Written by Lindsey Schad
Everyone loves flowers—the way they brighten up a room, add color to a landscape, or waft their delicious scent on a summer breeze. Flowers seem to exist just to bring beauty to our lives, but they also serve important ecological purposes. They attract pollinators to our gardens and farms, can solve pest problems, and benefit us in the process!
What is Companion Planting?
When farmers or gardeners plant flowers and vegetables together, that’s called companion planting. This means that they either help each other thrive, or that one species solves a problem common to the other. A classic example of companion planting that you may have heard of is the Indigenous practice of Three Sisters plantings: corn, squash, and beans. The corn grows tall and provides a climbing pole for the beans, which add nitrogen (a natural fertilizer) into the soil when cut and harvested, and squash grows large leaves close to the ground which keeps the soil cool and moist, helping all of the plants thrive in the summer.
As companion plants, flowers bring much-needed pollinators when planted with veggies, and they can serve as organic pest management by repelling unwanted bugs. For example, marigolds repel harmful beetles and root knot nematodes. Nasturtiums (which are beautiful as well as edible!) keep whiteflies, aphids, and squash bugs out of the food crops. Alliums—flowering onions—are a stunning flower and keep slugs, cabbage worms, and carrot flies at bay.
The Role of Pollinators
In agriculture, nearly all the food crops we grow have flowers that need pollinated in order to grow into a fruit or vegetable. Crops like wheat don’t need pollinated, but vegetables, fruits, and berries do. Take tomatoes: in early summer they produce little yellow flowers, and once a bee or other pollinator has visited, those flowers start to swell and become the tomato we harvest and enjoy. Planting flowers that attract all sorts of pollinators (like bees, butterflies, moths, flies, beetles, and hummingbirds) helps farmers ensure that their crops thrive.
Tragically, we are in an insect apocalypse and the number of pollinators is declining rapidly due to the excessive use of insecticides by large agribusinesses and even homeowners. This is a big problem for farmers. Buying organic produce from small producers like all of our partner farms is a good route to make sure that the food on your plate isn’t contributing to the problem. And, if you have a garden or a lawn, staying away from chemicals is one of the best things you can do for your local ecosystem. Using weed killers like Roundup can also be harmful pollinators. Opting to pull weeds by hand, replace a lawn with native perennials, or using mulch or landscape fabric in the garden to suppress weeds is a better option. And by strategically companion planting flowers in your garden, you can help native bees, butterflies, and other pollinators and keep out bad bugs!
Companion Planting and Attracting Pollinators in Your Backyard
Home gardeners and small farmers can help rebuild positive reciprocity with the earth by adding to the biodiversity of the lands they tend by adding herbs and cut flowers to their plots. Wild Wicks Farm, one of our local flower and vegetable growers, has 80 types of plants on a half acre!
Plant calendula and borage interspersed with your veggies to provide pops of yellow or blue edible flowers among your food. Borage is a culinary herb who’s flowers taste like cucumber, and calendula can be eaten or used topically to treat things like diaper rashes and skin wounds. Or, plant nasturtium to trail over the edges of raised beds, and use the peppery leaves and flowers in salads. Mixing in nitrogen-fixing red clover to beds containing veggies that love a lot of nitrogen—tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, squash, greens, etc.—helps them thrive without the need for synthetic fertilizers.