Little by little the short days of winter are getting slightly longer. Our winter here has been fairly mild, the warmth of the sun beating on my back as I write this says enough: who sits outside in Northern Nevada in January writing? This year, I suppose I do. Much different from the snow and flooding of last January. This time last year I was trudging through the snow and ice in the backyard to get to the greenhouse. The whole town seems to be awake: running, bike riding, and working on their cars.
Here at Sierra Flower Farm, we have been taking advantage of the weather. After a couple months of everyone in the family being ill, it is nice to be welcomed by the sunshine and back in the garden. We’ve been working on garden cleanup, starting seeds and even planting! I know the ski resorts in the area are desperate for snow, but honestly, I’m enjoying this spring like winter at the moment. Especially after such a frigid fall (yup, still bitter about that kill frost last mid-September!).
This weather definitely has given me spring fever. I’ve bumped up starting some seeds earlier than normal and can't believe that the soil is workable! With being sick, anemones and ranunculus were delayed, so I'm finally getting the rest of those in the ground this week. Yay for second chances!
Another symptom of spring fever, seed catalogs keep flooding my mailbox and I’m pretty sure if I order one more dahlia tuber my husband is going to have me committed (“Hi, I’m Jessica and I’m addicted to ordering seeds…). What can I say? I have a hard time saying “no” to a pretty flower, sadly the size of my yard is tiny and not quite accommodating to my garden dreams but that's nothing new.
Most of you are probably skimming past the pages of flowers and going straight to all the glorious tomatoes, squash, and kale. I’m here to tell you: go back to the pages with the flowers. If you haven’t incorporated flowers into your vegetable garden, this is the year to change that! Tomatoes and flowers play nice; they truly are team-players! This month I’m diving into my top five annual flowers to grow alongside your array of vegetables. How in the world did I decide on five? It was tough. To make the decision process easier I set the following criteria:
1) Must make a good cut flower
2) Benefits/companion in the garden
First and foremost, Sierra Flower Farm is all about specialty cut flowers, therefore, the flowers must make good cut flowers. The flowers need to be workhorses in the garden for you: they need to aid in the production of your vegetables, add nutrients to your soil and attract beneficial insects. Also, it’s a vegetable garden! It needs to be edible, whether it’s to jazz up a salad or make a delicious tea. Lastly, they must be easy to grow from seed and require minimal pampering in the garden (because, who has time to fret over another plant in the garden?!). Without further ado, here are my top five annual companion flowers to interplant with your vegetables!
#1 Calendula (aka “Pot Marigold”)
Calendula as a cut flower:
Calendula is a workhorse! It is incredibly cold hardy (which is ahhh-mazing for us high desert gardeners!) and has an awesome vase life. It may not be a fancy pants peony but it definitely adds character and rounds out floral designs all season long with it’s cheery orange to bronzy peaches. Plus, it is incredibly easy to grow. Their seeds are large enough that a child could easily handle and help plant. There is no need to start calendula indoors, simply direct sow in the garden in fall or early spring when the soil is thawed. If you allow the flower heads to go to seed, they will continue to self-sow!
Calendula in the garden:
Calendula is an agreeable sort and friend to all! If the garden was high school, calendula would be the nice popular kid that plays football with ease and is class president. Calendula has anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties. It helps to deter parasitic nematodes in the soil, tomato hornworms, aphids, bean beetle, mosquitos and cabbage worms with it’s pungent smell. Plus, they attract beneficial insects such as bees and hoverflies.
Calendula as an edible:
Calendula is also a traditional medicine used for its antimicrobial, antiviral and antibacterial properties. Its petals can be used as a substitute for saffron, it is evenly known as “poor man’s saffron.” The petals can be sprinkled to jazz up a salad or can be used as a tea.
Plant calendula with: members of the nightshade family (tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant, peppers), asparagus, brassicas, onions, and cucumbers. Have some room in your herb patch? Calendula will enhance the flavor of basil and mint!
If you want to learn more about this overlooked garden jewel, read my blog honoring it as the flower of the month here.
Sunflower as cut flowers:
These summer gems make incredible cut flowers (as much of us know) and there are so many different shapes and colors to choose from!
On our humble flower farm, we lean more towards sunflower varieties that are pollen-less. Pollen-less is ideal for cut flowers because they are less messy and tend to have a more optimal vase life but that doesn’t make them the best choice for companion planting. In the garden, especially if you are looking to provide pollen for the bees, plant varieties that have not had the pollen bred out of them. You can plant dwarf varieties, towering varieties, or anything in between. There are benefits to all.
