Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
I am serious about our vegetable garden, and I’ll be first to brag that we can grow most of what we eat. But I’m not so serious that I don’t give enjoyment high priority. And for me, part of that enjoyment is having the garden a beautiful place to spend time.
What better way to make the garden beautiful and entice people to care for it than to have it contain a variety of flowers? I do find healthy vegetable plants and their produce beautiful. But even bright red tomatoes can’t entice me in like a row of multi-color zinnias at the garden’s entrance, red poppies to the side and cosmos beckoning from a back row. I love having flowers in the vegetable garden!
I do understand that some people would not approve of planting flowers in a space designated for food crops. But for those of you who are yearning to incorporate more beauty in your gardens, I have a whole list of great rationalizations. Feel free to use whatever “logic” might work best on your spouse or friends!
First of all, we want to have “beneficials” attracted to our gardens. These include bugs, pollinators and birds. There’s no better way to welcome them than having plenty of pollen and nectar available.
These creatures help our gardens in multiple ways. The first thing that comes to mind is that we need the bees, small flies and butterflies to pollinate our crops. We might as well beckon them in with bright color flowers of different heights growing throughout the garden.
Another reason these species are called “beneficials,” is that they do more good than harm. A ground beetle, “big-eyed bug” or an “assassin bug” may look ugly to our human eyes, but they’re good at keeping the bad bugs at bay. Birds also help keep down the number of crop-eating insects.
Flowers don’t need to cost much at all. Purple cone flowers (Echinacea) and bee-balm (bergamot) are the perennials that stand as sentinels at the end of our garden rows. Most have come as divisions of the first plants which I began from seeds. Poppies and chamomile reseed themselves each year. Other annuals like zinnias and marigolds come from inexpensive seed packages or seeds that I save.
I find that adding flowers to the garden does add a bit of lovely chaos. The cosmos begins to droop over the cabbage while the zinnias begin to sprawl across the path to the tomatoes. However, this too can add strength to our argument! The beneficials in general prefer some shade and ground cover. Don’t cringe when I say that the good guys include insects, snakes, toads, spiders and birds. Over-all, it’s the bad-guys, or crop-eating insects, that prefer clear ground and only full sun.
Here’s another good argument: Many insects that eat our crops like to take short flights from one plant to the next until they’ve pretty much sampled everything. We can confine them by growing an occasional higher row of crops between the short plants.
With the excuse of creating barriers, I plant a “Bee Feed Mix” or “Butterfly and Hummingbird Mix” (Johnny’s Select Seeds) between rows of cabbages and broccoli. I also have “Lemon Queen Sunflower” seeds from Sustainable Seed Company because they are noted for attracting bees and making great flower arrangements. These not only make a formidable barrier, but they shade plants like cabbage that would rather not have the afternoon’s full sun.
“Companion planting” includes putting flowers like marigolds around other plants like tomatoes. They keep insects from harming our crops.
Flowers are also an asset in giving more variety to our gardens. Variety mimics nature and adds resiliency to an environment. Obviously, nature doesn’t plant “mono-crops” and even adds variety with many unwanted weeds. However, the benefit of variety extends into the soil and even improves the food we grow.
Most vitamins and minerals that result in nutritious food are drawn into the plants by their roots. The mediators in this exchange are all the “micro-organisms” that are found in healthy soil. We are aware of the earthworms (of which there are more than 15 types in Ohio alone!), but there are also bacteria, fungi, nematodes, protozoa and mites. These organisms get what they need from the plants’ roots in exchange for giving our plants what they need.
Each type of plant has a unique exchange with these micro-organisms. The more varieties of plants we have, the more diverse and “healthful” our soil is. You can see where this logic is leading. The more varied our crops, the healthier our soil. The healthier our soil, the more “nutrient-dense” our food becomes. Nutrient-dense food gives a body what it needs. Nutritious food is also the most highly-flavored food you will ever eat.
My conclusion is that if a garden has a little extra space, it’s better to fill that space with flowers than to weed bare ground. It’s not too far of a stretch to say I plant flowers so our vegetables are more nutritious and more delicious.
Perhaps we don’t need to rationalize planting flowers at all. The garden is beautiful. I enjoy spending time with all the creatures that are drawn to the flowers. The house is filled with bouquets. Having beauty in our lives seems like a worthy goal in itself.
Photo by Mary Lou Shaw