Flowers in all the gardens not only give us something beautiful to view, smell and enjoy, but also they have a greater ecological purpose. Flowers and herbs attract humans as well as beneficial insects. The addition of blooming plants to a vegetable garden will provide a habitat, food and shelter for good organisms. By increasing the number of advantageous organisms such as insects, spiders, birds, bats, bees, amphibians, reptiles and parasitic wasps, you are increasing the level of conservation biological control, which is a concept of enhancing the efficacy and local abundance of the existing community of natural enemies in an environment – this environment being your garden.
Basically, you want to increase the number of good bugs and organisms to limit and reduce the amount of bad bugs and organisms. Beneficial insects like bees, pollinators, ladybugs, green lacewing, assassin bugs, hover flies and other predatory bugs and organisms mentioned above feed on bad organisms that create so many problems in a garden. An abundance of pests can be a sign that something is off balance in the ecosystem of your landscape.
To regain or stimulate an ecological balance, one needs to create a happy, stable environment for the good organisms to live. This can be encouraged through the small step of introducing water with bird baths and small container ponds so insects and organisms have a way to hydrate. Also introduce more beneficial insectary plants into the garden by planting flowers along with vegetables, fruits and herbs.
Insectary plants attract insects and other organisms, both beneficial and harmful. Beneficial insectary plants are the desirable ones for the garden and landscape because they increase the amount of pollen and nectar resources and expand the habitat required by natural enemies of harmful or unwanted insect pests. All flowering plants are beneficial and can serve as an insect attractor, but some provide better sources of pollen, nectar and habitat. Look for flowers that belong to the Brassica (mustard) family. You may already have some in your vegetable garden. After broccoli, mustard, kale and Brussel sprouts are finished for the cool season, allow them to flower attracting the good bugs.
The Apiacea (formerly known as Umblliferae family) are wonderful beneficial insectary plants. Fennel (bronze or green), cilantro, parsley, yarrow, Queen Anne’s lace, carrot and the famous giant ‘poison hemlock’ are classic members of this family. If you look at the root of the word Apiacea, you will see it is related to Apia, Apiarian or bee-keeping. Likewise, all of these flowers have an “umbrella” shape, hence the former name of the family, Umblliferae. The Fabaceae family is the pea and clover family, which adds lots of great pollen and nectar sources in the garden, along with supplying a natural source of nitrogen to the soil.
Other common beneficial insectary plant families are the Lamiaceae (mint) family and the daisy Asteraceae family where you will find cosmos, zinnia and the marigold. The marigold is a unique flower because it not only has good flower qualities, but it also has properties in the roots that can resist nematode (tiny roundworms in the soil that affect plants) activity. The most popular and useful beneficial insects in the garden are bees and pollinators. On average, one of every three bites you put in your mouth requires the work of bees. Of course, that increases for vegetarians and folks with plant-based diets. Scientists have proven that a bee has to visit a squash flower approximately eight times before the flower is pollinated and the fruit of the squash can form. Think of your entire garden – that is a lot of work for bees and pollinators, so we need to keep them fed and watered and do our part to take care of them.
One of the major benefits of increasing the conservation biological control in your garden is the reduced need for pesticides. Once you have begun to establish a healthy environment for beneficial organisms, you need to be extra mindful of the amount of pesticides you apply. Often pesticides are broad spectrum, killing all organisms, including the good ones. Only use insecticides and pesticides in extreme cases for the home garden. Try never to spray insecticides in the garden when it is in full bloom or the bees are most active, like early morning and late afternoon.
Some of the other major advantages of adding flowers to your garden are increased habitat and diversity in the garden, soil building, wind and water erosion control and added value to your property and everyday lives. It is very relaxing and enjoyable to watch the flowers, birds and insects dance in the sunlight.
Plant some flowers and keep some dirt under your fingernails ~ Kelli.
Story and photos by Kelli Scott
Kelli H. Scott, Virginia Cooperative Extension, Montgomery County — Agriculture & Natural Resources, email@example.com.