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Boon Companions: Vegetables and Flowers Grow Well Together

By Melanie Moffett
In p. Allen Smith
Apr 27th, 2015


Herbs, vegetables and flowers make good bed partners because most have the same growing requirements—full sun, consistent moisture and good drainage

article by P. Allen Smith

Think about this. A garden planted with flowers or vegetables in segregated beds might appear well planned, but this separation may not make for the most functional or intriguing garden. There are many reasons, both aesthetic and practical, to merge these two worlds.  By combining ornamentals and edibles you’ll maximize your available space and add the unexpected to your garden’s design. As a bonus, many plants actually benefit each other by controlling pests, attracting pollinators and enriching the soil; an arrangement known in gardening circles as companion planting.

If you want to try a mix of blossoms, herbs, fruits and vegetables, the simplest place to start is your vegetable garden. Adding flowers really puts zing into the space.  I like to use blooms and colorful foliage as focal points or as edging to define the space. For an effective focal point position eye-catching varieties where they will stand out and plant in groups of three or more.  You can quickly create a main attraction with a large container of sun-loving coleus or cheery petunias.  I like using pansies in spring and fall or marigolds in summer for a colorful edging. Or how about enclosing your vegetable garden with walls of sunflowers or borders of zinnias? And these blooms aren’t just pretty, they’ll lend a helping hand too. For instance, sunflowers will magnetize aphids drawing them away from the rest of your garden, while marigolds will keep hungry rabbits at bay. Petunias and zinnias attract pollinating insects to plants that need them to produce fruit such as squash, melons and pumpkins.

When you dare to liberate vegetables from the vegetable garden, you’ll find these plants provide beautiful solutions to many a design quandary.  For instance, strawberries make an excellent seasonal ground cover. Swiss chard ‘Bright Lights’ is a favorite of mine to place among flowers because of its rainbow-colored stems. It is easy to grow in the ground or in containers and is one of the few greens that tolerates both cool and warm temperatures. With its big leaves and full habit, squash will quickly fill in bare spots. Plant garlic with your roses to repel Japanese beetles and enjoy the round, golf ball-size flowers in spring.  If you really want to create a surprise, there are quite a few vining vegetables that can be grown on a teepee trellis to add height and rhythm to your garden border.  You may want to try Malabar spinach on a trellis or a grapevine over an arbor. I particularly like pairing purple hyacinth bean vine and golden hops – it’s a smoking hot combo.

No garden is complete without color, and there’s no doubt herbs provide the best of both worlds—color and functionality.  These edibles can bring a bounty of striking color and purpose to your garden, as well as flavor to your palate.  A flowering herb, such as pineapple sage, produces cardinal red blooms that last well into late summer and fall.   Chives, which sprout from the tiniest of bulbs, generate delicate blossoms in the shape of little lavender powder puffs adding charm to your space. Dill produces delicate umbels of yellow blooms, while borage sprouts beautiful blue star-shaped blossoms. Did you know the borage flowers are essential in providing pollen and nectar to bees?

When it comes to functionality, a favorite herb such as thyme is versatile and vibrant. Not only does it cover ground, but it has a fascinating creeping quality that drapes brick, stone or low walls.  Rosemary, with its piney fragrance is a hearty evergreen shrub, while the grayish-green foliage of lavender brings beauty to pathway borders and grows well in containers.

If you want to mix and mingle vegetables and flowers with success remember, as with all bedfellows, to choose plants with the same growing requirements. Typically vegetables require at least 6 hours of sun each day. There are exceptions such as lettuce, parsley and spinach that will tolerate light shade.  Vegetables also need well-draining soil and consistent moisture.  If there are areas of your garden that are hard to water, consider planting herbs as most types are drought tolerant. There is a huge selection of blooming plants that like full sun as well and benefit from a similar watering routine as their edible companions, but always check the plant tags to make sure. Both fruiting and flowering plants need a lot of nutrients to thrive. Since you are going to eat some of what you’re growing use an organic fertilizer and avoid chemical pest controls.

Edibles in containers couldn’t be more popular this season and why not mix in flowers, too?  Personal design and size of your container is only limited to your imagination.  Overflowing blooms and vegetables in refurbished vintage or contemporary containers can add new and unexpected elements of beauty and charm.

Pick containers for functionality as well as beauty. Select container designs that reflect your style.  Make sure those containers have adequate drainage and are made of a material that is free from chemicals that could leach into your edibles. Food grade plastic and terra cotta are good choices.

Plan your space.  Most plants require 6 hours of sunlight each day, but there are some variations that will thrive in shaded spots, such as salad greens or cool season herbs.

Select your plants. Many herbs, vegetables and flowers do well in containers, so be creative with cultivars.  Consider the height, abundance and color combinations.

Prepare your soil. With the right soil preparation you are sure to harvest an abundance of fresh herbs, vegetables and blooms. Enrich your soil with compost for optimum nutrition.

Fertilize and hydrate. Container plants usually require fertilizing and frequent watering, because there’s not much soil in which to store moisture. Use an organic liquid fertilizer according to the manufacturer’s instructions and water when the top inch of soil is dry. During hot, dry weather you may have to water every day.

P. Allen Smith
P. Allen Smith is an award-winning designer, gardening and lifestyle expert and host of two public television programs, Garden Home and Garden to Table, and the syndicated 30-minute show P. Allen Smith’s Garden Style. Smith is one of America’s most recognized and respected design experts, providing ideas and inspiration through multiple media venues. He is the author of the best-selling Garden Home series of books. Allen is also very active on social media such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Learn more at www.pallensmith.com.