Flowers for the veggie garden
Imagine a winter veggie garden as full of flowers as it is of vegetables?
Broccoli mixed with calendulas, violas bordering the lettuce bed, nasturtiums hugging the base of broad beans, and petunias rubbing shoulders with purple cauliflower. What a picture all these flowers for a veggie garden make, and it is all possible!
Beauty aside, winter flower companions provide food for hard-pressed pollinators and other insects, repel nasties like aphids that prey on brassicas, and can have a good effect on the soil, especially lavender and feverfew. Besides the usual suspects (calendula, pansies, nasturtiums and violas), there are other flower companions that are worth adding to the vegetable garden.
Calendula (Calendula officinalis) is a good companion for broccoli, Brussels sprouts, turnips and celery, as well as tomatoes and beans in warmer, frost-free areas. Calendula flowers for the veggie garden attract beneficial insects, notably ladybirds, lacewings and hover flies, which feed on aphids.
To grow: Like their companion veggies, calendula needs full sun and fertile, well-drained soil. They are compact growers and easy to manage when planted alongside the vegetables.
Catmint (Nepeta mussinii) has aromatic silvery-green foliage that helps to repel insects, while its sprays of mauve flowers attract bees and butterflies. Plant it under kale to keep aphids away, or near cabbages. In frost-free areas it pairs well with tomatoes. Planting a border of catmint will distract the cat from venturing further into the veggie garden.
To grow: It thrives in moist, fertile and friable soil that drains well. It doesn’t mind being trimmed for neatness, and clumps can be divided in spring.
California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) is a good companion plant in gardens with sandy or poor to average soil that drains well. They pair well with root vegetables such as turnips, carrots and beetroot, which have similar requirements. Their main asset is the profusion of orange flowers that attract bees, butterflies and nectar-seeking birds.
To grow: Plant in full sun and provide light to moderate watering. Pull out when they dry out and look untidy. In the right conditions, plants re-seed easily.
Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium) is a pretty, daisy-like flowering herb with strongly aromatic leaves that mask the scent of other crops, like peas and beans, or protect cabbages, spinach and radishes because the taste and smell of the leaves acts as a natural insect repellent. It also enhances the growth of plants around it. A weak infusion of leaves and flowers can be used as a spray for whitefly and spider mites.
To grow: For maximum benefit plant it with lavender. Plants need space, growing 60cm high and 50cm wide, and full sun as they will not grow or flower in shade.
Geraniums (pelargoniums) and scented geraniums both have a role to play. Geraniums are known to repel cabbageworms and are just so colourful. Scented geraniums, by virtue of their aromatic leaves, deter spider mites, leafhoppers and aphids. Plant either as a border or between the vegetables.
To grow: Plant in full sun, in well-drained soil. They don’t like to be over-watered, which makes them a good companion plant in winter when the veggie garden needs less water.
All lavender varieties add to the beauty of the veggie garden, especially when used as a hedge. Its flowers are edible and attract pollinators, while the strongly aromatic foliage deters aphids and masks the scent of other flowering vegetables. Rats and mice don’t like the smell either.
To grow: Plant in friable soil that drains well (not in clay or heavy soil) in full sun to semi-shade. Trim regularly to keep neat and prevent plants from getting woody.
Nasturtiums (Tropaeolum majus) are your sacrificial lamb in the veggie patch. It lures aphids, especially black aphids, away from vegetables such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbages, broad beans and garden beans, turnip greens and celery. Pull out aphidinfested plants, throw them away and sow new seed. The flowers, if they survive, attract beneficial insects that also prey on aphids, and they have a tart, peppery taste that’s good in salads.
To grow: Plant in full sun, in normal soil that drains well. Seeds germinate easily.
Petunia hybrids could do with more acknowledgements for their role as a natural pesticide, especially for brassicas, which thrive when planted alongside them. They deter a variety of pests including cabbage loopers, aphids, the asparagus beetle, leafhoppers and tomato worms. Beans, basil, tomatoes, sweetcorn and peppers also do well when planted close to petunias. Scented varieties will attract bees, butterflies and moths.
To grow: Petunias like full sun and soil that drains well. This is particularly important as they don’t mind the extra water given to the nearby vegetables provided the soil doesn’t become waterlogged.
Violas and pansies
Violas and pansies (hybrids) are appreciated for their abundant, bright edible flowers. They trade solely on their good looks, adding colour to salad crops, Swiss chard, cabbages and kale.
To grow: Plant in full sun, in fertile, well-drained soil. Water regularly and feed once or twice a month to keep up a good supply of flowers.