Growing up, I clearly understood that vegetable gardens were for growing ... well, vegetables. The straight rows, aided by using a string, were signs of a good gardener. Nothing else was allowed in the dirt beside the growing plant, weeds or otherwise. Letting go of the picture perfect garden may actually be a relief to some of us and research is now suggesting other things to grow besides vegetables to support healthy gardens.
Flowers! Who knew that flowers are such a desirable part of growing vegetables? First of all, flowers attract beneficial insects such as ladybugs, lacewings and pollinators to your garden. Flowers provide nectar and pollen that help the "good bugs" survive. Bachelor buttons, sunflowers, four o'clocks and lavender are only a few of the many flowers that are excellent in a vegetable garden. Native plants, such as yarrow, Canada anemone, milkweed and asters excel at providing what native butterflies and good bugs need in all stages of development.
Secondly, flowers can act as repellents, deterrents and distracters. Some flowers give off odors or tastes that confuse pests. For that reason, I grow nasturtiums between my squash and cucumber plants. They are both pretty and edible! Research has proven that growing a thick bunch of marigolds and then turning it into the soil will provide a nematode-free garden space for the next growing season. Lastly, growing flowers in the vegetable garden gives us permission to cut a bouquet as the season progresses, as they won't be missed like they would be in a devoted flower bed.
About those perfectly straight rows ... not required! Many gardeners now use intercropping - the practice of growing two or more types of plants in the same bed. This is also called companion planting. For instance, growing a cool crop of lettuce underneath a larger vegetable plant will shade the lettuce and slow down bolting. Basil and onions grown between tomato plants benefits all. Intercropping is also a great way to get more produce out of a limited space. The Senecas grew the "Three Sisters" - corn, beans, and squash together: corn for the beans to climb up which, in turn, filtered sun for the squash, which suppressed weeds.
If you are having a hard time deciding what you would like to grow next or have a huge garden that sometimes becomes overwhelming around weeding and/or harvest time, you might want to consider devoting a few rows to a cover crop. A cover crop is planted during a time you are not using a particular spot of garden. Sometimes these plantings are called a green manure crop because it is so beneficial for the soil. It fixes nitrogen, helps prevent erosion, suppresses weed growth, and replenishes organic material in the soil. While planting a cover crop in the fall or early spring allows more time to reap the benefits of this practice, they can also be grown during the regular growing season. Turning under the cover crop allows the plants to decompose and add benefits back into the soil. After growing a cover crop, some gardeners cut the plants down at ground level and use it as mulch for the next crop of vegetables. Red mammoth clover, rye, hairy vetch and buckwheat are excellent cover crops that grow well in our region. The pollinators will love you; your back will thank you; and the soil will benefit the most!
More specific how-to information about cover crops and companion planting can be found at www.gardening.cornell.edu.
Veronica Lantana is a
Master Gardener at Cornell Cooperative Extension