Flowers in the vegetable garden can improve biodiversity and reduce the incidence of pests. There are plenty of flowers that can be planted throughout the vegetable garden, but here are my six favorite flowers chosen for their ability to support vegetable crops.
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Why Use Flowers in the Vegetable Garden?
Flowers will benefit the vegetable garden most effectively if they are planted among the crops. This technique is used in permaculture gardening because it integrates different aspects of the garden to make the overall ecosystem more biodiverse, efficient, and low maintenance. In permaculture we model our gardens after nature. For example, we rarely see neat rows of plants in a forest. 🙂
Beneficial insects and pollinators are attracted to the flowers and by proxy are encouraged to patrol and weave through the garden. This integration will increase the chance that they will locate pests on your crops and keep things in balance.
Integrating flowers into the vegetable garden differs from other techniques where flowers are planted around the border of vegetable gardens. I love this technique, and I do plant flowers around the border of my vegetable garden, but I’ve found that it isn’t as effective at helping the beneficial insects find pests. Flowers planted only at the border, may encourage beneficial insects to only patrol the border before moving on.
It’s not only the above-ground pests that flowers can help with. The flowers also help maintain a healthy garden ecology by holding the soil in place (less erosion) and by feeding the beneficial soil organisms as their roots die back.
How to Use Flowers in the Vegetable Garden
I like to use annual flowers in the vegetable garden. Although many annual flowers will self-seed in following years, for the most part, each year they can be sown anew within the garden wherever it makes the most sense for that particular year’s arrangement of crops.
Rows of flowers can be alternated with rows of vegetables, or every couple of rows. Sprinkle flower seeds in the spring when the rest of the garden is being planted. Using flowers like this is considered a living mulch. Read more about living mulches here.
How you alternate your flowers and vegetables will depend on many things such as the size of the bed, the crop selection, and the types of flowers you choose. The height of the crops and the flowers, as well as the sun exposure will play a part.
In a 3-foot-wide garden bed, there are typically three rows of crops. Here are some examples for a bed with the long side facing south (northern hemisphere):
Example 1: When the crop is tomatoes, I know it will be the tallest crop in the bed. So I will plant tomatoes along the north side of the bed, with medium-height flowers in the middle, and a shorter crop, like carrots, in the southern-most row.
Example 2: When the crop is lettuce, I have some choices. I will likely plant lettuce in the middle row, with shorter flowers in the southern-most row, and a taller or similarly sized crop behind it on the north side, such as radishes. Or I can plant taller flowers behind it on the north side, with a similarly sized crop in front of it on the south side, such as onions.
6 Flowers for the Vegetable Garden
There are quite a few flowers that can benefit the vegetable garden, but the following are my favorites because they are annuals, which means that I can rearrange them every year to correspond with the crops I intend to grow.
All of these flowers work well in the edible landscape, too. Get more edible landscaping tips here!
These selections are also especially good at attracting beneficial insects, they have a solid root system to hold the soil in place, and they aren’t too tall. All of them are edible, but if you have a ragweed allergy, be cautious of chamomile.
I reserve tall flowers and perennial flowers for the outskirts of the garden.
Wanna know what weeds I let grow in my garden? See my article 5 Weeds You Want in your Garden.
1. Calendula (Calendula Officinalis)
Calendula might just be my favorite annual flower for the vegetable garden, but don’t tell the other flowers!
This annual herb with a cheerful, yellow, daisy-like flower can grow 18-24 inches tall. It exudes a sticky sap that will trap pests like aphids and whiteflies, and keep them off of nearby crops.
It will attract many types of pollinators and beneficial insects like ladybugs, hoverflies, and green lacewings who enjoy not only the flower nectar, but the buffet of their favorite pests.
Calendula can even be grown like a cover crop over the winter to hold the soil in place.
For more information about calendula, see my article 7 Reasons to Grow Calendula.
2. California poppy (Eschscholzia californica)
I started using California poppy in my front yard flower garden because I had recently planted perennials that were going to take a year to establish themselves and develop flowers. In the interim, I sowed California poppy in the empty spaces of the bed, because it is quick to bloom.
I was fascinated by the deep roots of this plant that mine the clay soil, softening it, as well as the bright yellow flowers that tell you when it’s going to rain by closing up. (They also close up at night).
The lacy foliage is a favorite of beneficial insects.
For all of these reasons, I started sowing it in my vegetable garden and enjoyed the beauty and healthy vegetable harvests.
It will grow to about 12 inches.
Photo by Dana via Flickr
3. Chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla or Matricaria recutita)
These cute-as-a-button dainty flowers with their lacy foliage attract pollinators and beneficial insects.
Growing to about 12 inches, chamomile is a prairie plant that has deep roots which dredge up nutrients. When the season is finished, chopping the plant matter back will allow the nutrient-rich plant matter to fertilize the soil.
Would you like to learn more about using flowers to improve the biodiversity of your garden, reduce maintenance, and increase yield?
You’ll find loads of information just like this in my book, The Suburban Micro-Farm.
4. Cilantro (Coriandrum sativum)
It seems everyone has a strong opinion about this herb—either you love it or you hate it.
But whether or not you enjoy eating cilantro, it can still be a useful herb in the garden. Its strong scent will actually repel pests.
As a member of the carrot family, its roots reach deep into the soil, loosening as it goes (nature’s free tilling service!). Read more about the no-till garden here. Also as a member of the carrot family, the flower and lacy foliage attract a wide number of beneficial insects.
Cilantro/Coriander will grow two feet tall. Although this is at the tall end of flowers for the vegetable garden, I find that its upright growth habit allows sunlight to get through to smaller crops around it.
5. Nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus)
Nasturtium is an annual plant that has peppery leaves and flowers. Giving off a strong scent, it repels pests.
Its dense, low growing habit (12-18 inches) makes it an excellent living mulch as it covers the soil underneath crops, and it will feed the soil as it dies back.
The showy flowers and foliage are a favorite in the edible landscape.
6. Sweet alyssum (Lobularia maritima)
Sweet alyssum is a low-growing plant that is popularly grown in landscape borders. It has a pleasant scent. Although there are many colors to choose from, the white flowers will attract the most beneficial insects.
I have never seen so many hoverflies as when I’ve planted sweet alyssum in the garden.
It is effective as a living mulch because its shallow roots hold the soil in place.
My favorite way to grow it is in the edible landscape with Swiss chard. Find out more about this winning edible landscape combination!
What to do at the end of the garden season?
Improve the ecology of your garden by leaving the roots of the flower plants intact. When you’re cleaning up your garden at the end of the season, rather than pulling up the spent plants, cut them at the base.
The plant matter can be chopped and dropped in place to act as a mulch. Roots left intact will decay and feed the soil life, becoming rich soil. For more soil improvement ideas, see my article 7 Ways to Improve Soil Quality.
The following spring, the roots may still be present when you go to plant. No worries, just adjust your planting a little to the left or right to avoid the root. Your row might not be the straightest line, but the plants sown directly next to the root will reap the benefits of the biological activity and richness of the decaying root.
What flowers do you like to plant in your vegetable garden?