Why flowers are your vegetable plants’ best friends

I love a good list. As a serial planner, the idea of being spontaneous never crosses my mind. That includes my gardening regimen. And now is the time of the year when I get to organize and plant my spring veggie garden.

Over the years, I have learned, as many of you have, that by incorporating flowers into my edible grow space, I have yielded better results for both myself and the environment.

I accomplish this by making plant selections and their placement as the guiding star of my garden plan. By capitalizing on a plant’s strengths and understanding its weaknesses, I can create a smarter use of space. In turn, the plants work synergistically as a team for the maximum outcome. Those colorful and sometimes fragrant blooms that flowers offer can be in service to our vegetable plants which in turn, improves the quality and quantity of the bounty.

Flower power is multidimensional. From the onset, blooms, as we know, invite pollinators to peruse the space. Bedazzled by colors, romanced with fragrances, and hypnotized by pheromones, these winged heroes dance their way to the sweet nectar locations. The pollen that attaches to their bodies is transferred to other blooming plants and that is what facilitates pollination.

For example, my cucumber, zucchini, and squash plants expose yellow morning flowers that need pollination to set fruit. By having a trove of marigolds and salvia nearby, bees easily find my vegetable’s welcoming petals. I compare that to shopping at the store for that one item but as you wait in the checkout line, there are a few other must-haves to investigate further. And by allowing flowers to remain in place or transform into seeds, pollinators are offered a critical food source in the late summer/early fall months. If not for them, your next season’s seed supply can be filled by both the edibles and ornamentals you have grown from the start.

Flowers can also double as a sacrificial crop in the vegetable bed. Planting sunflowers next to my tomatoes often lures the dreadful cutworm off my fruit in exchange for the foliage and stems of the flowering plant. Same for the white cabbage caterpillar/Pieris rapae to my nearby nasturtiums. Nasturtiums/ Tropaeolum majus must be the most diverse and essential flower that everyone can add to their food garden. The entire plant is edible, proffering blooms and leaves for tossed salads and seeds that can dry out to make a peppery pesto. And both the flowers and leaves are loaded with antioxidants and other nutrients like vitamin C.

Adding nasturtiums to your vegetable bed can add real value and promote a healthy growing environment.

Adding nasturtiums to your vegetable bed can add real value and promote a healthy growing environment.

And the many varieties and additional benefits do not end there. Some flowering herbs in our veggie patch have secondary benefits; nasturtiums boost the immune system, calendula for skin care and chamomile for tea. All three of these plant varieties can double as a groundcover in lieu of organic mulch options that keep moisture in and help block weeds out. Not to be outdone are scented geraniums that can also be used in this manner if planted early in the year. For more information about how to grow geraniums, visit https://gardeningsolutions.ifas.ufl.edu/plants/ornamentals/geraniums.html.

As your vegetables and flowers begin to mature, more than just the helpful pollinators make an appearance. The new growth also entices aphids, scale and other harmful pests to the garden.

Taking a pass on spraying your crops with pesticides can be rewarded with a little patience and the natural arrival of beneficial predator insects. Bug gems like ladybugs/ Coccinellidae (or ladybirds for our UK friends), parasitic wasps, spiders, ground beetles and hoverflies, will show up to eat the bad guys. These beneficial predators will keep the populations in balance, which means less work for you. If you don’t believe me, read a bit more from the UF IFAS experts at https://blogs.ifas.ufl.edu/orangeco/2020/06/04/using-insectary-plants-to-attract-pest-predators/

The average scoop of Florida dirt lacks nutrients forcing us to introduce amendments that will convert to rich soil. Plants that belong to the Legumes (beans) and Pea flowering families are heavily loaded with nitrogen. The bacteria in the soil, which is called rhibozia, draws nitrogen from the air and pulls it into the plant structure. At the end of your harvest, tilling these plants back into the soil (or relocated to a compost bin) is like adding a bag of natural fertilizer but at no cost.

Then there is the most obvious reason for adding flowers to your edible bed: they are aesthetically pleasing and sometimes fragrant enough to lift your mood. Cut flowers such as Gerber daisies/Gerbera jamesonii, Zinnias, Gaillardia and Caladiums, can be offered as gifts both fresh and dried.

Growing a food garden without flowers is an uphill battle. If you want fruit and vegetables, you need flowers too! If you love flowers and food but prefer to venture outside the proverbial vegetable raised bed or crop, check out this link, a guide to North Florida edible plants: https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/publication/EP618.

After figuring out what plants you would like to add to your landscape, check out the annual Duval County master gardener plant sale at the end of March. Visit this link for the details: https://www.facebook.com/reel/1528675314364255.

Candace Barone is a Master Gardener Volunteer with the Duval County Extension Service and the University of Florida/IFAS. For gardening questions, call the Duval County Extension Office at (904) 255-7450 from 9 a.m. to noon and 12:30 to 3:30 p.m. Monday-Friday and ask for a Master Gardener Volunteer.

This article originally appeared on Florida Times-Union: Why you need flowers in your vegetable garden

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