The sight of colourful flowers never fails to elicit a happy human response, and plenty of blossoms in or near the vegetable garden brings other benefits as well. Pollinators and other helpful insects are attracted by flower nectar or pollen, and the plants themselves bring unique diversity to the plant community we call a garden.
Some flowers do work better than others as vegetable garden flowers. First and foremost, good vegetable garden flowers should be easy to grow, because there is no need to flirt with failure. They also need to be reasonable sharers of space, with growth habits or schedules that work well with vegetables. Here is a selection of my favourite vegetable garden flowers.
Self-Seeding Flowers for Vegetable Gardens
The season begins with self-sown breadseed poppies, which often appear among early salad crops grown beneath low tunnels or cloches. The blue-green seedlings of breadseed poppies will not transplant (I’ve tried and tried), so I choose a few places where they can be allowed to grow, and pull out the rest as weeds.
In years when I grow happy orange calendulas (pot marigolds) and let them shed seed, numerous volunteer seedlings appear in their wake. In late summer, the little plants are easy to lift and move to spots where they will bloom in the cooler days of autumn, when their orange colour is perfect.
Attracting Beneficial Insects with Flowers
I rarely have problems with aphids in my garden, which I credit to the larvae of hoverflies, which scour plant leaves in search of aphids. Hoverflies sip nectar from numerous small flowers, and they are especially fond of sweet alyssum, a fast-growing mustard relative that forms frothy mounds of tiny white or pastel flowers. As a vegetable garden flower, sweet alyssum is hard to beat for tucking into the edges of beds, so the plants flow over the edges.
Blue flowers go with everything, which is reason enough to grow early-blooming cornflowers or bachelor's buttons, easily grown from big rice-size seeds. Cornflowers also produce a sweet nectar that is quite popular among small bees and other beneficial insects. The plants also are short-lived, which can be a good thing for vegetable garden flowers. Cornflowers planted in spring bloom for a month or so and then expire, leaving room in the garden for new residents.
Flowers for Butterflies
Gentle butterflies always make nice garden company. They are challenged to feed under breezy conditions because of their huge, kite-like wings, so good butterfly flowers provide a secure place to stand along with an accessible nectar supply. Cosmos and zinnia varieties with exposed florets are perfect, and often become butterfly favourites. Both cosmos and zinnias are easy to grow from seed, and you can keep starting new plants well into early summer. Fast-growing sulphur cosmos thrives in heat and grows from seed to bloom in record time, so it’s a great little flower to sow in early summer.
Marigolds are a natural choice as a vegetable garden flower, and small-flowered French marigolds in particular have a reputation for attracting butterflies and benefiting nearby plants by stimulating the growth of soil microbes. One of my favourite summer flower projects with dwarf French marigolds is to sow a small nursery bed of seedlings in early summer, and thin the seedlings to a hand’s distance apart. In late summer, the sturdy, outdoor-grown marigold seedlings are easy to lift and transplant to spots where they can pop with low-maintenance autumn colour.
Long-lived perennials need permanent space, but a few are so mannerly and floriferous that they deserve consideration near the garden’s entrance or perhaps in a beneficial bed or border. The strong upright posture of agastache (anise hyssop) makes it a good garden neighbour, and bees love the spiky purple flowers. I also find echinacea (purple coneflower) to be quite refined in its behaviour, growing into a stout clump that stays put and never fails to come back in spring. Butterflies love the big blossoms, and healthy plants produce numerous seeds that are gathered by finches and other birds.
Who said a vegetable garden has to be all work and no play? Including flowers in your vegetable garden will make it a safer place for food plants, and a more welcoming place for people, too.