up to 2 metres (7 ft) long and 5 to 20 centimetres (2 to 8 in) in height. They have wiry stems and small evergreen leaves. The flowers are dark pink, with very distinct reflexed petals. The fruit is a berry that is larger than the leaves of the plant. It is initially light green, turning red when it is ripe. It has an acidic taste that can overwhelm its sweetness.

Most cranberries are processed into products such as juice, sauce, jam, and sweetened dried cranberries (see useful recipe for these below), with the remainder sold fresh to consumers. Cranberry Sauce (see recipe below) is a traditional accompaniment to turkey at Christmas dinner in the UK, and at Christmas and Thanksgiving dinners in the US.

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Homegrown cranberries, 2016, first year, ‘Pilgrim’ plant

The name cranberry derives from ‘craneberry’, first named by early European settlers in the US who believed the expanding flower, stem, calyx, and petals resembled the neck, head, and bill of a crane. Another name used in northeastern Canada is mossberry. The traditional English name for cranberries is fenberry, originated from plants found growing in fen (marsh) lands. In 17th-century New England cranberries were sometimes called ‘bearberries’ as bears were often seen feeding on them.

American Indians enjoyed cranberries cooked and sweetened with honey or maple syrup—a cranberry sauce recipe that was likely a treat at early New England Thanksgiving feasts. By the beginning of the 18th century, they were being exported to England by the colonists.

Cranberries were used by the Indians decoratively, as a source of red dye, and medicinally, as a poultice for wounds since not only do their astringent tannins contract tissues and help stop bleeding but we now also know that compounds in cranberries have antibiotic effects.

Although several species of cranberries grow wild in Europe and Asia, the cranberry most cultivated as a commercial crop is an American native, which owes its success to Henry Hall, an gentleman in Dennis, Massachusetts. In 1840 he noticed an abundance of large berries grew when sand was swept into his bog by the prevailing winds and tides. The sandy bog provided just the right growing conditions for the cranberries by stifling the growth of shallow-rooted weeds, enhancing that of the deep rooted cranberries. Cranberry cultivation spread across the US, but also across the sea to Scandinavia and the UK. Cranberries became popular for wild harvesting in the Nordic countries and Russia. In Scotland, the berries were originally wild-harvested but with the loss of suitable habitat the plants have become so scarce that this is no longer done. The berries arrived in Holland as survivors of a shipwreck: when an American ship loaded with crates filled with cranberries sank along the Dutch coast, many crates washed ashore on the small island of Terschelling. Some of the berries took root and cranberries have been cultivated there ever since.

Historically, cranberry beds were constructed in wetlands. Today’s cranberry beds are constructed in upland areas with a shallow water table. The topsoil is scraped off to form dykes around the bed perimeter. Clean sand is hauled in and spread to a depth of four to eight inches. The surface is laser levelled flat to provide even drainage. Beds are frequently drained with socked tile in addition to the perimeter ditch. In addition to making it possible to hold water, the dykes allow equipment to service the beds without driving on the vines. Irrigation equipment is installed in the bed to provide irrigation for vine growth and for spring and autumn frost protection.

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To grow at home: if you can grow rhododendrons or blueberries in your garden soil, cranberries should succeed. Otherwise, grow plants in pots, hanging containers or raised beds in ericaceous compost. Water with rainwater, not ‘hard’ tap water. Compost should be moist at all times, not waterlogged and should never dry out. Peg down or bury long, trailing stems – these will root over time. Feed during the growing season, if growth is poor with a little hoof and horn (15g per sq m) or sulphate of ammonia. Old beds can be revitalised by covering them with a 14mm (½in) layer of sharp sand in spring and working the sand down between the stems.
Propagation: peg down trailing stems from March to June, to encourage rooting.
Little pruning is required, other than to remove any excessively long and congested arching growth in early spring. Trim out straggly roots after harvesting.

Cranberries need organic, rich, moist to boggy acidic soils, ideally at pH 4.5, in an open, sunny site. Although they like constantly moist conditions, plants should sit above the water. Plant in garden soil, providing it is suitable. Alternatively, dig a trench 90cm (36in) wide by 30cm (12in) deep and line it with heavy duty polythene or pond liner, fill it with ericaceous compost for acid loving plants and soak with rainwater before planting or create a raised bed, 30cm (12in) deep. Plant at a spacing of 30cm (12in) in and between the rows in from October to December,  in mild spells in winter or in March and April.

As far as pests are concerned, cranberries are vulnerable to primarily birds. We netted ours as soon as berries appeared this year and fortunately managed to harvest the (few) all (our cranberry bushes were only just planted last season so to get a few berries was pretty wonderful). Harvest from late-September to mid-October, when the berries are red and prise easily from the plant. They can be frozen or eaten straight away. We froze our few this year to add to my dad’s wonderful yearly Christmas creation of Cranberry Sauce for our Christmas Day dinner (see recipe below).

RHS recommended varieties:

‘Pilgrim’: We have two of these. Ideal for container growing, fruits ripen from July to September.

‘Early Black’: Early harvesting, small and deep red; ideal for sauces and for baking.

