My gardening experiences do not include lots of flower growing. Before this year, I can think of two instances where I deliberately grew flowers: in high school I planted a bed of bachelor buttons in my mom’s garden, and two years ago when I grew my wedding flowers at both friends houses and the apartment garden.
I didn’t avoid planting flowers, it just wasn’t a priority. In the apartment, space was a premium and I didn’t see the reasoning on growing a flower when instead I could grow something to eat. We had a handful of perennials like lavender and salvias, and I always allowed my herbs to flower, so I figured that was enough to keep the bees happy. In summer, there was inevitably a sunflower or two that sprouted under the bird feeder.
But this year, I had a change of heart, and included lots of flowers in my garden plan. Perhaps it is a combination of having more space and the ability to grow zinnias without sacrificing a food crop, or that we don’t have many flowering perennials put in yet and I wanted the bees to have something, but really I think my new dedication to the colorful blooms is because I’ve learned how important they are. What I previously saw as frivolous and a “waste of space”, I’ve learned flowers are crucial to not only bees, but other beneficial bugs as well. They create more biodiversity in the garden, plus, they make me happy!
On one of my regular library adventures, I came across a great book, Great Gardening Companions, by Sally Cunningham, which discussed companion plantings. Unlike my other companion planting book that I had, Carrots Love Tomatoes, by Louise Riotte, Sally’s book focused more on pairing veggies with flowering plants. The concept of companion planting is pretty simple: its a method of planting that keeps the garden healthy and thriving, naturally. A mix of gardening fact and folklore, it advocates growing certain plants together for their mutual benefit. Both books are great for learning about planting arrangements, but if you are interested in pairings with flowers to both assist in plant growth and attracting beneficial bugs, Sally’s book is great.
If you are wanting to add more flowers to your garden, the first thing to think about is having season-long blooming. Having something in flower all months keeps the beneficials happy, and color in the garden year round. I hope to keep bees soon, and this is crucial to make sure that there is food available for them. The first things to bloom in my yard are the herbs like sage and thyme, and the winter veggies that have gone to seed, like arugula and broccoli. In late spring and summer, the garden is awash in color with both veggies flowering and the summer flowers like zinnias. In the fall, hopefully the later planted sunflowers will be in bloom, as well as my cosmos and zinnias that bloom for a long time. Make sure to also keep flowers in different plant families, starting with the Asters. This family draws the widest range of beneficial bugs and keeps many different ones happy.
In my garden, the mass of my flower planting is located at the base of my fruit trees. When we planted the trees as bare root in winter, we placed the trees on mounds to keep above flood level. In spring, we expanded the mounds with layers of dead sticks, horse manure, and compost. In that, I scattered flower seeds and planted a handful of perennials that are commonly found in permaculture fruit tree guilds. In my veggie beds, I have flowers planted on the corners or within the veggie rows.
One of the most colorful plant blooming right now is the nasturtiums. These brightly colored vining plants can deter white flies, squash bugs, and cabbage moths. Because of their rambling growth style, they act as a living mulch, which helps keep weeds at bay and moister in the ground. They also can act as a trap crop for aphids, meaning that the aphids are attached to it instead of your food crops. I have nasturtiums planted under my fruit trees, in my squash rows, and pretty much every corner of my beds. As an annual, they easily re-seeds, so once you get them going, you will have them for a long time. However, they are easy to pull out if they appear in a spot you don’t want. The flowers are edible, as are the seeds.
Cosmos are another great companion flower. Easy to grow, these blooms are in the Asteraceae family. Plants in this family attract beneficial bugs like honeybees, but also the bugs with small mouthparts that may not be able to feed on other plants, such as parasitic wasps. This is one of the single best families of flowers to plant in your garden. I have cosmos planted under the fruit trees, amongst the peppers and eggplants, and in the asparagus bed.
The zinnias under the fruit trees have just started to bloom, and I have them mixed with the cosmos in the other beds. These brightly colored blooms are long lasting and come in a variety of colors and heights. Also in the Aster family, they attract ladybugs, parasitic wasps, parasitic flies and honey bees. The white sweet alyssum, from the Brassicaceae family, carpets any bare spots of the fruit tree mounds, where it acts as a ground cover and attracts and shelters ground beetles and spiders.
