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

Fresh produce and herbs, as well as vibrant-tasting edibleflowers, are helpful for the home cook to have on hand. Growingthem in your backyard yields not only convenience but alsounmatched flavor for a fraction of the cost of their grocery-storecounterparts.

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

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

Herb: Basil
The 64 different species of basil vary in taste from cinnamonto lemon, and go well with pasta, meat, fish, and even chocolate.Basil is a semitropical plant, and temperatures in the 40s can bedamaging, Shepherd says, so sow your seeds only when nighttimetemperatures are consistently in the 50s. Thin or transplant afterthe 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 gardenshops.
• Water: Keep the soil moist―about an inch ofwater per week.
• What: Snip stems just above two sprouting lateralbranches to encourage continued growth.
• When: For best flavor, prune when the plant reachessix to seven inches in height. Pinch off any blossoms that appearto 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 inmarinades. 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 slowsconsiderably as it ages. Shepherd suggests successive plantingsthree weeks apart to ensure fresh herbs all season (this alsoallows you to sample multiple varieties).

Edible Flower: Nasturtium
Originating in the jungles of South America, nasturtiums areremarkably hardy little flowers that will grow easily. They'reavailable in a rainbow of colors and spread quickly to producelovely foliage and bright blossoms. Nasturtiums' peppery leaves andpetals are reminiscent of watercress with a hint of honey. Theirseeds can also be dried and ground like black pepper, and theseedpods pickled and used like capers. Plant seeds one inch deepand 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 soilfeels dry.
Blossoms are ready to eat as soon as they open. Pull apartpetals and discard stamens and pistils, or use whole as a garnish.The many varieties have similar flavor, but Shepherd likes theblue-green leaves and vermillion blossoms of 'Empress of India'best.
Other edible flowers:
• Best for baking/sweets: Use delicious-but-stronglavender blossoms sparingly―place in a bowl of sugar toflavor, or steep in milk and remove.
• Best for salads/garnish: Rose petals, fuchsia, andmarigolds all offer a pleasant taste.
Other tips and secrets: Avoid insecticides or artificialfertilizers on edible flowers. Nasturtiums are naturallypest-resistant, but if you find aphids, remove them by sprayingwith water.