Edibles and Visuals Are Better as a Team

If you're looking to add some pizzazz to your landscape, flower beds or borders, take a bold step and introduce some vegetables and herbs. Many have very ornamental characteristics and can confer a bounty of advantages over keeping your food plots separate from your decorative ones.

Our Native Americans set a fine example of companion planting in the "three sisters": corn, squash, and beans planted together in a hill. Each benefits the other without competition for light or nutrients.

Fast forward to the twenty-first century. Study and careful observation over many years have led the modern grower to a comprehensive awareness. Not only do certain plant companions contribute to improved growth and enhanced flavor, but they also perform a host of other services.

We know some repel insect pests. Others attract beneficial predators of pests affording protection. We also know we can plant to attract songbirds which consume large quantities of insect pests daily to feed their young. We can plant to attract butterfies. These last two fulfill an important aesthetic need, both aural and visual.

We can plant to attract all-important pollinators such as bees (there are 3950 named native species), moths, butterflies, wasps, flies, beetles, hummingbirds and even bats. We can even plant to attract the dreaded plant pests. This latter is done with careful consideration to serve as a trap crop to lure the pests from our treasured plantings.

What follows is a brief intro to a few of the subjects I've mentioned above. There are volumes written about each. I'm hoping to inspire and encourage experimentation.

To attract beneficials choose especially umbels (dill, fennel, parsley, lovage, angelica, yarrow) and composites (coneflowers, daisies, cosmos, asters, feverfew).

These suggestions are just the tip of a long list of plants that can bring in abundant lacewings, hover flies, lady bird beetles, parasitic wasps, and tachinid flies to protect your chosen ones.

It is long known that most herbs planted in association with flowers or vegetables serve a dual purpose. They repel certain insect pests and/or contribute to the growth and flavor. Garlic planted among roses and raspberries not only repels Japanese beetles, but also enhances the growth and healthy vigor of its companions.

Rosemary planted with carrots repels cabbage moths, bean beetles and carrot flies. Or, looking at the picture from the other side, when planting cabbage any of the following herbs inter-planted with it will both benefit the growth and health of the cabbage, and repel the major pests. Plant chamomile, dill, hyssop, mint, sage, and/or thyme.

Many of the same plants already mentioned will also attract butterflies. There are lengthly lists of nectar plants and larval food plants that can be specific for gathering in monarchs, swallowtails and fritillarias as well as some others frequently seen in our area.

To satisfy your aesthetic plant sensibilities look to flowers, foliage, seed pods, plant structure and form, stems and fruit. Think, too, about color and texture. Have you seen 'Bright Lights' Swiss chard? I'm crazy about the blue flowers of borage, 'Purple Ruffles' basil, 'Scarlet Runner' beans, 'Fernleaf' dill, pink and white egg- plants, 'Pineapple' sage, ochra blossoms. Wow! Look at those catalogs again.

There are leaves that are wooly, lacy, needle- like, broad, shiny, soft, silver. Integrating flower, food and landscape plantings is a relatively new way to use your visual palette and your culinary palate. Make the best use of the space you devote to plantings. Raised beds work. Containers work. If you have lots of room, think "specimens" for a statement or focal point in your setting. Have a deck?

Boxes inter-planted with trailers like gourds or sweet potato vine can be fun and interesting and attractive.

I'd be remiss if I didn't say a little about the foundation for all this ambitiousness I'm trying to instill in you. Careful attention should be paid to two elements - soil (pH and drainage) and light (sunlight and shade). Most herbs prefer a neutral to slightly alkaline soil (pH= 7 or a little higher) and a well drained soil that is allowed to fairly dry between rain events or irrigation.

For many sun is desirable. Just so with many vegetables and other ornamentals. There are many that will tolerate moist shade: 'Angelica archangelica' and lovage are but two examples. There are infinite combinations. Go to it. Create eye candy. Take pictures.

Another element I can't begin to delve into here, but must mention, is the use of native plants instead of imported exotics. This is another subject to consider seriously. I confess I've been, in a somewhat veiled way, looking at issues of sustainability and environmental awareness. I hope I've inspired you to think outside the traditional box. If I have, you may reduce or completely cast off any dependence on chemical pesticides and be healthier, happier and more satisfied.


From The Garden of Ed. Submitted for publication in The Towne Crier on March 26, 2003

© 2003 Ed Mues. All Rights Reserved.