Bringing flowers into the veggie garden

“Just living is not enough,” said the butterfly, “one must have sunshine, freedom, and a little flower.” – Hans Christian Andersen

I have kept a vegetable garden for many years now. Gardens of varying sizes depending on where we lived and how much time I had to devote to gardening. I have gardened in small beds and styrofoam planters in the backyard, in plots at the local community garden, and here at our current property, in a dedicated area with multiple large beds with space for perennial fruits. My experience and success with gardening have most definitely grown over the years, and I am now much less apprehensive about the process. But growing flowers has been a relatively new thing for me.

Growing up, my parents always kept neat garden beds in the mining town rentals we lived in, in addition to a sizable and productive vegetable garden. I grew up in a semi-arid area where the blistering temperatures over summer would scorch the earth till it cracked in a mosaic and flattened anything remotely delicate. Few conventional garden flowers can stand up to such conditions. Native flowers and shrubs are the ideal choices in such hostile conditions, with some of these, like Kangaroo Paw, Billy Buttons and Rice Flower, suitable as cut flowers. Native plants have a bit of a reputation for being difficult to propagate from seed, but they can be relatively easy to source as tubestock or young plants. I think native plants are an attractive and hardy option for any garden, particularly species endemic to your area. But there is something I find irresistible about a traditional cottage garden. That greedy abundance of flowers spilling over pathways and fencelines and scattered freely throughout the house in vases.

As a young girl, I discovered the Anne of Green Gables mini-series on TV. That iconic version with Megan Follows, Colleen Dewhurst and Richard Farnsworth, which I think aired in 1985 when I was 10. While it is very presumptuous of me to say, as I have not ever watched any other version of Anne, I think that was the best rendition of the story ever made. Watching this began a love affair with anything penned by L.M. Montgomery. For years, I wandered blissfully through time to a different era. An era of long skirts and laced boots, beautifully embellished shirts with puffy sleeves, figures with cinched waists and done hair. Homes were aired, cleaned and polished, and everything moved a bit slower. Caught up in a romantic whirl of blissful unawareness of the great sufferings during the Victorian era, I passed dreamily through my teens with a pomander in one hand and a book in the other.

My literary love affair continued when my parents gifted me Emily Climbs. The second book of the Emily trilogy written by L.M. Montgomery. I loved the Anne of Green Gables series, but there was an instant affinity with Emily Byrd Starr. She was studious, loved to write, and had more reserve in her nature than Anne Shirley. I felt I had met myself from a time gone by and began to question whether I belonged in (at the time) the 20th century.

“Cousin Jimmy and I had a splendid evening planning out our garden and choosing our seeds and plants in the catalogue. Just where the biggest drift is making, behind the summer-house, we are going to have a bed of pink asters, and we are going to give the Golden Ones―who are dreaming under four feet of snow―a background of flowering almond.”

Emily Climbs by L.M. Montgomery

I still remember that passage and can recall the deep longing I felt to create such a garden of flowers. But many years would pass before that longing grew some tentative wings, and I sowed those first few frivolous seeds. I am not sure why I suddenly decided to grow flowers alongside the vegetables n the veggie patch. Perhaps I felt there was space enough to include a few cut flowers alongside the zucchinis and beans. Likely it was because I had read somewhere that many flowers are beneficial to growing vegetables as they encourage pollinators and desirable predator insects to your garden. I realised that over the years, I had become incredibly pragmatic. I had existed for so long in the headspace that anything surplus to our immediate needs was deemed unworthy. Don’t get me wrong. I have always had an eye for beautiful things. But would only indulge when that beauty had a function. Until that point, I could not see the value of flowers beyond something beautiful to behold.

Time and experience can harden a person in so many ways, but they can also soften. We begin to see the value in finding, creating, and allowing those elements and moments of joy and beauty for their existence alone, not because it achieves a function or goal. They sit in juxtaposition with the many experiences of life that can be so challenging, and they bring a pleasure that demands nothing of you but your admiration.

This is a brassica that I allowed to go to flower during the drought 2 years ago. The bees love them.

In the past few years, I have planted a range of flowers with varying success. Some flowers, while very successful in encouraging many beneficial insects to the garden, spread rapidly throughout the beds, becoming an invasive problem. Queen Anne’s Lace is one such flower. I have learnt to allow it to grow (as it self-seeds readily) on the garden periphery and throughout the duck enclosure. I found fennel to be similarly invasive, although it develops umbels attracting predator species such as wasps. I have been progressively removing it from the garden as it appears. Other flowers have a more contained growing habit and provide a succession of sprays suitable for floristry. I have had great success with Dahlias, Cornflowers, Cosmos, Sweetpeas, Linaria, Zinnias, Stocks, Foxgloves and Hollyhocks. Other flowers like Dianthus, Sweet Alice, Marigolds and Calendula, have a much more compact growing habit and provide vibrant colour in the garden while perhaps not providing flowers suitable for cut flower arrangements. I have tried many times but have not had any success with Larkspur, Echinacea, or Asters. I will persist!