‘Redstar’: Ideal for window boxes or containers, dark pink flowers are followed by bright red fruits.

‘Stevens’: Mid season with large, red fruit.

Raw cranberries have moderate levels of vitamin C, fibre and the essential manganese (each nutrient having more than 10% of the Daily Value per 100 g serving, as well as other essential micronutrients in minor amounts). As fresh cranberries are hard and bitter, about 95% of cranberries are processed and used to make cranberry juice and sauce. They are also sold dried and sweetened.

For many years, researchers believed that the ability of cranberries and cranberry juice to help prevent urinary tract infections (UTIs) was partly related to the strong acidity of the cranberries. Recent research has shown that it’s not the acidity of the cranberries, but the unusual nature of their proanthocyanidins (PACs) that is related to prevention of UTIs. The special structure of these PACs (involving A-type linkages between their components) acts as a barrier to bacteria that might otherwise latch on to the urinary tract lining. For the cardiovascular system and for many parts of the digestive tract (including the mouth and gums, stomach, and colon) cranberry has been shown to provide important anti-inflammatory benefits. It’s the phytonutrients in cranberry that are especially effective in lowering our risk of unwanted inflammation, and virtually all of the phytonutrient categories represented in cranberry are now known to play a role. These phytonutrient categories include proanthocyanidins (PACs), anthocyanins (the flavonoid pigments that give cranberries their shades of red), flavonols like quercetin, and phenolic acid (like hydroxycinnamic acids). Dietary consumption of cranberry has also been shown to reduce the risk of chronic, unwanted inflammation in the stomach, large intestine (colon) and cardiovascular system (especially blood vessel linings). Drinking a little cranberry juice now and then seems to be a good idea…

So if you don’t fancy your cranberries raw, try making your own cranberry juice (if you have enough to spare), perhaps a Cranberry Sauce instead of Redcurrant Jelly for your roasts (see recipe below) or dry them out like you would to make apple rings and use them in a bread recipe or follow my Christmas Brownie and Walnut Cake recipe and serve them alongside it for a delicious dessert (you don’t have to wait until Christmas for it!).

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Dad’s Cranberry Sauce

(Makes 4x 350g jars)

-900g fresh/frozen cranberries -Juice of 2 oranges -150g granulated sugar

  1. Place the cranberries in a large pan.
  2. Add the juice of the oranges to the pan followed by the sugar.
  3. Bring everything up to simmering point, stir well, put a lid on the pan and let it all simmer for about 20 minutes, or until the cranberries are breaking down. Stir now and then.
  4. Remove the pan from the heat. When it is cool enough to handle, scrape into sterilised jam jars. Store in the fridge. For freezing, when cool transfer the relish to a plastic container and freeze.

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Christmas Brownie Walnut Cake with Dried Cranberries
Follow the link to the original recipe on my other blog – ‘Bella’s Baking’

(Serves 10)

-200g plain chocolate- 100g salted butter -4 medium sized eggs -250g caster/granulated sugar -100g plain flour -1tsp baking powder -30g cocoa powder -100g walnuts, ground

  1. Preheat the oven to 180C. Line a 23cm/9inch cake tin with baking parchment.
  2. Melt the chocolate in a heatproof bowl in the microwave. Melt the butter and add to the chocolate mixture.
  3. Whisk the eggs and sugar together until the mixture is pale and thick enough to hold a trail when the beaters are removed. Mix in the chocolate and butter mixture.
  4. Add the flour, baking powder and cocoa powder, mixing to combine.
  5. In a food processor or nut grinder, grind the walnuts. Mix into the other ingredients thoroughly.
  6. Pour the mixture into the prepared cake tin. Bake in the oven for 40-45 minutes until the cake has a nice crust on the outside but is slightly soft in the middle. When you cut into it to serve, it should gradually get gooey-er as you go further into the middle, the brownie element of the cake. Leave to cool in the tin.
  7. Dust with icing sugar and scatter dried cranberries in the middle for decoration. Serve these cranberries alongside the slices. Store in an airtight container.
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Flowers for the buzzy bees

We keep some of our honey bees in the vegetable patch. Our bees are pretty lazy, preferring to wait for some sugar water rather than to go and collect some pollen but on a sunny day, our garden is alive with the buzzing hum of bumble and honey bees out and about. Different bees are attracted to different types of plants. For example, honey bees work a particularly large selection of crops so it is natural that they work the raspberries in our garden which we have a large supply of. Bumble bees are perfect for runner bean flowers and blossom on trees (they can venture out when it is colder and later than a honey bee can). There are different ways of attracting bees to your vegetable garden to pollinate your crops – remember, no bees, no fruit or vegetables unless you want to get the paintbrush out and pollinate everything by hand which might take some time! One way of attracting bees to your crops is to plant some flowers they love nearby  or with them. Some of these can be edible too, making them another great plant to grow in your garden to transfer to the kitchen table.

