In the 1970s, when I was a budding landscape designer newly exciting about strategizing the best flowers to plant with vegetables, I attended the garden opening of one of my clients. As I walked around anonymously, wine glass in hand, I overheard many guests exclaiming, “Do you see that? She put flowers in the vegetable garden!”
In the United States, segregating vegetables from flowers still seems like such a hard-and-fast rule that when I lecture on edible landscaping, one of the first things I mention is that I’ve checked the Constitution, and planting flowers in a vegetable garden is not forbidden. Not only can you put flowers in with vegetables, you should.
I admit that, in the ’70s, I first intermixed my flowers and vegetables because I was gardening in the front yard of my suburban home and hoped the neighbors wouldn’t notice or complain as long as the veggies were surrounded by flowers. Soon, however, I discovered I had fewer pest problems, I saw more and more birds, and my crops were thriving.
It turns out that flowers are an essential ingredient in establishing a healthy garden because they attract beneficial insects and birds, which control pests and pollinate crops. Most gardeners understand this on some level. They may even know that pollen and nectar are food for insects, and that seed heads provide food for birds. What some may not realize is just how many of our wild meadows and native plants have disappeared under acres of lawn, inedible shrubs and industrial agriculture’s fields of monocultures, leaving fewer food sources for beneficial critters. With bees and other pollinators under a chemical siege these days and their populations in drastic decline, offering chemical-free food sources and safe havens is crucial. Plus, giving beneficial insects supplemental food sources of pollen and nectar throughout the season means they’ll stick around for when pests show up.
One of the cornerstones of edible landscaping is that gardens should be beautiful as well as bountiful. Mixing flowers and vegetables so that both are an integral part of the garden’s design is another key. Let’s say you have a shady backyard, so you decide to put a vegetable garden in the sunny front yard. Many folks would install a rectangular bed or wooden boxes, and plant long rows of vegetables, maybe placing a few marigolds in the corners, or planting a separate flower border. In either case, the gardener will have added plants offering a bit of much-needed pollen and nectar.
Integrating an abundance of flowers among the vegetables, however, would impart visual grace while also helping beneficial insects accomplish more. Plentiful food sources will allow the insects to healthily reproduce. Plus, most of their larvae have limited mobility. For example, if a female lady beetle or green lacewing lays her eggs next to the aphids on your violas, the slow-moving, carnivorous larvae won’t be able to easily crawl all the way across the yard to also help manage the aphids chowing down on your broccoli.
In addition to bringing in more “good guys” to munch pests, flowers will give you more control because they can act as a useful barrier — a physical barrier as opposed to the chemical barriers created in non-organic systems. The hornworms on your tomato plant, for instance, won’t readily migrate to a neighboring tomato plant if there’s a tall, “stinky” marigold blocking the way.
To begin establishing your edible landscape, you should plant flowers with a variety of colors and textures, different sizes and shapes, and an overall appealing aesthetic. After you’ve shed the notion that flowers and vegetables must be separated, a surprising number of crop-and-flower combinations will naturally emerge, especially if you keep in mind the following six guidelines.
1. Stagger sizes. Pay attention to the eventual height and width of each flower and food plant (check seed packets and nursery tags), and place them accordingly. Tall plants, for the most part, belong in back. They’ll still be visible, but they won’t block the smaller plants from view or from sunshine. A good rule is to put the taller plants on the north and east sides of your garden, and the shorter ones on the south and west sides.
2. Consider proportions. A 6-foot-tall sunflower planted next to an 18-inch-tall cabbage would look lopsided. Instead, place plants of graduated heights from tallest to shortest so your eye will travel naturally from one location to the next.
3. Experiment with complementary colors. Use the hues of your edibles — red tomatoes and peppers, yellow squash flowers, purple cabbage and basil — as a starting point. Look for flowers that will highlight those shades, such as bright yellows or soft purples, or choose a hue on the opposite side of the color wheel to provide an unexpected pop. For foliage, experiment with different shades of green to give your landscape more depth.
4. Play with textures and shapes. Pair a sprawling squash with more upright basils. Partner thick-leaved plants with those that don delicate leaves. Surround a straight-edged tipi of runner beans with a bed of rounded dwarf marigolds.