Borage is one of my favorite plants, and technically considered an herb. The star shaped purple flowers are edible, and the bees absolutely love them. Mine are planted under the fruit trees, but they also do great among strawberries. These plants easily re-seed, so once they are planted, you’ll always have them- somewhere in the yard! Thankfully they are not hard to pull, so if they decide the middle of the walkway is the best place to grow, removing the plant is not a challenge.
Like all the other flowers in my garden, calendula are easy to grow. If planted in the fall, these are one of the first to bloom, and also easily reseed. They grow anywhere and everywhere, and not at all fussy. I have most of my calendulas growing in my salad bed- mixed in with the peas, lettuce and carrots but they are also nice companion for those plants in the cabbage family. Calendula flowers are edible, and add a fun splash to salads. They are a powerful herb, and can be used both topically and internally. Calendula promotes cell repair in wounds, is antiseptic and anti-inflammatory, and helps keep infections at bay. In the garden, these yellow and orange blooms attract a wide range of beneficial bugs, but I find itty bitty native bees, covered in pollen, in most of mine.
Sunflowers are the shinning star of summer flowers! These pollen covered disks that pivot their heads to follow the sun make me happy! As taller plants, these are good paired with larger veggies, like corn or beans. I have them planted among the squash rows, where their stems can acts a pole for the pumpkin’s tendrils to climb up. Also in the Aster family, I find sunflowers to bloom all season long, and the bees love them. Hoverflies, lacewings, parasitic wasps and machined flies are also attracted to these flowers. I find that they also act as a trap crop for aphids.
Also growing in my fruit tree mounds are a variety of poppies. These native flowers are drought tolerant, and add great early color to the yard. I just love these ones with a reddish shade!
Marigolds may be the poster flower-child for companion planting. Long touted as a prevention of nematodes (a microscopic worm-like organism- most are good, but some are parasitic), they seem to be recommended as a companion plant for almost all crops. However, I once read an article that debunked this, claiming that so many marigolds would have to be planted to be effective, there simply wouldn’t be a space for the crop. A better way to use marigolds to treat nematode issues is to plant them as a cover crop and till under. Regardless, they are a bright sunny spot to tuck in the garden beds, so I have them scattered throughout the veggie beds, primarily in the melon row, and the tomato and basil bed. They attract overflies and parasitic wasps, and are thought to repel bean beetles.
Most of the flowers in my garden right now are annuals. Some, like the calendula, sweet alyssum and borage, will easily reseed and I’ll have them again next year. Most will get pulled out when they are done flowering. Hopefully by next year, I’ll have more perennial plants in place, so I can have regular flowers and the benefits with little effort. Right now, one of the perennials that has a place in my yard is lavender. I love lavender, as do the bees. I want to have lavender on the corner of all my beds, but I’m not quite set up yet for it. So I didn’t plan on putting any in this year, but when women on Freecycle was doing a re-landscaping project and giving away huge bushes of Provence lavender, I dug up as many as would fit in my car, 4 bushes, and transplanted them back into my garden. Only 2 of them made it, but I’m enjoying the blooms that started to come in this week.
Another perennial in full bloom is the cat mint. Not to be confused with cat nip, cat mint is a low growing bush that gets lavender colored flowers on it. The bees love it as well.
Another flower that I have planted but haven’t started to bloom yet are bachelor buttons, which attract many different beneficials. I should see more nasturtiums, zinnias, cosmos, marigolds and sunflowers bloom throughout the summer.
But my favorite flower in the yard right now? Sweet peas. By plant standards, they are pretty useless as they are not edible and the bees don’t seem to like them. But they smell great! I’ve been bringing in bouquets for the table for the past few weeks. Its important to garden for the bees and the bugs, but also for yourself!
And another important companion plant for the garden- catnip! Every garden should include a happy cat! Gaia and Bacon don’t seem to care, but Gale is a catnip fiend! I grow mine under a wire basket, this one from the bottom tier of a hanging fruit basket, so her enthusiastic rubbing doesn’t uproot the plant (trial and error and many newly planted starts taught me that…)