With so many vegetables to be grown, potted on, hardened off and generally tended this month, you may wonder why I’m piling more work onto my shoulders by thinking about flowers amongst the vegetables. But when June, July and August come around, I know that if I haven’t planted a few annuals now, I will regret it.
Flowers can arrive amongst the vegetables in all sorts of serendipitous ways. They can be self-sewn, vegetables may go to seed, perennials may naturally bloom, fruit must flower before the fruits are born and of course, you can always sow something.
Well selected flower cultivars provide good foraging for the bees and other beneficial creatures that we want in our gardens. At this time of year I’ve left a few flowering Chinese broccoli, which will attract and feed early-bird bees. The white flowers on tall spikes are not the most glamorous, but they add brightness in dull corners. In addition Calendula officinalis, common marigolds, are starting to show themselves. These are plants which naturally self-sow in autumn. I shall hand-sow a few more deliberately now for a colourful border amongst the onions and garlics.
Herbs are a wonderful addition of flowers to the garden. This year I have purchased Hyssop officinalis, which according to the Herb Gardener Blog
Bees love Hyssop and it's also a favourite with butterflies and hummingbirds. As a companion plant, it can help keep a few unsavoury visitors from the garden too. It repels flea beetles and cabbage moths, so keep it around your cabbage crops and grape vines.
I am planning to keep this rangy perennial in check by cutting it back to make a 20 cm hedge. I'm hoping that this will protect a rather windy bed on the western edge of the garden. It remains to be seen whether I will get more, or fewer flower spikes that way. I’m making similar edgings this year around other beds, using rosemary, thyme, chives (which have a pretty pink flower) and parsley. These will provide perfumes well as flowers in summer.
I have also sown a ring of chervil around the Wisteria pot. It has a long tap root, so will befit from a deep pot, and it will like the slightly shaded shelter of a south-east facing wall. It needs loads of water, but so does my Wisteria!
Chervil is said to deter slugs, but don’t hold your breath! It is however, a lovely herb, being one of the three fines herbes used by the French to dress an omelette. In my view it is an essential culinary staple. It has delicate serrated leaves and lovely bracts of white umbelliferous flowers, similar to those of dill, fennel or angelica (both of which also adorn any corner of garden with floriferous beauty.)
Companion plants abound in the seed catalogues. Some that I always use are:
Nasturtium, which has edible leaves, flowers and seeds (they taste like a milder form of caper). Last year they certainly attracted Cabbage white’s, I found a whole colony on one leaf. Foolishly I didn’t do anything about it, and before you could say nasty-smelly-chemical-insecticide, I was having to strip hundreds of leaves of the nasturtiums, each of which had been nibbled by a caterpillar of Alice in Wonderland proportions. They can’t half grow and they can’t half shift. Next year I will be more vigilant.
Sweet peas. I cannot imagine a row of runner beans without sweet peas growing through them. They attract the bees to the runner bean flower as well as shading and supporting the rather spindly early bean-stalk. Like all peas they are hungry, but they fix nitrogen, so give back to the veg-plot for next year.
Early spring, when every square foot of the garden is not in use is also a good time for flowering bulbs. I have miniature tulips and hyacinths budding right now. They hyacinths are nestled comfortably in the garlic bed and the tulips are occupying space that I won’t need until later in May. Both benefit from being lifted after flowering and stored until autumn next year. You can leave them to die down in the plot, but I tend to lift them with their leaves still intact and store them outside in a shady spot until the leaves have died down.
During the summer many vegetables will flower beautifully, I have already mentioned the bright red flowers of Red Emperor runner beans but there is also the delicate veined brocade white bells of rocket and frilly yellow and white flowers of the lettuce and Chinese leaves family. Each time a late flowering of the crop is present, leave it and save the flowers for seed next year. Easily saved seeds, like mizuna (a serrated Chinese leaf) will soon develop into a special strain fitted perfectly to the conditions in my garden. But I don’t save the first flower, neither the spindly ones. If I were to do this, I would be selecting for weaker plants that go to seed too readily!
In March most hardy annuals can be sewn direct and half-hardy or more delicate ones can be sewn inside and hardened off and planted out in April or May. For sheer joie de vivre I sow Nigella, poppies, hollyhocks and sunflowers. The delicate blues and reds of the Nigellas and poppies can be broadcast, and come up where they will. The climbers live in tall pots close to the garden bench, and provide colour during those arduous summer days when I shall be sitting on a deck chair watching my garden grow!