Hobnobbing in my garden are vegetables, flowers, and herbs. Some are pairs according to culinary taste, others because they are naturally great companions.
Companion planting is a strategic practice used when gardeners purposely plant different species based on their ability to enhance another’s growth, offer pest protection, or to provide structure. Carefully designed, strategic planting means choosing plants that do not compete with one another or comrades that have different nutrient needs in order to make efficient use of the soil. Three of my favorite companions are cucumbers, dill, and nasturtiums. Not only are they great culinary buddies, but despite being different plant species, they naturally support each others’ healthy growth cycle.
Towering above my cucumber vines are the umbrella flowers from the herb, dill. It has tall, slender hollow stems and alternate delicate, threadlike blue-green leaves. The tiny yellow flowers attract a wide variety of beneficial insects such as lacewings and syrphid flies, which feed on the pollen and lay eggs on the cucumber leaves. The larvae feed on aphids and other soft-bodied pest insects that find their way to the juicy cucumber plants. Dill is an aromatic herb, which helps to hide the scent of the cucumbers and repel striped and spotted cucumber beetles that feed on the vines and spread diseases. Bumble bees, honey bees, and mason bees are attracted to dill flowers helping them to locate the yellow blossoms of the cucumber. Dill is the number one herb paired with fresh cucumbers eaten in salads or dried and added to pickled cucumbers.
Planted around the base of my cucumber trellis are nasturtiums. Their big, parasal leaves help to shade the cucumber fruits from the drying sun and the intensely bright flowers attract pollinating insects of all kinds. Considered a symbol of victory—the genus name, Tropaeolum, was given to nasturtiums by a Swedish botanist because the plant reminded him of an ancient Roman custom called the “trophy pole”. After a victory in battle, the soldiers erected a “tropaeum” on which they hung the opponents armour and weapons. The plant’s round leaves resemble the shields, and the flowers the bloodstained helmets. Nasturtiums are victorious as trap crops, meaning they lure insect pests such as aphids away from more valued vegetable crops. Their sharp, peppery odor repels others. Every part of the nasturtium (translated as nose-twister) is edible. It provides a mustard hot flavor to soups, salads, and sandwiches.
Cucumbers are in the Cucurbitaceae family, which includes gourds, squash, pumpkins, watermelons, and luffa. They originated in the tropics and temperate areas, and those with edible fruits were some of the first cultivated plants in both the Old and New world. They are technically a fruit, but are mostly eaten as a vegetable. Cucumbers perk you up on a long, hot summer day due to the fact that they are 95% water and contain vitamins B1, B2, B3, B5, and B6 along with folic acid, vitamin C, calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, and zinc. That is an awful lot of goodness packed in that remaining 5%! The aroma of cucumbers alone is known to relax, cool, and comfort an overly stressed mind. The ascorbic acid and caffeic acid in them helps to diminish swelling and puffiness around the eyes and the phytochemicals kill the bacteria that causes bad breath. It’s said that in a bind, the waxy skin of a cucumber can be used to polish your chrome bathroom fixtures and even erase pen ink on paper.
There are three main varieties of cucumbers: slicing, pickling, and seedless, and many cultivars within those three types. They grow as sprawling vines with curling tendrils that will latch onto any vertical structure in their path. Normally grown on a trellis, cucumbers grow best in full sun and require frequent watering. Most varieties require pollination and are self-incompatible, meaning they require the pollen of another plant for seeds. The traditional cultivars produce both male and female blossoms and in large-scale production, a pollenizer cultivar is interplanted to ensure successful fruiting. However, temperature changes due to climate change cause cucumbers to produce all male flowers. Some farmers have now turned to greenhouse-grown cultivars.
With the summer heat comes summer bounty. A quick way to use up a good portion of your cucumbers is to make refrigerator pickles.
3 lbs of pickling cucumbers (kirby, lemon, or dragon egg are my favorites)
4 clove fresh garlic, peeled, and sliced
1 sweet onion, sliced
1 large dill flower plus four full dill leaves
2 fresh grape leaves
1 jalapeno pepper, cut in half
2 cups vinegar (white, cider, or a combination)
2 cups water
1 1/2 tbsp. pickling or kosher salt (do not use iodized)
1 tsp. mustard seeds
1 tsp. sugar
Wash cucumbers and either chop, slice, or leave whole depending on your preference of pickle.
In a clean two quart mason jar, stuff the grape leaves on the bottom then layer with cucumbers, dill, garlic, hot peppers, onions, and mustard seeds.
In a medium saucepan, add water, vinegar, salt, and sugar. Bring to a boil then gently pour the brine into the mason jar, being sure to cover the cucumbers with at least 1/2-inch of brine. Cover and let cool to room temperature. Set in the back of your refrigerator and after five days, sample. Enjoy within two months. You can reuse this brine for another batch. Strain and reheat the liquid brine and pour over a fresh batch of vegetables. Experiment with zucchini, carrots, green beans, cauliflower—whatever you have in your garden.
Having spent six months of my senior year of college in Athens, Greece, I developed a love for tzatziki, otherwise known as yogurt and cucumber dip. I got this recipe from a taverna owner in old Plaka, Athens.
1 large cucumber, shredded (marketmore or straight eight)
1 quart Greek-style yogurt
1 small clove garlic, crushed
1/4 cup chopped fresh dill and or mint
Juice from 1/2 fresh lemon
1 tbsp olive oil
Salt to taste
Ouzo (Greek licorice liquor)
Place shredded cucumbers in a colander, lightly salt, and set aside for 15 minutes. In a medium bowl, combine all the remaining ingredients except the salt. Carefully squeeze the liquid out of the cucumber and mix into the yogurt. Toss a 1/2 teaspoon of ouzo in and stir. Cover and put in the refrigerator for at least two hours.
Serve drizzled with extra olive oil, toasted pita bread, feta cheese, and olives. Opa!
3 cups large nasturtium leaves, washed and dried
1/4 cup toasted pine nuts or toasted walnuts
1 clove garlic
1/2 cup olive oil
1/2 cup parmesan cheese or
1/4 cup nutritional yeast
Salt and pepper to taste
Using a food processor, place nasturtium leaves, garlic, and half the olive oil into the base and pulse to break up, but not puree. Add the rest of the leaves and slowly add the pine nuts and parmesan cheese alternating with the olive oil. Add salt and pepper to taste. Cover tightly and refrigerate. Generously glob into hot pasta and mix gently. Garnish with colorful nasturtium blooms.