The perfect companion

March 1, 2019 | By More

Photo by Jill McSheehy

I mingled among the women, waiting to begin my “How to Start a Garden” workshop. On the cusp of spring, I delighted to hear of garden dreams for the upcoming year. The early arrivals peppered me with basic questions: “When should I plant tomatoes outside?” “Should I plant squash from seed or buy a plant?”

Then a question came concerning flowers. My hands immediately drew up like two stop signs between this woman and me. “I don’t know anything about flowers,” I said. Detecting a flash of confusion cross her face, I rushed to explain myself with an injection of humor. “If we can’t eat it, what’s the point?”

Though an exaggerated sentiment, I communicated my true feelings on the matter. In the quest to save money on groceries and provide healthier food for my family, flowers were hardly a priority in my garden.

I grew up in a world where food belonged in the backyard vegetable garden and flowers decorated the exterior of the house — and never the two shall meet. Though I could not deny the beauty of flowers — my mother, in fact, grew the most beautiful flowers in the neighborhood — they just didn’t fit my purpose for gardening.

Until they did.

The more I pursued organic food gardening, the more I found flowers rising to the top as a legitimate pest-control strategy. Having tossed the bottle of Sevin dust out of my garden long ago, I had begun to observe a beautiful transformation in my garden.
A variety of unique insects frequented the flowers of peas, beans, tomatoes, and okra, as well as the flower clusters of bolting onions, broccoli, lettuce, radishes, and carrots. At the same time, the previously pernicious pests like aphids, Colorado potato beetles, and squash bugs declined in population each year — and now rarely even spotted.

My garden research and garden observations coalesced into a thought pattern I pursued further. If the flowers from my vegetables attracted beneficial insects that preyed on destructive pests, could more flowers draw even more of them? Dare I hope for a similar decline in cabbage worms, Japanese beetles, and the tomato hornworm?

In 2018 I planted more sunflowers and marigolds, and I added flowers like zinnias and cosmos. By incorporating just those few flowers and by letting bolting onions, lettuce, and radishes form flowers, I observed an increased population of lacewings, syrphid flies, ladybugs, parasitic wasps, and bees.

As it turns out, flower gardening and vegetable gardening do not have to be mutually exclusive. In fact, they shouldn’t be. By bringing the beauty of flowers into the vegetable garden, we create a habitat for the “good bugs” while harvesting vegetables unmarred by dangerous pesticides.

If you want to transition to organic gardening or simply bring more beauty to your vegetable garden, here are three steps to begin adding flowers to the space once reserved solely for edibles. If a flower-adverse gardener like me can do it, anyone can.

  1. Stop using chemical pesticides. If you want to use flowers to attract beneficial insects to your vegetable garden, you want to rid your garden of the chemicals that can harm them. Even organic and homemade options can kill our insect friends. Look for less-invasive methods like handpicking or floating row covers, and if you must apply organic pest control methods, read the instructions carefully and apply at times when beneficial insects are less active.
  2. Start with flowers that many beneficial insects love. Great options include sunflowers, cosmos, and alyssum. Any flower with small clusters attracts minute beneficial insects that work for you without you even realizing it. Nasturtium is another fantastic option, as it often attracts the harmful insects away from your prized vegetables and to it instead.
  3. Aim for diversity. The more varieties of flowers you can incorporate in your vegetable garden, the more variety you’ll observe in beneficial insects. As you gain experience, take note of bloom times and plan to plant flowers that bloom at varying times of the year, from spring through autumn.

As you begin to let flowers migrate from your home to your vegetable garden, you’ll notice more than beauty. Walk your garden frequently, taking note of new insects you observe on the flowers. Although the transition to a healthy, active, natural ecosystem in your garden will not take place overnight, over time you’ll notice the difference.

And you’ll wonder why your flower garden and your vegetable garden didn’t meet a long time ago.

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Category: Journey with Jill in the Garden

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