Be sure to harvest the sunflower before they are pollinated for the longest vase life. Harvest when the first petals are just beginning to lift. Harvest in the coolest parts of the day. Use a splash of bleach in the vase water for sunflowers, they have a hairy stem and can make the water murky. They do not like commercial flower food as much as the homemade recipe which you can find here.
Sunflowers in the garden:
The tall varieties of sunflowers, such as “mammoth” or “kong” make amazing trellises for pole beans or trailing nasturtiums. Planted in a group, they can also be a natural windbreak for your vegetable garden or simply hide an unsightly part of your yard. Also, lettuce (or other shade loving greens) can be inter-planted with sunflowers. The lettuce benefits from the shade, this makes for a happy friendship. The dwarf varieties, such as “teddy,” are great to interplant in the garden and won’t tower over your tomatoes (plus they are adorable and perfect in a kid garden!). When planting taller varieties of sunflowers, be aware of the planting location to keep them from shading your sun-loving vegetables, especially in the morning. I say, if they shade the tomatoes some during the heat of the day, that’s a win! Most vegetables benefit from shade in the afternoon, even the sun lovers but be sure they get that nice morning sun.
The sunflower’s roots benefit the soil. They cleanse the soil by pulling heavy metals out. Sunflowers are also used as a trap crop. They attract aphids and whiteflies. This makes them a nice companion plant to corn, since the aphids are supposed to prefer the sunflower and then leave the corn alone. Beware, blister beetles adore sunflowers. Be sure to crop rotate sunflowers each year and if you see one of those buggers don’t squish them with bare skin! They are called blister beetles for a reason…
Sunflowers as an edible:
The flower heads of sunflowers can be steamed and eaten similar to an artichoke, but with a nuttier flavor. I love sunflower seeds, my husband even more so. We grew our first sunflowers for the seed, which was the “mammoth” variety and it definitely lived up to it’s name! You will need to protect the flower heads with netting from the hungry birds. Or, you can use the seed heads as a lure to attract the birds that will love you and then reward you by eating other garden pests.
The great thing about sunflowers, like the calendula, they are easy to grow! Once the soil can be worked, simply direct sow into the garden. As a seedling, the sunflowers are pretty cold hardy. They don’t require much moisture and can withstand some pretty decent freezes while young. If you get eager to plant in the garden, this is your friend!
You can dive into more about sunflowers by reading my post where they were honored as "Flower of the Month" last summer here.
Marigolds as a cut flower:
It’s pretty common knowledge that marigolds and tomatoes like to get cozy in the garden bed. I actually prefer to plant calendula with my tomatoes but marigolds do have their place in the garden. There are three different types of marigolds: French, African and Mexican. African marigolds are the ones we grow for cut flowers, they have great stem length, vase life, are heavy producers, and they are so so FLUFFY! Unfortunately, they are not the best out of the marigolds to grow as a companion flower. They’re not bad, simply not as potent as the other two. French and Mexican varieties can still be used as cut flowers, they simply have shorter stems. They could still be cute in a little teacup for a quaint outdoor picnic! When speaking of marigolds, I’m going to be referring to the French and Mexican varieties.
Marigolds in the garden:
Marigolds roots act as a trap for parasitic nematodes, and in warmer climates are even used as a cover crop to rid soil of these trouble-makers. Marigolds pungent odor and natural occurring pyrethrin deter mosquitos and aphids. Supposedly, Mexican marigolds even repel our fluffy foes: bunnies. Aside from being a pest deterrent, marigolds actually enhance the growth of many of our favorite vegetables such as: brassicas, squash, nightshades, and basil.
Marigold as an edible:
Throw some marigold petals in your summer salad (or roasted asparagus!) to add a little zest and glam your meal up a bit. You can also add it to stews to attain a rich golden color.
Marigolds are fairly quick growers and can be directly sown in the garden. They are cold sensitive, so a light frost will turn the foliage purple and may set the bloom time back. An actual frost will kiss them with a blackened death. In our area, I do prefer to start them in the greenhouse a few weeks before our last frost date. They germinate quickly and grow fast, so they don’t need a huge amount of time as a head start.
ˆNasturtium as a cut flower:
I love, love, love, nasturtiums! They are easy to grow and thrive even more in terrible soil with minimal water, what more can you ask for? Flowers that tend to themselves are few and far between and are any gardener’s dream! Who wouldn't want to be rewarded with minimal effort? Aside from the numerous colors, there are also trailing or dwarf varieties to choose from. I’m personally a fan of trailing, especially for arrangements. I love using the greenery along with the flowers in design work, it adds such whimsy! I have even used them as fillers for bouquets, which is always a surprise and a delight to my customers. They have an incredible vase life and are just not a typical flower seen as a cut flower.