I can say with all honesty that growing flowers in the vegetable garden has been almost more rewarding than growing vegetables. While I prefer to grow most vegetables that we eat, we can always head to the shops. It is not as easy or affordable to buy flowers to fill your home. Recently I saw a bunch (5 stems) of Peonies for $45. It is simply a luxury too great to justify, irrespective of the joy those flowers might bring for their sweet, transient life.

While we rent, I will continue to include some flowers in the vegetable garden. They have similar needs for nutrients and water as most vegetables and so are easily accommodated alongside vegetable growing. But one day, when we own a property, I dream of beds of flowers beneath window sills, spilling over fencelines and encroaching on the pathways. I imagine them amassed in vases on display in every corner of the home and the waft of their heady scent as you brush past them on the way to the vegetable garden on a warm, sunny day.

I would love to know what flowers you have had success with in the past and how you include them in your garden. And I would love to learn if you share my love affair with the penmanship of L.M. Montgomery and if you saw yourself as an ‘Anne’ or an ‘Emily’!

Take care!

10 thoughts on “Bringing flowers into the veggie garden

  1. This is a lovely read and I have to admit books and flowers are a wonderful combination – as are your roses and foxgloves, so beautiful. I spent many years creating and loving the sort of cottage garden borders you describe, so many old favourites tumbling and sprawling together and spilling their colour and scent across paths and up fences and walls. Nowadays, though, I find myself enjoying a complete blurring of the edges so that it’s hard to distinguish between ‘flower’ and ‘vegetable’ gardens as food and blooms jostle for room side by side – the quintessential French potager, although mine lacks the sense of neatness and order that is evident in French gardens. Somehow I’ve morphed from a flower gardener to a veggie one and it’s been an interesting journey. Having started from scratch yet again, there is still not enough muddle to my liking but hopefully that will start to change next year as more flowers find their way into the food patches. Keep dreaming of your beautiful cottage garden, it will happen and I hope you will share its beauty with us. 😊 If it’s any consolation, I’ve never been able to grow echinacea either!

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    1. Oh, Lis! Your flower garden sounds exactly as I imagine, and hope, my garden will be! So many enticing words – sprawling, tumbling and spilling – yes! I want all of that. But I love the wildness of your current garden too. I do really like that mix of flowers and vegetables, and love looking at other people’s front ‘ornamental’ gardens when they’ve popped a few artichokes in there. So much drama, not just prettiness. I am not a neat gardener either. My parents always comment that my garden is a mess but very productive. Whenever I try to neaten things up, I tend to kill plants! What is it with echinacea?!

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      1. Ha ha, who wants to be neat?! I love a bit of wildness, to be honest, and the sooner this garden starts doing its own thing the better – I have a huge soft spot for self-setters. I’m currently trying to sort out a border of what I term ‘car park’ plants, the kind that are used for landscaping around supermarkets and the like. I can’t stand their banal formality, it’s certainly not the planting mix I’d have chosen so bring on the colour and chaos . . . 😂

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      2. haha yes, I know exactly the plants you are talking about. We see them in nearly every new townhouse or unit block, even loads of suburban houses go for that look. Even here, the owner decided to lay (spray technically) roadside verge grass as our lawn – it is a nightmare to mow! Looking forward to seeing how you transform that space!

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    1. Hi Dorothy! I confess I have not eaten a lot of flowers in my time, aside from some lavender flowers on pumpkin muffins, but I would love to grow flowers for the plate – they do look beautiful. Do they taste as they smell? It has been a bit of a bugbear of mine, but I can not get nasturtiums to grow, and I thought they were easy to grow!

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      1. Keep trying with the nasturtiums. They are my favorite with a lovely peppery bite, and the foliage is good too. Some of the flowers lend a bitter note, which I love, but they are all different. I also let a few of my veggies deliberately go to seed (arugula, Pak Choi) because the flowers are tasty!

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      2. I have never thought to try flowers from Asian greens, and I should because they always bolt on me! One year I let everything go to flower as we were having such a severe drought and the bees were struggling – it was really interesting to see how plants change and revert to a wild state when you allow them to go to flower. I will persevere with nasturtiums – curious to know if you have ever used the little berry that forms?

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