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Flowers in the garden

(post, Caroline Lewis)

Space is at a premium in most raised-bed gardens. When we do planting plans for clients, sometimes we’re asked why we include flowers in vegetable gardens that are already tight on space. We do it because flowers add to the garden’s beauty as well as its overall health. 

The right flowers will help your garden by attracting pollinating insects, repelling destructive insects, providing a source of food and healing plants, and of course adding beauty and increasing your enjoyment of the garden.

Even though most of our gardens are relatively small and decidedly urban, at Verdura Culinary Gardens we have the same focus most organic farmers do: creating a thriving mini-ecosystem with beneficial interrelationships in each garden. 

Companion planting is an inexact and not always easy-to-define science that essentially involves making constructive use of plant relationships to encourage life and growth. Flowers play an important role in this system. 

Here are some examples of our favorite flowering companion plants and why we value them:

Many heirloom vegetables — non-hybrid squash, for example — rely on pollinators like bees. Without them, the young squash start to form but never reach maturity. Growing flowers that attract pollinators helps ensure a harvest, even during the cooler-than-usual summers we have been having here in the Pacific Northwest.

[%image borage float=left width=300 caption="Borage"]Borage is one of our favorite companion flowers. We plant it near squash as a pollinator, and near tomatoes and strawberries because it enhances flavor and yield. 

Both flowers and leaves are edible; the periwinkle-blue flowers make a gorgeous garnish to a salad (try topping a salad with both nasturtium and borage blossoms). Tea made from borage leaves is known to be helpful for everything from recovering from surgery to soothing insect bites and remedying digestive disturbances. Its leaves are rich in vitamin C, calcium, potassium, and mineral salts. Oh, and apparently it will also cure a hangover! 

Borage can grow vigorously, and not everyone is fond of its rather prickly leaves and habit of self-sowing. We joke that we’ve never had to buy borage seeds after our first year; we just harvest volunteers each spring from various gardens and then transplant them. We usually give the plant a couple of square feet of space in a raised bed and then prune it regularly for shape.

Squash blossoms
Both summer and winter squash, including pumpkins, have an important role in the garden as edible vegetables, of course. But their colorful yellow blossoms are an additional bonus, providing an edible delicacy that at a farmers' market or store is quite expensive, if available at all. 

For more on growing and harvesting squash blossoms, you can link to our archived newsletter from August 2010, featuring these edible beauties. 

Almost everyone knows that these cheerful annuals are good for a garden. But why? Turns out they’re very hardworking pest deterrents. They help control aphids, nematodes, cabbage loopers, Mexican bean beetles, and cabbage worms. 

[%image marigolds float=right width=300 caption="Marigolds"]Inexpensive, colorful, and easy to grow, marigolds have a tidy growth habit and are easily incorporated into a square garden. They are particularly good companions for tomatoes. Beans and plants in the cabbage family (cabbage, collards, cauliflower, kale, kohlrabi, broccoli, and mustards) are less friendly with marigolds, so to the extent that we can, we plant them in other areas of the garden. Obviously, with small gardens this is not always possible. 

If you grow marigolds, be sure to choose the scented French or Mexican varietals. Unscented marigolds won’t help you — the scent is what repels pests like whiteflies. The roots also exude a substance that kills destructive nematodes, with protection often lasting two or three years beyond the annual planting. 

Our experience with marigolds is somewhat mixed because they attract slugs, which are always an issue around here. As with any plant in the garden, we try them out and use them where they seem to be a success, turning to other remedies when they’re not.

Nasturtiums are excellent companions to radishes and cabbage-family plants, deterring whiteflies, cucumber beetles, squash bugs, and striped pumpkin beetles, and improving the growth and flavor of these plants. 

Nasturtium is also a great “trap” crop for aphids, which it attracts away from other garden plants. We inspect it regularly for tiny black aphids and if our nasturtium does get infested, we just tear out the plant mid-season, taking an entire colony of aphids out of the garden and away from our vegetables. 

[%image alyssum float=right width=300 caption="Sweet alyssum"]Nasturtiums are also lovely in raised-bed frames, spilling over the sides and visually softening the hard edges. The flowers are vibrant and add great visual appeal to a vegetable garden. 

The leaves, flowers and seeds of nasturtiums are all edible. The flowers are a great addition to salads, although we do recommend you dress the salad first, then sprinkle the flowers on top. As with many flowers, they are delicate and wilt easily when they come in contact with acidic dressing.

Sweet alyssum
Some flowers are worth growing just as window dressing, and sweet alyssum certainly qualifies. It does attract bees, but we love it mainly for its delicious scent and low-growing habit. An easy-to-grow annual, alyssum comes in white, various shades of purple, and — just discovered this year at Naomi’s Organic Farm Supply — a stunning bright yellow. Like borage, it self-sows rather freely, so we sometimes manage to grow new plants from last year’s seeds that have sprouted.

We include sunflowers in many of our gardens, usually opting for the dwarf varietals because their smaller stature (2 1/2 to 3 feet tall) is better suited to urban gardens. Sunflowers provide an ongoing supply of cut flowers and help attract desirable insects to the garden. Many insects are attracted to the tall, bright flowers, including bees and other pollinators. The real reason we grow them, though, is simply that they have such great visual appeal: they make us smile.

[%image reference-image float=left width=400 caption="Sunflower"]Sunflowers are good companion plants for cucumbers, improving their growth and productivity. We grow cucumbers on trellises or other vertical supports, so planting three-foot-tall sunflowers in front of or in between cucumbers is an easy way to populate the north edge of the garden with a visually appealing backdrop.

There are countless other flowers worth growing in an urban vegetable garden — dwarf varieties of lavender or echinacea, for example, or edible calendula, a cousin of marigolds. Whether grown for color, nutrition, or pest deterrence, flowers deserve some space in any healthy organic garden.

borage, l

marigolds, l

sunflower, l

alyssum, l

reference-image, l