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Gardening from Alaska

Tropaeolum or Nasturtium
by Jeff Lowenfels
by Jeff Lowenfels


Jeff is the Past President of the Garden Writers of America, a columnist with the Anchorage Daily News, Host Alaska Gardens and Supporter of Plant a Row.

April 27, 2008

Technically you have to plant from seed at least one item you intend to display in your yard this summer if you want to call yourself a gardener. Even if you fail, you can at least say you tried .

One plant that is as close to a guaranteed success as you can get in horticulture is the ever popular and highly well know flowering plant, Tropaeolum.

Tropaeolum? That’s right. Tropaeolum. Few people fail to recognize these plants once told their common, albeit totally incorrect name, nasturtium. Instantly their red and yellow and orange flowers readily come to mind. Some, and I am included, refer to Tropaeolum as nasturtium, but you and I were duped by our parents and grandparents. Real nasturtiums are something different altogether.

In any case, if you haven’t started some other seeds already, if you want to involve your young children or if you have never grown anything from seed before, I go out and get a few packets of Tropaeolum seeds even if they are mislabeled as nasturtiums. Unlike some other items I have suggested this season, you will find plenty of them available from any and all seed racks.

In fact, you will be confronted with a bewildering variety of garden nasturtiums. In addition to the ever familiar red and yellow and orange flowers, there are bicolor, scarlet, gold, and” cherry rose” flowers. There are white and green variegated leaves on some hybrids (they remind me of leaf miner damage, but that is my own personal bias). Almost all of these come in climbing or bush habits.

And, in case you didn’t know it, the “canary bird vine” is also a Tropaeolum and equally worthy a plant to grow all the way from seed to flower, especially if you have a chain link fence that needs decorating or would enjoy a flowering teepee in the garden. The tiny yellow flowers are just the bonus to the coverage they provide.

Here is how you do it. First, soak the seed when you get home. If you let them sit for twelve to twenty-four hours you will improve your chances of germination.

Next, plant your seeds. All Tropaeolum need a rich, well draining compost and not much else. I put ours in ½ inch deep into pre-dampened soil and cover for a few days with newspaper as these seeds start to germinate best in the dark. It is a good idea plant Tropaeolum seeds in individual small pots so the roots of each plant will not be disturbed when you transplant into the ground or into bigger containers next month. If you want, of course, you can plant in those containers now.

Tropaeolum can be used in baskets and in both the flower and vegetable gardens as the flowers are edible in salads adding a distinct, spicy flavor. They do best in full sun, but they will endure some shade, particularly when grown here in Alaska where we have so much daylight. They are one of the few annuals we grow here that can make a nice, thick, flowering border or mini hedge. The climbing varieties need a pole, wire, net or old branch to cling onto.

Now is the time to start nasturtium.

Seeds to start from seed this week: In pots: nemophlia, canary bird vine, nasturtium, silene, mignonette, arctic poppy, California poppies, sunflowers, morning glory, sweat peas, Shirley poppies . In flats: nemesia, scabiosa, sweet alyssum, bachelor buttons, marigolds, clarkia, balsam, zinnia, calendula

Vegetables to start from seed this week: Summer Squash, cucumbers, pumpkin

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