Why you should plant flowers in your vegetable garden

Pink zinnias growing beside tomato and squash plants. | Photo by Bob Schamerhorn

Vegetable gardens are often arranged in orderly rows, where staked tomatoes are carefully spaced beside straight lines of cucumber and carrot plants. Each vegetable has its assigned place. And because of this traditional design, it may not even occur to some gardeners to throw a few flowers — edible or otherwise — into the mix.

Yet flowers, planted throughout or near a vegetable garden, can be beneficial in several ways.

“Basically, it’s the company that flowers keep. Flowers attract pollinators and beneficial insects. That’s the bottom line,” said Lisa Mason Ziegler, author of the 2018 book Vegetables Love Flowers: Companion Planting for Beauty and Bounty.

Pollinators are animals — often insects, but not always — that move pollen from one part of a flower to another, fertilizing it. Without this process, many plants can’t make fruit or seeds.

While many edible plants, such as tomatoes, are self-pollinating, there are also many pollinator-reliant crops, including onions, berries, melons, pumpkins, squash, zucchini and cucumbers.

In addition to attracting more pollinators to your vegetable garden, flowers can attract insects that can aid in pest control, such as ladybugs, spiders, ground beetles and predatory wasps.

But that’s not all.

Flowers can also make your vegetable patch more aesthetically pleasing, according to Erin Schanen, a gardener from southeastern Wisconsin who writes about her experiences in her blog, The Impatient Gardener.

“It helps make the vegetable garden a really nice place to be,” said Schanen of adding flowers and herbs in with her vegetables. “When I first started growing vegetables, which was 15 years ago now, I just assumed that things needed to be in these really distinct rows and everything had their area. But there’s no reason you have to plant like that. Now I try to grow a mix of things. I try to make it really pretty.”

Types of flowers to grow with vegetables

When it comes to selecting what flowers to grow with vegetables, Ziegler steers away from listing specific species or varieties because she worries that a list might discourage some gardeners who can’t find those specific plants at local nurseries.

“All flowers can be beneficial to vegetables,” Ziegler said. “Really you can grow any flower. The key is providing blooms from early spring consistently all through the season up until frost.”

Though a wide variety of flowers can attract pollinators and beneficial insects, when growing flowers in vegetable beds, both Schanen and Ziegler tend to select annual varieties because they die off each winter — like vegetables — leaving the garden a fresh slate for the spring. In addition, many types of annual flowers stay in bloom longer than perennials, attracting pollinators for more of the season.

“We’re talking about cool season hardy annuals for spring blooming, like snapdragons and poppies,” Ziegler said, “and then warm season tender annuals for summer, like zinnias, sunflowers and cockscombs.”

Another way to keep flowers constantly blooming in your garden is by planting a cutting garden that you harvest on a regular basis, Ziegler said. When flowers are cut from these plants, they produce more flowers. In addition, you have a constant supply for flower arrangements and bouquets.

“If you’ve never grown a cutting garden before, you just don’t know what a superstar you’re about to become with the people who live close to you,” Zeigler said.

For Schanen, flowers that can be easily grown from seed are ideal.

“That way, if I have a hole [in the vegetable garden], I can just plunk some flower seeds in there,” Schanen said.

Easy to grow from seed, nasturtium is one of Schanen’s go-to flowers to combine with vegetables. Usually with bright red, orange and yellow blossoms, this flower attracts a variety of pollinators and is edible, with a peppery taste. Its leaves are edible, too.

“They also have a kind of a unique benefit in that they can sometimes be called a trap crop, which means they’ll pull problem insects like aphids away from your other plants,” Schanen said. “They’ll be attracted to the [nasturtium] flowers first and not be attracted to your vegetables.”

Schanen also likes to add edible marigolds to her vegetable beds. More specifically, she grows signet marigolds, which have yellow, orange and golden blossoms and a citrusy aroma.

“Those help keep critters away,” Schanen said. “They help keep things like rabbits away. It doesn’t make your garden rabbit-proof, but it helps. And they’re great for pollinators.”

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