They look good, work hard, and taste delicious!
In the last few monthly columns I’ve written, we’ve been discussing the benefits of attracting pollinators to the landscape using native trees, shrubs and perennials, and into the vegetable garden with companion plants. Now that the weather has turned and we’ve all got the vim and vigor to get out into the garden, let’s talk about four powerhouse annuals that attract pollinators and beneficial insects, make terrific garden companions, and are edible to boot!
How do Borage jelly, Calendula Paella, Nasturtium salad, and Blueberry-Hyssop ice cream sound? Yum! I asked local herb enthusiast, Marge Koenecke, from Hickory Grove Farm, how she uses these plants. Below are her comments intermingled with my own:
Borage (pictured above) is an annual herb with a true blue flower; easy to start from seed (direct sow), and has a tendency to self-seed.
IN THE GARDEN: plant with tomatoes to attract beneficial insects such as parasitic wasps that will take care of tomato hornworms. Borage also attracts bumblebees, native bees, and honey bees.
IN THE KITCHEN: the edible flower has a cucumber flavor; add to salads; freeze in ice cube trays and add to lemonade.
Calendula, also known as pot marigold, is another self-seeding annual herb for the sunny garden. The pretty yellow and orange blossoms make great cut flowers.
IN THE GARDEN: plant them with cole crops, especially collards. Calendula repel aphids and attract beneficials. At the end of the season, take dried seed heads and scatter seeds to ensure a good crop for next year.
IN THE KITCHEN: Calendula has wonderful healing properties for skin, especially as an oil or salve. It’s often used for insect bites. In addition to its medicinal qualities, the petals are edible and can be added as a flourish to paellas, salads, and used to make flower & herb butter.
Nasturtiums are another annual easy to grow from seed. Soak seeds overnight before planting. They take awhile to germinate - just when you're ready to give up is when they pop up through the ground.
IN THE GARDEN: look for vining varieties of this pollinator plant to interplant with zucchini and other squashes. Nasturtiums deter squash bugs and the moth that lays eggs for the squash vine borer.
IN THE KITCHEN: Both the flowers and leaves are edible and have a mild peppery flavor, so they are fun to add to salads. I even came across a recipe for Nasturtium pesto using the leaves and stems. Need to try that!
Anise hyssop is one of the best pollinator plants for the garden. The bees love this herb! Anise hyssop is not always reliably hardy but usually sows itself around the garden.
IN THE GARDEN: As a member of the mint family, Hyssop has a wonderful fragrance. This quality makes it deer and rabbit resistant. In addition to attracting beneficial insects, it also attracts cabbage moths, so use Anise hyssop as a trap crop, planting it away from cabbage plants.
IN THE KITCHEN: As its name suggests, the flowers have a mild licorice flavor. Use the flowers to toss into salads, make vinegars, herb butters and herbal tea.
This is just a small sampling of the many ways these plants can be used. If you’d like to learn more about how to use these edible pollinator powerhouses, join me and Marge Koenecke in a virtual garden discussion on Wednesday, June 8 at 6:30 pm. Happy gardening!
In her book ‘Garden Maker’, Christie Purifoy writes, “Flower gardens don’t begin with flowers. They don’t even begin with seed. They begin with desire and vision, and they begin with dirt.”
It’s this latter element, “dirt” that we are learning more and more about its importance in the health of our plants. First, let’s give it a better name: soil. Soil health is the secret sauce in growing healthy plants in the landscape, in containers, and in the vegetable garden.
What is healthy soil?
First some basics about soil:
How do we achieve healthy soil?
If you are starting a new garden, try the no-dig approach and build your growing bed on top of the ground. Begin with layers of cardboard and newspaper, then add layers of greens and browns which are the ingredients for compost! You can even do this in raised beds. As with all things in nature, it takes time for the layers to break down. Adding topsoil or good compost into the layer mix will speed things up because they contain those hungry microbes.
In existing gardens, adding compost to the beds in the fall is the best time, but a spring application is effective, too. Some vegetable gardeners will add compost between summer and fall crops.
What kind of compost? The best kind of compost is free and in your backyard! Leaf compost is the best amendment for vegetable gardens as well as ornamental beds. This spring you may need to find a supplier, but commit to mulching and composting the leaves from your trees and your neighbor’s trees this fall.
Adding microbes to the soil at planting time is another way to work towards healthy soil. Often they are available in liquid form. A tip that I have learned is that the most effective liquid forms of microbes need to be kept chilled. Dry soil additives that contain mycorrhizae such as Espoma’s Bio-tone Starter are also beneficial. Use when planting and transplanting vegetables, perennials, trees, and shrubs.
And one more free, easy practice to improve soil health is in the perennial garden. Spring is often when we cut back any remaining dead stems. Cut the stems into 4-6” pieces and leave them there - right by the plants. The dead material will break down and provide food for the soil microbes right where it’s needed - by the plant roots. This can be a difficult practice to embrace because we love the look of a neat, tidy, freshly-mulched bed. But by letting go of what WE like, it is actually benefiting the plants, the pollinators, and in the end, us. Be part of the circle and try this new gardening ethic.
So there you have it. The secret to having a healthy garden has been there right under our noses - or rather under our feet - the whole time.
If you'd like to learn more about building healthy soil, join me for our next 'Let's Talk Plants" - a free monthly virtual gardening discussion on Wednesday, April 13 at 6:30 pm. Register by emailing me at email@example.com.
Hi, I'm Tracy - horticulturist, beauty-seeker, Word-lover, and blessed to be the owner of Bella Botanica. I also love to write about plants, gardening, and about my faith journey. Thanks for reading!