Arts & Leisure

Ask a master gardener: Why veggie gardens need flowers

IN ADDITION TO adding color and texture, flowers interplanted with vegetables in gardens help attract pollinators.Photo Bonnie Kirn Donahue)

This season, consider incorporating flowers into your vegetable garden.

Flowers can transform vegetable gardens from places of production to places of pleasure. While vegetables have a lovely variety of textures and shades of green, flowers add pops of color, contrast and vibrancy. Not only is this diversity of plant types appealing to humans, but it makes your garden more appealing to insects, some of which can help protect your gardens.

Annual flowers, including yellow marigolds (Tagetes patula ‘Little Hero Yellow’), sweet alyssum (Lobularia maritime) and dill (Anethum graveolens), invite beneficial insects that act as predators to the harmful insects in your garden. Native perennial flowers, such as purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), attract native pollinators and support biodiversity.

Keep in mind when planting perennials in your vegetable garden, you won’t be able to rototill these areas in the spring. One way around this is to consider no-till gardening methods that will allow you to keep perennials in the garden from year to year.

Flowering herbs and edible flowers are another great way to introduce color and culinary uses. Edible flowers can add fantastic color to your garden and your plate.

Some plants to consider are anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum), bachelor’s buttons (Centaurea cyanus), chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile or Matricaria chamomilla), chives (Allium schoenoprasum), dill (Anethum graveolens), lavender (Lavandula angustifolia or L. officinalis), nasturtiums (Tropaeloum majus) and pansies (Viola spp.).

When selecting edible flowers, double check the common and Latin names to make sure these are safe to eat. This Extension resource gives some great pointers: extension.umn.edu/flowers/edible-eflowers.

Flowers also can add drama to your vegetable garden. Sunflowers (Helianthus) tower over vegetable gardens and gardeners, reminding us of our relative places in nature. Dill quickly grows into thin forest-like groves that attract insects, which seem to dance from flower to flower. Amaranth (Amaranthus), an ancient grain of the Americas, grows tall and has vibrant colorful tufts of seedheads.

Planting a row of annual flowers solely for cutting can add color to your garden and your table. Zinnias, for example, are annual powerhouses, available in a variety of colors and sizes. They will happily rebloom over and over, and the flowers last a long time after cutting.

There are a few things to keep in mind when adding flowers to your vegetable beds. First, think about the sun/shade requirements of the flowers you are planting. Plant flowers in areas that will fit these preferences.

Next, if you’re like me and prone to over-planting your gardens in the spring, consider the mature height and width of the flowers and vegetables you plan to commingle. Interplanting marigolds and sweet alyssum with peppers in a small space will result in peppers that tower over and shade these shorter plants and will leave you with few flowers to enjoy or even see.

Finally, for annual flowers such as sweet alyssum and marigolds, be sure to deadhead flowers throughout the summer to encourage more blooms.

We could all use more color in our lives, so why not experiment with one of the many options for adding flowers to your vegetable garden this year?

Bonnie Kirn Donahue is a University of Vermont Extension Master Gardener and landscape designer from central Vermont.

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