Edible flowers that bees love:

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Bee flying to Borage
  • Borage – this is the best edible flower to grow that is a bee’s favourite. It is a blue flower with green leaves that resemble comfrey. There is another blue flower that resembles it that flowers earlier that you must beware of – it is not edible while borage is. Borage flowers have a sort of star-shaped petal arrangement with delicate, purple details. The fake borage flower resembles a vibrant, bigger version of a forget-me-not. If you are sowing seeds, buy a packet in spring and sow. Borage’s ability to self-seed ensures that you should have these plants in the vegetable garden for life, as long as you do not pull any up while weeding. Pick the flower heads and use in culinary preparations. They have a cooling, cucumber-like taste so they go very well with Pimms or salads. Otherwise, they look beautiful when scattered on top of a coffee or chocolate cake – the colour stands out against the icing in the most incredible way. Borage was originally grown for medicinal purposes, treating gastrointestinal issues (cramp, diarrhoea, colic), airway diseases (asthma), urinary infections and cardiovascular complaints. Planting borage near strawberries or fruit trees is supposed to make the fruit taste better but it is also a good companion plant for legumes, brassicas, spinach and tomatoes, that it is also supposed to improve the flavour of. It should flower around June or July.

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Use Borage flowers in recipes that would use cucumbers or as beautiful decoration on cakes – sister’s 18th birthday cake, 2016
  • Nasturtiums – These are great for gardens with poor soil as the worse it is, the more they thrive. They come in all types of vibrant colours and patterns, looking beautifully bright. They will flower from late summer through the autumn until the frost arrives. Then they die back and often pop up and self-seed VERY reliably the next year. Once you have sown a batch of nasturtium seeds, you will never need to sow another again! Any nasturtium seed will do, I recommend ‘Empress of India’ of the top of my head. Nasturtium flowers can be picked and added to a salad or another dish that accompanies a peppery flavour. It is recommended to include them in tempura, anything that needs a little heat. You can sow them in spring and be seeing them in July.
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Nasturtiums are very good at self-seeding in infertile soil
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Their bright colours will add a vibrant pop to your salad plates and a peppery flavour

 

  • Viola – You need to start these off in early spring indoors in little pots as they are fussy germinators. They taste sweeter and less peppery than most other flowers you can grow. Many people like to add them on top of cakes or scatter them over a trifle because of this reason. And they look delicate and beautiful. They are a pansy-like, deep purple coloured flower with splashes of yellow in the centres.
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Beautiful Viola

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  • Calendula (pot marigold) – Bright orange flowers that are quite easy to germinate outdoors and are excellent companion plants for nearly everything. Plant them all of the place for a splash of colour. They can be used in fresh salads or dried and used to colour cheeses, apparently. Their colour makes them a perfect substitute to saffron. Throw them into any Mediterranean or Middle Eastern cuisine. You can also infuse the petals and make calendula tea. Calendulas can be used in ointments to treat minor burns, cuts and skin irritations, such as acne. They contain anti-inflammatory properties and have been used to treat constipation and abominable cramps. I even know of someone who suggests making a conditioner from calendula flowers for people with blonde hair – it brings out their colour naturally. Sow outdoors in spring when all the frosts have gone. The seeds are easy to harvest and keep for next year and the plants themselves are again reliable self-seeders.
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Calendula (Pot Marigold)
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Bright, sunny flower that is a great companion plant, attracting the bees to your crops

 

Non-edible flowers that bees love:

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Stunning yet deadly Foxgloves
  • Foxgloves – Tall, wildflowers that come in an arrangement of colours, mostly whites, purples and pinks. They look lovely but are deadly to all. Foxgloves and ragwort are the two plants I am always on the look out for if I am giving my weeds to the pigs or poultry. They will grow even where you don’t want them – right in the middle of your vegetable bed, often. However, bees do love them so do save a few. Plus, they will make a lovely array of colour from June to July.
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Comfrey
  • Comfrey – Inedible but brilliant for the vegetable patch. Bees adore the pink flowers (especially bumble bees who should do the majority of pollinating in your plot), they are very hardy and resistant. They can grow anywhere. Harvesting their leaves (that will grow back instantly) you can make your own comfrey feed for plants. Their thuggish behaviour makes them a great boarded plant as they prevent weeds from growing anywhere near them.

 

  • French Marigolds – Unlike the pot marigolds, the French ones are not edible but they are stunning and a great companion plant. Their petals are bright yellow with splashes of crimson red painted over them. Their leaves are a shaggy, dark green and they can grow to be quite big. They will last from mid-summer to late autumn, depending on the weather. You need to start marigolds off indoors, like violas. Sow them in small pots as early as February or March and plant them outdoors when the frosts have gone and they are big enough to handle. They make great companion plants for carrots (deter carrot fly with their strong smell), tomatoes, legumes, brassicas (deter cabbage whites). They are one of my favourites to grow as they are such stunners.

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  • Cosmos – Another favourite, these simple and delicate flowers can come in an arrangement of colours – my favourites are the whites and light pinks. They remind me of the type of flower a fairy could perch on. They are bee friendly and add delicate colour and beauty to your plot. Sow them indoors in trays in early spring if the frosts are hanging around later than normal (like I had to this year) or sow them direct into the ground in spring. They are another one I would recommend harvesting the seed from and storing for the next year.

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