Edible, Flowering Mulch

One of the principles of permaculture is that everything should serve more than one purpose, and every purpose should be served by more than one thing. This complexity makes an ecosystem flexible and resilient, leading to long-term stability.

Creating a garden that emulates nature in this way is one of my long-term goals. But permaculture takes a great deal of time and knowledge, because you have to really get to know your site, your plants, your weather, your native flora and fauna. A book can’t tell you how best to “permacultivate” your little piece of ground; every place is different, and needs a specific individual or family to watch it carefully and respond to its needs and suggestions.  It’s the sort of thing that takes a lifetime to do well. Maybe even several lifetimes, requiring that we pass our knowledge on to our successors.

So I don’t expect to be able to create a permaculture paradise in the space of a year or two. I’ve begun my gardening endeavors with some pretty traditional gardening practices: digging to kill sod, planting in rows in a big open field, weeding with a hoe, etc. But I’m constantly asking myself, “How can I grow food and flowers in a way that increases the complexity and natural fertility of my garden?” And I’m constantly watching. Watching my garden, first and foremost. But also watching for books and blogs that offer clues.

A couple of months ago, I read Mark Diacono’s book The Food Lover’s Garden, and I came across a suggestion that seemed very much in line with permaculture principles. Diacono suggests using nasturtiums as a living mulch in the vegetable garden, especially around brassicas, because they attract cabbage white caterpillars away from cabbages and onto themselves. The nasturtium vines also shade the soil, keeping it cool and moist the way brassicas like it, and what’s more, nasturtiums produce beautiful flowers, which happen to be edible, along with the leaves and seeds. Nasturtiums also self-seed prolifically, so you really only have to plant them once. What’s not to love?

Wilty cabbages in need of mulch!

But I have a big question about how this is supposed to work in practice. You see, my brassicas went into the garden March 12. And nasturtiums are supposed to be direct seeded in the garden after the last frost, which around here is somewhere around April 15. Unless nasturtiums grow super fast, how are they going to be able to provide a living mulch before the brassicas are already mature and ready for harvest? Maybe this living mulch idea works better for the fall brassica crop? When the nasturtiums are already there, and you start the brassicas in between them? This is why I find permaculture so difficult. So many ideas sound great in theory, but the practice is a bit more complicated.

Anyway, to try to narrow the gap between the maturation of the brassicas and the nasturtiums, I decided to try starting some nasturtium seeds indoors. The seed packet says not to do this, because nasturtiums don’t like to be transplanted, but I didn’t see as how I had a choice. To help them out, I decided to start them in toilet paper tubes, cut in half and filled with soil. That way, once the weather was warm enough, I could plant them outside tube and all, and hopefully avoid any transplant shock.

Yesterday was the day I chose for planting them out. It’s not April 15 yet, but it looks like the warm weather is here to stay–that temperatures aren’t going to be dipping below 40°F anymore this spring. So I put the nasturtiums in the ground, among my broccoli, cabbages, and cauliflower. Their roots were already growing out of the bottoms of the toilet paper tubes, even though I only planted the seeds two weeks ago. Some of the roots were even growing through the sides of the tubes, so it looks like planting them pot and all will be just fine. I watered them generously, and this morning they’re doing quite well, as though they’ve always been growing in the backyard.

In the next few days, I’ll probably plant some of my leftover nasturtium seeds directly in the garden, for comparison. Hopefully by the end of the summer I’ll have figured out how this living mulch thing’s supposed to work!

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5 thoughts on “Edible, Flowering Mulch

  1. I have just read this book too (in the UK it is called A Taste of the Unexpected) and really enjoyed it. I have just ordered seeds for Asparagus peas and Kai Lan after reading it. It will be nice to grow something a little different alongside the usual suspects.

    • Isn’t it so funny how they name books differently in the UK and the US? As if “A Taste of the Unexpected” wouldn’t lure Americans in as well… I hope your asparagus peas and Kai Lan do brilliantly!

  2. Hi. I grew nasturtiums in my herb patch this year and they went nuts. So as a living mulch – sounds like a great idea, just not around sensitive gentle plants. I also pickled the green seed pod thingies as I read somewhere that you can, and that they taste like capers – which they do! Good luck with this. Cheers Sarah : o )

    • Cool! I read, too, that the seeds were good for pickling, but I wasn’t sure what that would amount to. Glad to hear it’s good! One more project for this summer. 🙂

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