Considering how mild this winter has been, I have no excuse for cabin fever. I’ve actually spent several days outdoors pruning and planning. Still, pruning can’t compare with actually digging in the soil. For that I’ve had to content myself with starting some seeds. Right now I’m focusing on finding some annual flowers to grow in my vegetable garden. The vegetable patch is a great place for flowers for a number of reasons, which I go into in this week’s podcast, along with some suggestions.
If you’d like to listen to the podcast right now, just click on the arrow below. You can also find the podcast on iTunes and Stitcher. It’s cleverly called The Gardening the Hudson Valley Podcast! And if you’re the type who likes to read, rather than listen, you’re in luck. Just scroll down past the photo and have at it.
I’m going to bet we’re all in planning mode by now. It hasn’t been much of a winter and despite the brief flirtation with snow this week, I still put my faith in Punxsutawney Phil and an early spring. So I am repeatedly pouring over catalog and photos of last years garden.
One thing I plan on doing more of this year is incorporating flowers into the vegetable garden. It’s not just for beauty or because I’ve run out of space for more plants in the flower borders – which is true, but not the point. There are several really positive reasons to mix things up in the vegetable garden.
1. First is simple old-fashioned biodiversity. Before we started planting things in nice tidy rows of single vegetables, nature took care of this for us. Intermingling plants confuses insects. A row of just cabbages is a landing strip for cabbage moths. But a cabbage surrounded by green onions and some marigolds may go completely undetected.
Interplanting even helps stop the spread of some diseases. Few leaf spots are going to jump from a tomato onto your cosmos plants and spread any further.
Whether or not certain plants actually repel certain insects is still a controversial topic. I don’t see why they wouldn’t. We all have our dislikes. However there are no studies to support this, since it would be very hard to have a control group with all the variables of weather, seasons, soil, etc., not to mention who would fund a study that makes gardeners independent of insecticides? So you might as well experiment and see if anything works for you.
There are whole books on the subject. A couple of my favorites are Great Garden Companions, by Sally Jean Cunningham and Carrots Love Tomatoes, by Louise Riotte. But to get you started with a couple of common insect pests, try planting sage near cabbage, to deter cabbage moths, catmint, to repel colorado potato beetles and squash bugs, and calendula near asparagus to keep away asparagus beetles. Let us know how it goes.
On the flip side, sometimes flowers attract pest insects. In that case, the flowers are used as sacrificial trap crops. Nasturtiums and especially Nicotiana are both adored by aphids. Plant them about 6 ft. from your peppers, tomatoes, or peas and the aphids will be happy to avoid the vegetables and feast on the sacrificial flowers.
2. Secondly, Flowers attract more pollinators. I talked about this on the podcast last summer. Ornamental flowers are a lot flashier than the small flowers of many vegetables, like tomatoes and beans. I don’t want any excuses from visiting insects that they couldn’t find any flowers worth slowing down for.
Of course the flowers you choose should be high in nectar, so the insects are getting the nutrients they need while they work hard for you. And bees especially like flowers in shades of blue, white, or yellow – and luckily so do I. So I let wild violets stay where they pop up and add flowers like larkspur, borage, sweet peas, cosmos, and zinnias. I also let my herbs flower, which seems to attract every buzzing insects in the sky. They descend on mint and oregano like it was a triple fudge cake.
3. Besides confusing some insect pests, flowers attract your garden allies, so called beneficial insects. Like the garden pests, beneficials have their plant preferences too. Plant those favorites and you’ll be inviting helpers into the garden. Flowers from the aster family, which include herbs like dill, coriander, and parsley, are a great place to start.
4. Finally, growing flowers in your vegetable garden is a nice way to have a cutting garden and not have to worry about how it looks. When your flowers for cutting are safely tucked behind the vegetable garden fence, you can snip without the guilt of a flower bed that loos like it got mowed down. They don’t even have to be grown in rows. You can intersperse them throughout the vegetable garden. That way they do double duty.
So bring on the lavender and sunflowers and let some of your herbs flower, too. Make your vegetable garden the envy of your flower borders. It’s a win- win.
Don’t forget to order your seeds and plants soon. There are only 39 days until spring. Yes, I’m still counting. Remember I’ll be at the Capital District Flower Show on Saturday, March 19th, at 3 pm. I’ll be giving a Gardener’s Guide to the Gardens of the Hudson Valley and I’d love to talk with you. Think Spring!