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Three Plants for Every Cook

Randy Mayor
Tomatoes, basil, and edible flowers are always ready when you grow them yourself

Fresh produce and herbs, as well as vibrant-tasting edible flowers, are helpful for the home cook to have on hand. Growing them in your backyard yields not only convenience but also unmatched flavor for a fraction of the cost of their grocery-store counterparts.

With minimal effort, you can enjoy succulent heirloom tomatoes, heady basil, and uniquely peppery nasturtium―available just steps from the kitchen. Plus, these three plants can be grown just about anywhere in the United States. With the help of plant experts, here are guidelines to help you start an edible garden of your own.

Produce: Tomato
Tomatoes thrive virtually anywhere. All they need is room for their roots, lots of sunshine, water, and fertilizer. "To produce their best fruit, tomatoes need a long, warm growing season," says Renee Shepherd, owner of online seed shop Renee's Garden. "So you'll need to start your seeds indoors six to eight weeks before the last expected frost date in your area." Follow the directions on the seed packet, and transfer the seedlings outdoors two weeks after the last frost.
• Light: Full sun, six to eight hours a day.
• Soil and nutrients: Plant in rich soil prepared with compost or other organic material. Fertilize monthly.
• Water: Keep soil moist but not soggy―about the equivalent of an inch of rain per week, Shepherd says. Be careful not to overwater.
• Stakes: You'll need strong stakes or wire cages to support the vines. "Don't let ripe tomatoes sit on the vine. Pick often to encourage more growth," says Tracy K. Lee, horticulture manager for the Burpee seed company.
• When: Harvest tomatoes when they feel heavy for their size and achieve full color. This doesn't always mean red; heirloom varieties come in a number of colors.
Varieties best for:
• Best overall: There are hundreds of flavor and aesthetic options for heirloom tomatoes. But most experts agree: If you only grow one, go with 'Brandywine.'
• Best for salads and sandwiches: Unique, widely available heirloom options: 'Golden Jubilee,' 'Green Zebra,' or 'Black Russian.'
• Best for sauces: Romas are a medium-sized, plumlike variety that stands up well to simmering.
Other tips and secrets: For best taste, never refrigerate tomatoes; cold damages their flavor.

Herb: Basil
The 64 different species of basil vary in taste from cinnamon to lemon, and go well with pasta, meat, fish, and even chocolate. Basil is a semitropical plant, and temperatures in the 40s can be damaging, Shepherd says, so sow your seeds only when nighttime temperatures are consistently in the 50s. Thin or transplant after the seedlings are established so the plants have room to grow.
• Light: Full sun, six to eight hours a day.
• Soil and nutrients: Plant in rich, well-amended soil. Fertilize once a month with fish emulsion, available at most garden shops.
• Water: Keep the soil moist―about an inch of water per week.
• What: Snip stems just above two sprouting lateral branches to encourage continued growth.
• When: For best flavor, prune when the plant reaches six to seven inches in height. Pinch off any blossoms that appear to keep it producing new leaves as long as possible.
Varieties best for:
• Best for pesto: Italian varieties, such as 'Genovese' and 'Profuma di Genova'
• Best for cooking: Cinnamon basil works well in marinades. Lemon basil is great with chicken, fish, or vegetables.
• Best for salads: The appropriately named 'Salad Leaf' basil has large leaves and a mild, buttery flavor.
Other tips and secrets: Basil's production slows considerably as it ages. Shepherd suggests successive plantings three weeks apart to ensure fresh herbs all season (this also allows you to sample multiple varieties).

Edible Flower: Nasturtium
Originating in the jungles of South America, nasturtiums are remarkably hardy little flowers that will grow easily. They're available in a rainbow of colors and spread quickly to produce lovely foliage and bright blossoms. Nasturtiums' peppery leaves and petals are reminiscent of watercress with a hint of honey. Their seeds can also be dried and ground like black pepper, and the seedpods pickled and used like capers. Plant seeds one inch deep and eight to 12 inches apart after the last frost.
• Light: Full sun, or partial in very hot climates
• Soil and nutrients: Plant in well-drained soil. Fertilizer isn't necessary unless you have poor soil quality.
• Water: Nasturtiums are forgiving; water when soil feels dry.
Blossoms are ready to eat as soon as they open. Pull apart petals and discard stamens and pistils, or use whole as a garnish. The many varieties have similar flavor, but Shepherd likes the blue-green leaves and vermillion blossoms of 'Empress of India' best.
Other edible flowers:
• Best for baking/sweets: Use delicious-but-strong lavender blossoms sparingly―place in a bowl of sugar to flavor, or steep in milk and remove.
• Best for salads/garnish: Rose petals, fuchsia, and marigolds all offer a pleasant taste.
Other tips and secrets: Avoid insecticides or artificial fertilizers on edible flowers. Nasturtiums are naturally pest-resistant, but if you find aphids, remove them by spraying with water.