Harvest the flowers in the cool of the day just before the flower is about to open. If harvesting foliage for cut flowers, then harvest when leaves feel leathery. They have a vase life of a week or more and do benefit from floral preservative.
Nasturtium in the garden:
I initially grew them as a trap crop for squash bugs but the correct classification is more of an “indicator plant.” The idea behind an indicator plant is that it gives a little snapshot (an indication) of what’s going on in the garden. Meaning, what are the aphids a brewing? Are there tomato hornworms? Nasturtiums may not be a trap crop for the specific pests that I was hoping for but it did work in tricking aphids. Planting more nasturtium plants throughout the garden may even help to deter the creepers of the garden. Nasturtium’s pungent odor is said to deter squash bugs and other beetles along with whiteflies. Plus, nasturtiums actually attract the hoverfly, which should feast on some of the pesky buggers.
Nasturtium as an edible flower:
Not only are the flowers gorgeous but they are edible, along with the foliage and even the seeds! The flowers definitely can elevate your salad or other vegetables. They can be stuffed with some yummy herb goat cheese- talk about a fancy appetizer! The foliage is good added to soups or salads. Their seeds can even be pickled and used as a substitute for capers! This plant is definitely a giver.
Nasturtium seeds look like little brains. They are big (I mean substitute for capers big) and are the perfect seed for small eager hands to help in the garden. They do best direct sown. These guys are pretty cold sensitive so they do best direct sown into the garden after all danger of frost has passed. Around here, we have some years where the summer season is cut short, therefore I prefer to start them in the greenhouse a few weeks before the last frost. They germinate and grow quickly. They also prefer not to have their “feet” messed with too much, so they don’t need incredible amount of a head start and it’s best to not let them get root-bound. If growing the trailing variety, be sure to provide a strong trellis for them to clamber up.
Chamomile as a cut flower:
Chamomile was another gateway flower for me. I initially added it to the garden for its medicinal qualities (Peter Rabbit’s mom did have him sip on chamomile tea to combat his tummy ache!). I specifically prefer German chamomile over the Roman variety. At first, it had more potent medicinal qualities but the German variety also makes for a great cut flower. These guys readily self sow, but don’t be alarmed! It is not invasive and won’t choke out other plants like mint does. In the middle of winter, I love seeing the small patches of its green fern-like foliage when everything else is brown and dormant. Chamomile is one of the first flowers to great me in the spring and makes for a wonderful filler flower. Avoid them going sad and limp by harvesting in the cool of the day.
Chamomile in the garden:
With being one of the first flowers to bloom in spring, chamomile also provides one of the first food sources for the awakening hungry bees. Not only does chamomile attract the beloved bees but it also attracts other beneficial insects such as predatory wasps, hoverflies and ladybugs. Chamomile also deters the blood sucking mosquitos.
Chamomile has antibacterial and antifungal properties that actually helps combat ailments that may be lurking such as blight, powdery mildew, fungi and molds. If that’s not enough, chamomile is so incredible that it even adds some important nutrients to the soil such as magnesium and calcium.
Chamomile as an edible:
I would buy chamomile tea from the store, because it was "healthy." When I had a sore throat chamomile, mint, with a dab of honey was my go-to. Sounds good, right? I never thought it was very tasty, until I made tea from my homegrown chamomile. I always read that chamomile tea should taste like honey with added floral notes, well, the homegrown lived up to that! I love garden fresh chamomile tea and it is equally good dried. Be sure to save plenty, your friends and family will be lining up for some! It’s also fun to make ice cubes with chamomile flowers in them. Just be sure to only pluck off the flower heads, the stem and leaves of chamomile will result in a bitter taste. Don't be shy to harvest, the more you pluck the plant will reward you with numerous more blooms!
Growing chamomile is as easy-peasy and throwing the seeds out in the garden in fall or early spring. They germinate fast, easy and don’t require any pampering (other than keeping the seeds slightly moist). I would choose an area in the garden where you can let them self-sow year after year. I have volunteer chamomile throughout the garden, and am thankful! They even grow in the compacted pathways of the garden, with minimal water and much neglect and thrive.
To keep the blooms coming all season long, either harvest the flowers in the cool of the day or deadhead the blooms regularly.
I hope you are inspired to plant some annual flowers in your vegetable garden this year!