5. Plant for all seasons. Grow plants with a range of different blooming times so something will always be in flower from early spring to late fall. Not only will this mean a feast of colors to enjoy all year, but, more importantly, it will yield a steady source of pollen and nectar for beneficial insects.
6. View your garden holistically. An ideal landscape draws you in with its diversity, and also with repeating elements, whether those elements are plants, shapes, types of containers or beds, colors, or textures. Browse gardening magazines, books and websites for landscapes you like, and substitute some of your favorite edibles for some of the ornamentals. An article on foliage plants might show a container of ornamental coleus, and that same composition may work just as well if you swap in some crimson chard or curly, chartreuse kale. A feature on flowering vines might inspire you to add scarlet runner beans to the mix.
Choosing the right flowers for your space is at once simple and complex. It’s simple because there’s a lot of research out there about flowers that attract birds, bees, butterflies and beneficial insects. It’s complex because dozens of flowers appear on those lists, and pinpointing the ones that will work best in your climate and with your vegetables and your overall garden design may take some time.
Keep in mind that different insects are attracted to different flower characteristics, such as color, scent and blossom shape. The more diverse range of flowers you offer them, the more diverse the insect population in your garden will be. Try some plants in the daisy (Asteraceae) family, such as black-eyed Susans, coneflowers, cosmos, marigolds, sunflowers and zinnias. Also consider the parsley (Apiaceae) family, especially carrots, cilantro, dill and parsley; the mustard (Brassicaceae) family, including nasturtiums and sweet alyssum; and the mint (Lamiaceae) family, with basil, sage, Victoria salvia and, of course, mint. For a much more comprehensive list of insect-coaxing flowers, see The Best Plants to Attract Beneficial Insects and Bees.
Plants native to your area will naturally attract the insects and birds vital to your ecosystem, so seek out native plants. Try heirloom flowers, too, as they’re often packed with nectar and pollen, and some are wonderfully fragrant. If choosing modern hybrids, look for varieties with those same characteristics. For more flower choices, see 10 of the Best Flowers to Plant with Vegetables.
After you’ve enticed plenty of beneficial insects and birds to your garden, you’ll want to keep them there. To do so, first place shallow water sources, such as small birdbaths, around your garden. Second, allow flowers to grow and spread to provide shelter. Third, don’t be too quick to clean things up. Let a few of your herbs, such as basil and parsley, and vegetables, such as broccoli and lettuce, mature to their flowering stage to attract insects. Finally, trust nature to keep things in balance rather than jumping in with controls and chemicals. Be patient, allowing the interactions among flowers, insects and crops time to play out.
I’d like to say that I had an “Aha!” moment when I realized how effectively and elegantly all of this worked. Actually, though, it took a while before I finally understood that, when it comes to flora, what we compartmentalize as “edible” and “ornamental” are in fact an interconnected system, and if you take out the flowers, you’ve removed a critical part. Growing flowers and vegetables together isn’t just a pleasing way to garden — it’s an essential way to garden.
I usually choose heirloom annuals because they’re versatile and add substance and height to my plantings. Many popular modern flower varieties are short, so they only work well in front of a border. Plus, some modern varieties — sunflowers, for example — have actually been bred for decreased pollen production so they won’t shed on your tablecloth. (What a terrible breeding project, from the bees’ perspective!) While heirloom flowers tend to work wonderfully in edible landscapes, they’re not always conveniently available at the nearest big-box store. Thankfully, several mail-order sources offer heirloom varieties (see Flower Seed Sources), and these plants are usually easy to grow from seed.
So where should you start? After 40-plus years of creating and evaluating edible landscaping combos, I recommend these common flowering plants that provide pollen and nectar for beneficials, plus a few suggested edible companions for each.
Alyssum. These plants spread along the ground and produce hundreds of tiny flowers that bloom all season. Combine the purple and pink varieties with eggplants and purple varieties of basil, bush beans, lettuce and sprouting broccoli. The white varieties will give a frilly setting for stiff, dark kales, chards, bok choys and red-leafed beets, and fill in nicely between chives, leeks, onions and shallots.
