Sometimes It’s Hard To Tell the Vegetables From the Flowers

From Gene Logsdon

Our potatoes are growing this year better than ever. Everything is growing better this year, after two years that would try any gardener’s soul. When the potato plants started blooming a couple of weeks ago, I was pleasantly surprised to see the patch turn into something of a flower garden. (See photos of the patch and a closeup of one potato blossom.)

It got me to thinking about the usual dichotomy we adhere to as garden farmers. Over here are the vegetables, over there the flowers. I don’t have any problem with that; roses are showier than potato blossoms. But maybe I think that way more because of cultural prejudice than fact. When you remember that potato blossoms are a byproduct of one of human society’s favorite foods, a byproduct that comes without any extra work on the gardener’s part, and compare that effortlessness to all the attention one must pay to a rose garden, which plant really is the most beautiful, all things considered? The only thing better would be roses that sported potatoes on their roots.

Sometimes vegetable and flower become literally one and the same. Squash flowers make a delightful food, fried in batter. Violets and nasturtiums can spice up salads. Dandelion buds, right before they unfold into flowers, are the best part of a plate of wilted dandelions to my taste.

But it is the philosophical question that intrigues me. I may be mistaken but I don’t think any garden writer has waxed eloquent about the beauty of a potato flower. All vegetables have in fact quite beautiful flowers but mostly they are smaller that those blooms we honor in the flower garden. Small equals not showy. But if you look at these small flowers through a magnifying glass or the closeup lens of a camera, oh my. Even bean blossoms are quite spectacular. Or if a great many un-showy blooms grow together, oh my again. A bed of thyme in bloom. A field of clover blossoms.

Methinks (when posing as a philosopher, a writer can get away with weird words like ‘methinks’) that the contented gardener is the one who can find a bean blossom or a potato flower as beautiful as a rose. Methinks that the human tendency to have the biggest or the rarest or the most striking of, in this case, flower, is at the root (drat those puns) of our discontent. A child, as yet uninfluenced by human culture, will be enraptured by tiny flowers, like a tomato blossom, if it is pointed out to them by an adult who is also enraptured by it. Even a homely corn tassel is a thing of beauty if you study it closely, and when you think of the succulent ear of roasted corn that will come from that tassel, even orchids are among the also-rans.


Tony Flynn in Papua New Guinea July 24, 2009 at 4:57 am

Hi Gene,
Your books have shown me that my dream here is achievable. I am starting at 72 in a remote location called Wau in Morobe Province, Papua New Guinea.
There are subsistance farmers here in Papua new Guinea, there are no small farmers as known to the readers of your books. I am trying to develop 60 acres of clay soil adapting your guidelines. I have to produce clay drain tiles from the clay for subsoil drains 4ft. To do this I have to produce bricks for a kiln. Nobody has this technology in PNG, maybe a reader could pass on their experience in small scale clay manufacture.
I learnt how to protect wheat from insects in a steel drum by lighting a candle to exhaust the oxygen. This was shown to me by an American couple at Kabiufa SDA High School, it sems very sensible with the benefit of cheapness.
Tony Flynn

Love potato blossoms but pea blossoms are my favorite…I personally belive flowers are more beautiful when I know they are leading to something yummy to eat! Kim

I don’t know if it’s because I always start potatoes so late or if the growing season isn’t long enough but I haven’t had flowering potatoes here in Anchorage, AK. Potato tubers happen whether they flower or not, a good thing – yes?

It’s bloom city around my garden now. Shell peas, strawberries, corn, squash, pumpkin, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, Empress of India nasturiums, Himalayan poppies, daylilies, horseradish, borage, and hardy roses – not to mention fireweed, white clover, plantain, dandelion, chickweed, butter and eggs, lambsquarter, pineapple weed, salvia, valerian and chives. Bush and pole beans should start soon. Might have to look close for flowers (chickweed in particular) but it’s quite the profusion.

The bees love it and so do I!

Kerri in AK

Jan, I just don’t know. Pinching and suckering and pruning in many cases means bigger fruits, as in suckering tomatoes. My response is always the same including suckering tomatoes. It is a lot of work and is it worth it to get bigger fruits or more foliage or whatever? I don’t really want bigger potatoes. Medium sized ones are easier to cook, right? Gene

My dad always pinched off the flowers. He said it made the potatoes bigger if the plant didn’t put its resources into setting seed.

I know a lot of gardeners who follow similar procedures on other plants — pinching of basil flowers to make the plant produce more foliage, for example.

Apart from the obvious disadvantage of not being able to enjoy the flowers, what do you think of that theory, Gene? Is it just “an old wives’ tale?”

Jennifer: the variety in the photos is Red Norland. We got the seed potatoes from friends with an organic garden farm business. I had never heard of Red Norlands before two years ago, but for a red potato, they are really super. Our other variety, Yukon Gold, has creamy white flowers as you describe.
Ann: what a great story about Marie Antonette and potato blooms. Let us not check it out too closely but just assume that it is true.
Kathy, I confess I never knew about Passionflower. I must try it but it may be too cold here.
Susan: obviously you have lots of company in the appreciation of vegetable flowers. Gene Logsdon

Yes, indeedy, my potatoes are also exceptionally floriferous this year, and the blue ones are fruiting, so I will be experimenting with seeds. Alway something to look forward to….

Gene,I have to agree, vegetable blossoms have thier special place. I really like the eggplant flower.

Let me be quick, long time fan,saw you in PA. in mid 80’s. have many of your books. Thanks for sharing your saneness.

Gene, what variety of potatoes have those lovely lavender blossoms? All three of my varieties have creamy white flowers. I do have a nice surprise in bean flowers this year — the Blue Coco pole bean has sort-of-two-toned lavender/burgundy blossoms. Quite a treat against the light blue house! Growing some different varieties this year has really added some colorful surprises to the garden — such a treat, when the “official” flowers are a bit behind.

Gene, I too love potato blooms. I grow various flowers among my veggies – many that self seed from year to year as I have a mulched garden that never gets tilled. I especially love those flowers that attract bees (which I find beautiful) and butterflies and hummingbirds. I always plant a few of the small seeded sunflowers. Although they are beautiful in themselves, when the seeds mature in come the goldfinches (how do they know?). They swoop in from the tall pine trees south of the garden. I have catnip but no cat – it is lovely in its greenery, pretty in its small flowers and attracts the honey bees. And then there is my garlic chives – when they bloom the flower is a lovely globe of white blossoms, and it attracts a plethora of pollinators that I never see otherwise, some quite lovely. BUT the prize that glories as a flower and a food is the May Pops (Passionflower, passiflora incarnata). Their bloom rivals any domestic flower and their fruit rivals all the other fruits we grow. And a calming tea can be made from leaves and stems. Not sure how far north it goes but I highly recommend it to anyone in the growing area.

Thank you, thank you! I knew there had to be somebody, somewhere, who also thought a vegetable garden in bloom was every bit as beautiful as a flower garden!

Truly, there are few things that can compare to the beauty of a sparkling yellow squash blossom glistening in the morning dew.

Thanks also for reprinting the Small Scale Grains book. Definitely a keeper, and I have a list of people waiting to borrow it.

I had heard that France accepted the potato after Marie Antoinette was presented with a bouquet of potato flowers. I don’t know where I heard it or if it is true.

I’ve bought 4 of your books and am enjoying them. You’ve convinced me that we should pay off our mortgage as fast as possible. It’s expensive. There isn’t a lot else worth buying. And we want our little piece of paradise to be ours and to have time left over to encounter it. Thanks for helping me get off the fence.

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