USING FLOWERS AMONG FOOD CROPS
There is a certain satisfaction in seeing crisp, clean rows of tomatoes or tightly packed lines of lettuce. But in my gardening experience, I have found that my plants are happier and healthier when they are given a bit more freedom—not unlike people.
In nature, plants don’t tend to segregate themselves into exclusive groupings, but rather they grow together, mixing and mingling. In doing so, they achieve a symbiosis; they benefit from and protect one another.
Polyculture is an agricultural practice that seeks to mimic this natural diversity by growing a variety of plants together so they can help one another grow. Planting flowers in and among vegetable crops is a wonderful way to naturally promote garden health and, as an added benefit, enhance the beauty of your garden spaces. I personally love gardens that take on a wild, lost-cottage appearance—but flowers don’t have to look messy and haphazard. Considering size and height, complementary colors, and spacing will help to give your garden an elegant, graceful appearance.
However, the main reason to plant flowers alongside your veggies is that they can attract—and repel—insects. As gardeners, there are bugs we like, and bugs we would rather be without. Pollinators such as butterflies, moths, and, of course, bees, are critical to the survival of vegetable gardens. Then, there are the bad bugs: aphids, beetles, leafminers, squash bugs… the list goes on and on. Planting flowers can deter pests by their scent, make it more difficult for pests to travel and spread through your garden, and even attract other insects that eat those pests. >>
So much of the food we eat relies on pollinators to grow and produce fruit. Planting the right flowers can draw them in and give your garden the boost it needs to be productive.
Bees, well known for their productive pollination in gardens, can’t see the color red. They are especially attracted to blue and violet flowers that smell sweet and provide easy access to nectar. But bees are not the only pollinators we want in our garden! Butterflies and hummingbirds are excellent pollinators too, and they have different mouth-shapes and color preferences. Hummingbirds, for example, love red, cone-shaped flowers and can access nectar that is stored deeper within the bloom. So when in doubt, plant a variety!
Cosmos: Full disclosure, I listed these first because they are my favorite. I love how leggy and wild cosmos grow, especially when planted among sunflowers (which are also great for bees). But these beauties are professional pollinator magnets, with many varieties and colors to choose from. Bees love the purple and pink varieties, while the white sensation variety is especially good for attracting lacewings, who in larvae form have quite an appetite for aphids. Tip: They look stunning among anything that vines or climbs up a trellis.
Purple Coneflower (Echinacea): Bees love this stuff. Their purple, cone-shaped blossoms are the perfect color and shape for our busy, buzzing garden friends. As an added bonus, echinacea is well-known for its immune-boosting, cold-fighting qualities when used in tea.
Zinnias: An excellent choice for the vegetable garden, zinnias attract lots of beneficial insects. In particular, butterflies love them. They are bright and colorful, and provide late-season nectar for pollinators. They also invite beneficial insects, especially Monarch butterflies, to lay eggs in their foliage. They attract hummingbirds, hover flies and wasps, all of which eat up destructive pests. Plant them around your tomatoes to deter worms. If you need more convincing, they make gorgeous cut flowers. You can’t lose with a thick zinnia patch in your garden.
Columbine: Columbine is another personal favorite and has a very interesting history of adaptation to benefit the pollinators that drink their nectar. Biologists have found that the unique nectar spurs, or long tubes that lead to the flowers’ nectar, grow in length based on the tongues of their preferred pollinators. These are a favorite snack of hummingbirds.
Lavender: This divine smelling, purple beauty is a favorite of bees and gardeners alike. You probably already have some in your garden. Consider placing it nearer to your veggies. Choose long-blooming varieties—be sure to leave some uncut—and bees will come from miles around to enjoy the bounty of pollen and nectar that they provide.
There are all sorts of things we don’t want in our gardens. Flowers can be used to disguise food crops, confuse and trap harmful pests, and even attract insects that love to feast on all the bugs we don’t like. Better yet, strategically placed flowers are so much better for the garden than chemical pesticides, which can damage soil and stunt growth over time.
Calendula (Pot Marigolds): Who doesn’t love these flowers? Simple, compact, colorful, and late-blooming, pot marigolds are so cheerful and deter all sorts of unwanted insects, such as squash bugs, mosquitos, and lice. Considered a great “trap crop,” calendula attracts pests like aphids and whiteflies and produces a sticky substance that traps these garden pests before they reach your crops. Note: Calendula, an edible, herbal flower, is different from the common marigold, which is toxic when ingested.
Chrysanthemums: Did you know that some brands of bug repellent and pesticides use a chemical extracted from mums (pyrethrin) to deter pests? Not only do these flowers repel pests such as beetles and harlequin bugs, which destroy gardens, they also keep away lice, ticks, bed bugs, roaches, and other universally disliked crawling critters. I like to plant them among squash and potatoes.
Queen Anne’s Lace: A tall, elegant choice for the garden, Queen Anne’s Lace attracts lacewings, ladybugs, hoverflies, and a number of other pest-gobbling insects to the vegetable patch. They are also known to give tomato plants a little boost when planted close by! Like many on this list, they will keep coming back year after year and can spread prolifically.
Yarrow: Yarrow is becoming the permaculturists secret weapon. It attracts beneficial insects such as bees and lacewings, provides excellent nesting grounds for these helpful critters, and has a scent that repels garden pests. In fact, it would make an excellent addition to your cucumber patch. To top it all off, yarrow is a beloved medicinal herb, used to control bleeding, pain, and inflammation. It’s also known to fortify garden soil and activate compost. This is a powerhouse of a plant you should always make room for.
Nasturtium: These attractive edibles are another powerful multi-use companion, and they come with a cornucopia of benefits.
The flowers and leaves are edible (and quite tasty) and provide an extensive list of medicinal benefits. They also emit a powerful odor that masks the scent of crops that are often vulnerable to a pest attack. Plant them everywhere, but especially near your brassicas.
Consider experimenting with interplantings of beneficial flowers this spring. You’ll have a great time trying different height and color combinations. When you find yourself spending less time fighting off pest infestations and more time enjoying the beauty and bounty of your garden, you’ll become an instant polyculturalist for life.
Avoid chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
These products can be helpful to the gardener, but often their consequences outweigh their benefits. Pollinators don’t like them, and they can strip soil of its organic qualities. Use natural, cultural solutions when possible, and if chemicals are a must, check to make sure they aren’t harmful to beneficial insects.
Plant in small groups. A single flower is better than no flower at all, but planting in clumps is a good way to attract pollinators. It shortens the distance that they have to travel for food and encourages them to stick around. As pest repellents, groups of flowers perform better.
Shoot for year-round blooms. If you provide a constant food source for beneficial insects, they will return to your yard all year long—and likely make their homes close by. Try to keep something in bloom throughout the year.
Provide other resources. Bees, butterflies, and all of those garden-friendly bugs need more than food to survive. Consider providing housing (bee hotels are really cool, and make for a fun project) and shallow water to encourage long-term residence in your garden.