The importance of being floral

Happy National Pollinator Week!

I often talk about how important it is to grow flowers in vegetable gardens in order to attract beneficial insects, but it was really brought home to me yesterday during a Master Gardener Advanced Training class, outside on a hot (but thankfully breezy) morning, discovering the many insect visitors to the demo garden. Even if your garden is quite small and you are trying to squeeze in all the food-producing plants you can, leave some space for flowers – you’ll be grateful when your pests start to disappear! Alternatively, let some of your food plants go to flower when it’s their time, instead of pulling them out.

Just about any flower is useful, but the best ones to bring in some of the smaller beneficial insects that you may not even have noticed before – tiny predatory and parasitizing creatures like hoverflies and wasps – are those with tiny flowers in sprays or umbels. (Think Queen Anne’s lace and yarrow for the latter shape.) Herbs are a good choice, and one of the best is cilantro.

This photo was taken last month, and our plants are now forming seeds (coriander), but still have lots of flowers, covered yesterday with hoverflies and tiny bee relatives, as well as soldier beetles.

Another herb that attracts insects, part of the mint family (again, don’t plant mint in the vegetable garden without precautions, but some of the relatives are less aggressive and have equally useful flowers), is catnip. We have two huge catnip bushes in the demo garden – from which I take snippets for my cat, since I can’t plant it at home without him killing it with affection. Here it is coming into blossom, with happy bee:

Another bee-attracting plant is phacelia, which I’m trying for the first time this year. It’s used as a cover crop in some areas.

Then there are the flowers that not only attract some insects but are also edible for gardeners. Here is one list I like, from NC State (it includes a link to poisonous flowers as well). This year among others we have cornflowers or bachelor’s buttons – and you can also see calendula off to the side:

I usually cut the “scapes” or flower stems of garlic, and use them in cooking, but we didn’t get to these in time. The flowers are just about to open, and you can eat them too – they taste like garlic, not surprisingly.

I’ll have more flowers for you next time, and also some vegetables! For more information on beneficial insects, see the HGIC publication “IPM: A Common Sense Approach to Managing Problems in Your Landscape.”

One Comment on “The importance of being floral

  1. Hello,
    I have let the volunteer radish that grew outside the raised bed boxes go to flower and see the same results. Plus the lavender flowers are sturdy, prolific and very pretty.

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