Calendulas. Orange, yellow and apricot calendula flowers brighten cool-season vegetable beds filled with beets, broccoli, bush peas, cabbage, carrots, collards, lettuce, kale and parsnips. The tall heirloom varieties grow to 18 inches and are less prone to mildew than the 6-inch dwarf varieties. Bonus: You can save calendula petals for use in teas and natural body care products.
Coreopsis. This endearing plant is a perennial native to the North American prairie that furnishes a seasonful of sunny yellow flowers held well above its foliage. I give these flowering plants a permanent home near the edge of trellises built for beans, cucumbers and tomatoes. Again, I gravitate toward the tall, native variety sold as Coreopsis grandiflora, which I typically stake. The shorter varieties work well in small areas near basil, endive, eggplants, kale, peppers and other short edibles.
Cosmos. There are two common types of cosmos: Cosmos bipinnatus, the familiar pink and white varieties, such as the old-time ‘Sensation’ mix, and C. sulphureus, which comes in orange, red and yellow. Both attract beneficials and, if you let the flowers go to seed, flocks of yellow finches. I combine the 4-foot-tall ‘Sensation’ cosmos with artichokes and cardoons, and plant the 2- to 3-foot-tall sulphureus varieties, such as ‘Diablo,’ in front of tomatoes and okra, and next to trellises of cucumbers and beans.
Echinacea. A native plant prized for its healing properties and a favorite with bees, this perennial forms clumps of upright leaves and pink-purple, daisy-like blooms off and on all summer. The plant can grow to 4 feet tall and comes in numerous varieties. I plant echinacea at the end of mixed vegetable-and-herb beds, and combine the plants with tall herbs, such as dill, fennel, lovage and sage.
Marigolds. These annual flowers come in shades of yellow, orange and reddish-brown, and bloom from spring through fall. The tall, older varieties grow to 4 feet, and I use these in front of a trellis full of tomatoes, beans, cucumbers and other climbers. The dwarf marigold varieties range from 6 to 18 inches, and these are ideal for creating a compact flowering hedge to border a bed of bush beans or peppers, for interspersing among kale and other greens, and for surrounding a squash plant or two. My favorite dwarf marigolds are the ‘Gem’ series, which have fine, citrus-smelling foliage and small edible flowers.
Sage. The stately sages, such as ‘Victoria’ and other non-edible natives, bear spikes of either red or blue flowers that are especially enticing to bees and hummingbirds. Varieties range from 18 inches to 3 feet tall. While some are perennial, some native sages common to home gardens are often treated as annuals. Interplant them with okra, tall pepper varieties and shorter tomato varieties.
Sunflowers. These cheerful, towering plants attract many beneficials and several varieties offer edible seeds for you, too. Some varieties reach 8 feet and pair well with a patch of corn or behind a planting of large winter squash. The dwarf varieties can be used behind large zucchini plants or a bed of bush beans or soybeans. When choosing varieties, skip any that have been bred to produce little or no pollen.
Violas. You can really paint your garden with this family of edible, cool-season annual flowers. Violas come in a pleasing palette of purples, blues and yellows, and their whiskered, up-facing, flat blooms make perfect fillers among members of the cabbage family. They can also accent a geometric bed of lettuces and shine in colorful containers.
Zinnias. Butterflies adore the blooms of this family of annual flowers, which come in an array of sizes and colors, making them suitable for almost any vegetable combination. Try the dwarf ‘Mexican’ varieties in a bed of chiles, and pair the tall, pastel varieties with artichokes, Brussels sprouts or fennel. Edge a planting of edamame with a mix of dwarf zinnias, and combine these petite varieties in a large container with a mix of basil plants.
Map out your garden with effective edible-landscaping combos using our Grow Planner app, which we’ve just released in an updated version with a sleek, new design. This app, now available for iPhone and iPad, puts growing guides, crop spacing requirements, planting dates for your exact location, and more planning tools right at your fingertips.
Ros Creasy has been cultivating stunning plant combos for 40 years. She coined the term “edible landscaping,” which is now common lingo in the gardening world, and even penned the book Edible Landscaping.
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