By Maggie Stuckey, author of THE CONTAINER VICTORY GARDEN
Flowers in a vegetable garden? Yes.
A container vegetable garden? Yes.
A garden so tight on space that every plant has to earn its spot? Yes!
Using flowers in your cooking instantly and painlessly turns ordinary into extraordinary. There is no easier way to create culinary magic.
■ Start with tubers or transplants.
■ This is a perennial, although not long lived.
■ It needs part shade.
■ Careful fertilizing program equals more flowers.
GETTING TO KNOW TUBEROUS BEGONIAS
A tuber is one kind of underground storage system from which new plants grow, something like a squashed or elongated bulb. For the edible begonias described here, the tuber is the distinguishing characteristic; that’s how you know you’re getting the kind of begonia I want you to have. Not wax begonias, not angelwing begonias, just the tuberous type. But once it’s planted, you can put the tuber out of your mind, at least until wintertime (and maybe even longer, depending on your winter climate). We have more important things to focus on. First and foremost, the flowers.
These flowers are a total knockout. They come in a broad range of colors, from deeply saturated hues to soft pastels to gentle shades of ivory and even to two-toned petals with a delicate contrasting edge, and they all have an amazing luminous glow that always makes me think of stained glass windows. The individual flowers stay on the plant for a satisfyingly long time, and the bloom season is long, from early summer to late fall.
The petals have a tart citrusy taste that is very much like fresh lemon. The combination of lemon flavor and bright color makes them almost endlessly versatile for adding a splash of both to your cooking.
The leaves are rather large, triangular shaped, dark green to bronzy green in color, and slightly fuzzy. We don’t need to spend too much time on them, except to make sure they aren’t blocking the full development of the flower buds that may be hiding underneath. If you find that problem, carefully snip off the entire leaf from its branch. Coincidentally, this also helps with another possible problem: because of their size, the leaves have been known to put so much weight on the very tender main stems that whole branches break off, taking the flower buds with them. This danger is especially high when the leaves get wet, so be careful with your watering.
PLANTING AND NURTURING YOUR BEGONIAS
Early in spring, you can find tubers at online nurseries or retail garden centers. The tuber comes packaged with printed instructions and (usually) a color photo of the bloom. Most mail-order catalogs will also feature gorgeous photos to help you zero in on the colors you want (or drive you crazy trying to decide).
A mature plant can be twelve to eighteen or more inches tall and wide but does not need more than six inches of soil depth. The tuber itself looks rather like a tulip bulb that Bigfoot stepped on, leaving a small indentation in the center. Plant it directly into your container, with the indentation facing up, after the spring frost date, and watch for pointy shoots in about six weeks. In the meantime, keep the soil lightly moist and be careful not to plant anything on top of the tuber.
Another approach, and simpler, is to wait a few weeks until transplants are available at the nursery. One big advantage is that they may be showing their flower so you can tell exactly what color you’ll be getting.
Shade lover. This might seem strange to veteran flower gardeners, but keep this plant away from direct sun. Partial shade is best, but they will also do fine in full shade. This is very good news for container gardeners who love growing flowers but often struggle with limited sunlight.
Maintenance. Through the growing season, your begonias will need you to pay attention to both water and fertilizer. Don’t let the soil dry out completely; use the finger test often. But when you do add water, direct your hose or watering can to the edges of the container. Try not to water the plant itself, especially the leaves; as we know, when waterlogged they can break the stems from the extra weight. And to keep those beautiful flowers coming, give your plant a weekly dose of complete fertilizer that is high in phosphorus.
Winter care. Your task at the end of the blooming season varies depending on your winter weather patterns. In very warm areas, you don’t need to do anything. The plant may go dormant and drop leaves, but the tuber is still healthy and will regrow come spring. If your winters are relatively mild, without long periods of near-freezing temperatures, you can usually manage by moving the container into a more sheltered area or wrapping it in some insulation (Bubble Wrap, say). But in severe winters your best bet is to dig up the tubers and save them for next year.
The process is not complicated. Dig up the plants, trim away any remains of foliage, dust off the tubers, and let them dry thoroughly. (If you started with tubers, think back to what they looked like when you opened the package; you’re trying to recreate that condition.) Then place them into a small bucket filled with sand or peat moss, and set the whole thing aside until next spring. If you use paper bags instead of the bucket, you can write on the side what colors are hiding inside. Or you could just start over next year with brand-new plants; that works too.
COOKING WITH BEGONIA FLOWERS
Remember that the basic taste is lemonlike, and many possibilities will pop into your head. Then think about color and ask yourself, Where could I use the combination of lemon plus that beautiful color?
Maggie Stuckey is a gardener who cooks, a cook who gardens, and a writer happily immersed in both arenas. She divides her time between Portland, Oregon, and the tiny coastal town of Ocean Park, Washington. Her new book The Container Victory Garden: A Beginner’s Guide to Growing Your Own Groceries, is on sale now. Learn more at ContainerVictoryGarden.com.
Excerpted from THE CONTAINER VICTORY GARDEN: A BEGINNER’S GUIDE TO GROWING YOUR OWN GROCERIES by Maggie Stuckey. Copyright © 2023 by Maggie Stuckey. Used by permission of Harper Celebrate.