Growing a few nectar-rich flowers amongst your vegetables can attract pollinators and lead to a bumper harvest
If you grow your own vegetables, it's likely you'll want to cram your plot with as many edible crops as possible. But making room for non-edibles – we're talking flowers here – may not be a bad idea.
Flowers look wonderful, smell divine and can cheer you up when you're weeding. These are all good enough reasons to find space for them in the vegetable patch. But some flowers do even more – and anyone attempting to grow their own food organically, without the use of chemicals, can make things a lot easier for themselves by planting a few carefully chosen blooms.
One of the most important jobs flowers do is attract insects to our plots. Around 80 per cent of all food crops need some sort of pollination, so getting those bees, butterflies and hoverflies buzzing around your vegetable patch could really pay dividends come harvest time. Yarrow is highly attractive to all sorts of beneficial insects, such as ladybirds and hoverflies. And borage is an excellent bee plant, with the added advantage of edible flowers that look great in a salad.
Sweet peas smell gorgeous and their colourful blooms can be cut for vases in the house. Growing some next to your beans can attract bumblebees – I've often watched a bumblebee methodically visiting every bloom on a wigwam of sweet peas and then going on to pollinate the French beans planted alongside.
Attracting certain insects can also help with pest control. For example, the larvae of hoverflies feed on aphids. Hoverflies like pot marigolds. So by planting a few marigolds around your tomatoes, you can attract hoverflies and thereby protect your crop.
Hoverflies and wasps will also eat the caterpillars of cabbage white butterflies, so planting marigolds with your cabbages could be a good idea, too. Another way to prevent cabbage white butterflies from laying their eggs on your crops is to plant nasturtiums nearby. Nasturtiums are attractive to butterflies, and with any luck the cabbage whites may choose to lay their eggs on the nasturtium leaves, instead of on the cabbages. Well, it's worth a try, anyway.
As well as attracting beneficial insects to your plot, some flowers and plants will keep pests at bay. French and African marigolds repel whitefly and other pests, and it's believed that Mexican marigolds can miraculously restrict the growth of some weeds such as bindweed and couch grass.
Chives, onions or leeks planted alongside carrots can help to deter carrot fly – and in return, the scent of carrots repels onion fly and leek moth. And by planting mint and coriander near your tomatoes you can keep aphids and whitefly away.
Growing any sort of legume (lupins, beans, peas or sweet peas) will fix nitrogen from the atmosphere into the soil. This benefits plants that are nitrogen-hungry, such as brassicas, and many vegetable gardeners will follow a crop rotation system in which they grow cabbages and cauliflowers in soil that previously supported peas and beans.
But does companion planting actually work? As with many garden practices, some people are sceptical, whilst others swear it's a successful way to garden organically. So why try it, and see what happens in your own garden?
Little Green Space April 2016