Over the years, I’ve worked on and written about many multisensory gardens. Most of what you find written on sensory gardens focuses on flowers and their fragrance, beauty, and feel. It always surprises me how few times vegetable gardens are mentioned. When they are, it’s usually an aside that vegetables satisfy the sense of taste. Seriously? Is that all vegetable gardens provide?
I’ll admit, vegetable garden aficionados can go a little overboard on the glories of the food they grow, but there’s good reason for that. When you’re surrounded by lusciousness, it’s hard not to want more. I probably spend more time in the vegetable patch than anywhere else in my yard and my senses are probably the better for it.
In case you’re racking your brain to come up with all of the 5 senses, here they are: sight, smell, sound, taste, and touch. It doesn’t seem a stretch to see that a vegetable garden is up to the task. I’ll make the case for each of these sensory treats over the next few weeks. Today I’m going to focus on sight.
Granted, if you are not a vegetable lover, perhaps the sight of a blushing tomato or glossy eggplant won’t stir your imagination. Even so, many vegetables are beautiful enough to deserve a place in an ornamental border. Back-lit hot peppers can shine like stained glass. The glossy shells of winter squash are worthy of a centerpiece. And flashy Swiss chard could give any coleus an inferiority complex.
Of course, there is nothing stopping you from including flowers in your vegetable garden. In fact, you’ll have a better yield if there are flowers. The right flowers attract more pollinators and once they’re in the vegetable garden, they will more than likely visit your edible plants, too.
You can grow pretty much any flower in the vegetable garden, but annual flowers give you more flexibility than perennials. It’s a great place to put a cutting garden, since you won’t care as much as that you plants are cut down periodically, the way you would in an open border. But intentionally growing high pollen and nectar flowers in the vegetable garden can keep your garden buzzing.
5 Top Flowers for the Vegetable Garden
❦ Borage – Borage (Borago officinalis) can be a somewhat coarse plant, but once it starts to flower, you forgive it all its shortcomings. The brilliant blue flowers are bee magnets and a delight for those of us who love blue flowers. (Is there someone who doesn’t?) Actually some of the flowers are pink. I’ve read that the 2 colors can be caused by temperature, light exposure, or some other weather condition. I’ve also heard that the flowers turn blue once the flowers have been pollinated. The theory is the blue color signals to pollinators “there’s no more pollen here, move along”, so they will move on to pollinating the remaining flowers. You’ve probably noticed Lungwort (Pulmonaria) does this too. They happen to be in the same family as borage.
The leaves and flowers of borage are edible and have the flavor of cucumbers. The leaves get scratchy and tough as the plant matures, giving them an unpleasant texture for eating, but the flowers are great additions to salads, side dishes, and even drinks.
Borage self-sows, but not aggressively so. I find seedlings popping up shortly after the first flowers fade and throughout the season. You should also see volunteers the following year. I don’t count on that, though. I start a few plants indoors, to get an early start, and direct sow seeds a couple of weeks after my last frost date.
❦ Calendula – I spent years trying to find seed for pot marigolds. This was before everything was at our fingertips, on the web. Pot marigolds were one of those “British” gardening things that never made it to the seed racks at my local Agway. Thankfully, I was not alone in seeking them out and now you can find seed for them in assorted colors. So if you don’t like bright orange, don’t turn away. You have options.
Pot marigolds, or Calendula, (Calendula officinalis) are not actually marigolds. They are in the daisy family. My original interest in them was because they are edible flowers, but I was disappointed to find they have a distinctly bitter flavor. Taste varies, so try them for yourself.
The reason I’m including them here is that they offer some pest control, deterring asparagus beetles, tomato hornworms and a few other pests. The downside is that they can also attract aphids, but wouldn’t you rather they cluster around your flowers than your lettuce? You can always pull the flowers and dispose of the aphids.
❦ Cosmos – One of my favorite plants for the vegetable garden is cosmos (Cosmos bipinnatus). This annual is one of the easiest flowers to grow from seed. Direct sowing is best. Once you have them, you will always have them. Cosmos are not edible, just beautiful and practical. Besides being virtually no maintenance, they attract both bees and green lacewings. Bees boost pollination and therefore, productivity. Lacewings slurp up all manner of soft-bodied insect pests, like aphids, scale, and thrips. All that goodness from a $2 packet of seeds. Some of my favorites are ‘Bright Lights’, ‘Cosmic Orange’, ‘Psycho White’, and the ‘Ladybird’ series.
❦ Nasturtiums – Here’s another edible flower / pest control treasure. There are mounding nasturtiums (Tropaeolum majus) and others that trail. They’re all charming. Once again, it’s best to direct sow your nasturtiums. They have a large, hard seed. Soaking them overnight, before planting, improves germination. They can bide their time before blooming, but they really perk up in cool fall temperatures, so once they start blooming, expect to see them until frost.
Nasturtiums offer some protection from squash bugs and squash beetles, but I wouldn’t bet the crop on them. They also attract aphids and many gardeners use them as a trap crop, to deter them from their vegetable plants. I haven’t really noticed much aphid activity on my plants.
❦ Sweet Peas – These are not the easiest vines to grow in our area. They need to get established in cool weather, and our cool season is often either too damp or too brief. I start my seeds in paper pots a few weeks before the last frost date, usually in early April. I move them outdoors when they are about 5 – 6 inches tall, planting pot and all.
I have a good amount of wildlife waking up in my backyard and I suspect most of you do too. Sweet peas (Lathyrus odoratus) don’t last long out in the open and I’m tired of losing them to a quick snack. I finally wised up and moved them to the cloistered vegetable garden where they more than earn their keep. I plant them with my pole beans, so they don’t take up any extra room. Although I still use them as cut flowers, they are on the vines long enough to attract more bees. They don’t look too shabby, either.
So if anyone is still under the impression that vegetable gardens are boring rows of manured, flea bitten, ragged-leaved plants, show them how inviting your vegetable garden can actually be. It’s time we included the vegetable garden on our garden tours.