At the Natural Farm much of our time is devoted to applying tried methods, combined with new ones, in order to learn what works not only in our backyards but also what can be applied around the world. One of the earliest, easiest and basic of all methods is using plants to help their neighbors. If we look to science and nature and observe rather than disrupt we often fine the best way.
When choosing plants for our garden the goal is to select those with multiple functions and purposes. Most plants do not serve just one purpose, and it is our job to rebuild this knowledge base and regain the understanding our forefathers relied on, learn how to apply it and share it with those around us. The lowly nasturtium is just such a plant. It is a shining example of a plant that has been either dismissed from the garden entirely, or used for only one purpose, but its facets are many.
Earlier this year our garden was covered in pest and fungal disease, and much of our time, of late, was devoted to eradicating both these issues in natural ways. Gardening in the tropics is a whole new experience to many of us who have gardened for years. You face issues not otherwise experienced across the mainland and throughout the world, partly due to the fact we do not have a winter. It has been a steep learning curve, but we have a hand on it currently and learned many lessons along the way, including the understanding of how winter can be your friend as it allows the ground to rest and regenerate as well controlling the insect population. In many ways we are thankful to have experienced these issues early on, because so much of what makes one a good food grower is observation, recognition, problem solving and most importantly the passing of knowledge from one person to the next and one generation to the next. Knowledge must be shared. Better yet, knowledge must be shared and then built upon and shared again. This leads us to the beloved, yet humble nasturtium.
The nasturtium is edible, every part: leaves, stem, flowers and seeds. Most eat the young seeds, but some tell of drying the seeds and then grinding them in a pepper mill to use similar to pepper. As a food source it is high in vitamin C and iron. To that end the nasturtium is considered by many herbalists as a useful medicine. Since it is high in vitamin C nasturtiums are recommended to relieve colds and due to the high iron content it is used as a blood builder. So, the nasturtium is so far a two-fold plant: edible and medicinal, but we are not done. It is also one of the best companion plants to have when you are a food grower.
When companion planting it is important to note that most plants have two or three plants they work well with. Not the nasturtium; they are considered a companion to almost any plant. They are incredible for plants like cucumbers, squash and pumpkins, but they work well just about anywhere and with any plant in the food community. They are not picky. The soil does not have to be rich in nutrients for them to grow and thrive and if you plant from seed you generally have a 99% return which, if you grow from seed, you know to be of great value and not at all common. As a companion plant the nasturtium will often sacrifice itself. This is called a trap crop: a plant planted near others to attract bad bugs away from fruit bearing ones. The nasturtium can withstand a large attack from ravenous bugs without succumbing to their ills, and it provides relief for the other plants so they have the time and ability to produce the fruits they were planted to harvest. We have planted nasturtiums, as well as marigolds, throughout our food systems and in doing so we have decreased the population of bad bugs by increasing the population of good.
A prolific seeder, the nasturtium will often self-seed making it semi-perennial in culture, and can also replant itself similar to mint causing a bit of invasiveness if not monitored at times, but this is what you want when growing food systems so do not be too wary of its wild nature. Watch seeds as they develop and gather them anywhere from the green to dry stage depending on your bird population. Birds will eat your seeds so harvesting them earlier in some places may be advised. Originally found in Peru and South America the nasturtium can withstand sub-tropic, tropical as well as moderate to mild ranges in temperature allowing for it to be utilized across every populated continent and in most regions.