Grow bright veggies among flowers

Some crops are born beautiful. Why not show them off in floral finery?

Floral designers don't segregate vegetables and flowers. Their arrangements mix eggplants, bell peppers, and artichokes with sunflowers, dahlias, and zinnias. Why, they ask, treat vegetables differently from other ornamentals?

If eggplants weren't meant to be venerated as art objects before being turned into moussaka, why has nature given them robes of maroon satin? If red peppers aren't supposed to be noticed until they're diced into salsa, why do they glow like lighted lanterns in the garden? If we aren't supposed to admire artichokes before we taste them, why are the globes so graceful that sculptors mimic their form in stone finials?

The answer is obvious: many summer vegetables are gorgeous. That's why last year we grew them in Sunset's test garden as if they were star ornamentals. Test garden coordinator Bud Stuckey made a beautiful vegetable the focal point in each of four beds, then gave it a complement of annual flowers and herbs as if he were putting together a bouquet. Since the beds were in close proximity with no borders of greenery between them, he stuck to monochromatic color schemes to keep the plantings from looking too busy. Lavenders and whites complemented violet eggplant, golden tones blended with yellow bell peppers, and fiery reds paired well with purple bells.

For a fourth planting, Stuckey grew scarlet runner beans and hyacinth beans on bamboo poles, then planted marigolds at their feet.

The vegetable-flower combinations thrived; we had wonderful crops as well as beautiful beds. Interplanting caused us only one problem: It was difficult to have to harvest from living bouquets.

Other gardens, other ideas

• Dressing up a bed of low-growing vegetables can be as simple as adding a row of marigolds in front and a row of cosmos in back. Janie Malloy of Home Grown, Edible Landscaping in Pasadena uses this simple technique in many clients' gardens. It looks different in each garden, but unfailingly pretty.

• Tomatillos and bedding dahlias, which grow side by side in Malloy's own garden, are a handsome pair. Dahlias also look great with tomatoes, eggplants, and squash.

• Cannas and corn make great mates. To embellish them further, add a row of zinnias in the foreground.

• The big, silvery leaves of artichokes look wonderful with other gray Mediterranean foliage such as artemisia, lavender, and santolina.

• Don't forget containers. Red chard planted in Italianate terra-cotta urns can be underplanted with a trailing flower such as sweet alyssum or verbena.

The bonus of interplanting

Beauty aside, there are plenty of good reasons to grow flowers with vegetables. At Shoulder to Shoulder Farm in the foothills of the Coast Range in Oregon, growers raise salad greens for gourmet restaurants by interplanting them with flowers that encourage beneficial insects ― the farm's main weapons against crop pests. Parasitic wasps, ladybird beetles, lacewings, syrphid flies, and other beneficials hang around the plants they love ― dill, fennel, garlic chives, parsley, ox-eye and Shasta daisies, and yarrow, for instance. The adults feed on flower nectar and pollen and lay eggs on garden crops. When the eggs hatch, the hungry larvae of the beneficials feed on the pests that plague these crops. So the pest/prey ratio remains balanced.

Nectar and pollen-rich flowers also attract honeybees and other pollinators, helping to ensure good fruit set in crops such as eggplants, peppers, squash, and tomatoes.

Finally, interplanting confuses plant pests. When you mass eggplants, for example, sphinx moths can spot these host plants quickly. But when these crops are mixed with other plants in a rich tapestry, the moth is more likely to miss its target and lay its eggs elsewhere.

To learn more about Shoulder to Shoulder Farm and its techniques, send $4 for a catalog to Box 1509, Philomath, OR 97370; (541) 929-4068.

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