Saturday morning shone beautifully today. As I tended my garden I contentedly listened to the indistinguishable rumbling of the loud speakers at the not-too-distant county fair. The sound was homey, prompting a communal feeling in me, making me feel at one with all others who keep touch with the land. My own venture into that lifestyle is too small-scale to warrant real participation at any fair, but still I felt a level of kinship with those who showed their produce competitively. I thought of gardens larger than mine that I've admired while driving the more rural stretches on the outskirts of our city, and this brought to mind a new topic to discuss: garden flowers.
Before I got seriously into gardening, I'd drive past those robust vegetable gardens and notice that they often had their fair share of flowers encircling them. I always assumed those blooms were just some tribute to the quainter side of the gardeners' souls, but I've since learned that this may not be the case. Flowers serve a much larger purpose than a fragile offering of beauty.
The first hint that they carry some significance comes from the fact that pretty much every vegetable plant has its own flowering stage. If a plant flowers, then it needs pollination, which means it needs more than the elements of soil and water and sun to thrive...wind can help, but pollination is best afforded by your garden's other creatures: the bugs and birds and butterflies.
This photo of a squash plant shows both the male (fruitless) blossom on a slender stem to the right and a female blossom (the beginnings of a zucchini showing beneath it) to the left. The female blossom will not lead to a healthy zucchini without pollination, so either you must hand pollinate, or you can do your part to attract nature's pollinators to your garden. That's where flowers come in handy. Fortunately, nature's economy is such that the flowers you plant, while attracting many "beneficials" (as these insects are called) do not end up competitive with your veggie plants...at least, that's never been the case for me. If you find your garden has great-looking plants but with almost no fruiting, you may have pollination issues...especially if you are gardening in a spot that has no added attractors. You can also buy these beneficial insects from gardening and landscaping centers, but so far, the more subtle approach of adding flowers has been sufficient for me.
This year, we tried something new. While shopping for seedlings, we came across a roll of stiff, green fabric that looked sort of like fuzzy felt. It was classified as a "butterfly garden carpet" and professed to be a beautiful mix of flowers specifically designed to attract butterflies--also great pollinators! At first blush, the stuff didn't look too promising. This was really my husband's project, so he killed back the grass and weeds and spread a fresh load of garden soil, tacked down an unobtrusive edging and laid the seeded fabric. Daily watering ensued.
I bought a few day lilies to toss in the back for good measure, but weeks went by and the little carpet decomposed away to nearly nothing. We thought the project a bust, so I sprinkled in a few extra seeds--some chamomile and Japanese poppies. Still we watered and waited and hoped. Finally, when the weather warmed up a little more, into summer temperatures as opposed to late spring, the little butterfly garden came alive! Now it's humming with little bees and butterflies.
In fact, the garden has proven such a success that I'm now cutting bouquets to bring indoors. And this is only the beginning of the gift flowers give to your garden--like the voice of the caller at the fair as it floated in the background--an indistinct enhancement. In the next gardening post, we'll look at more specific benefits from more specific flowers. Until then, breathe deeply! You'll enjoy the aroma.