Friday, May 07, 2010

The Flowering Garden

Adding flowers to your garden does more than beautify it. Early flowering plants put your garden 'on the map' for local pollinators such as native bees and hoverflies. They also attract beneficial insects to your garden, and provide habitat for them while your main garden crops develop.

An ideal garden flower would be fairly self contained, a bit taller than most of your food crops, and flower early in the spring. It shouldn't spread or take over, and shouldn't require a lot of care.

The most common companion flower in vegetable gardens is the marigold, as various species of Tagetes repel some pests and of course are lovely in the garden. I find that snails feast on my marigolds, especially the yellow ones, in such profusion that I needed to find some alternate flowers!

Cal poppies in a nearby ornamental bed.

California poppies are a wonderful attractor for native pollinators, and gorgeous as well. They will usually die in a garden itself, as they are so drought-adapted that overwatering destroys them. However, you can plant a bed of them next to your garden and enjoy the blazing orange blooms all summer! Water lightly once or twice a month, and crush the dried seed pods over the poppy bed, and they will keep coming back.

A Green Fingers cucumber waits for warmer weather to flourish, next to a meadowfoam, or Poached Egg Flower.

Limnanthes is a western wildflower almost as showy as a California Poppy, but much less well-known. I'm growing it for the first time this year. I didn't know how well it direct-seeded, so I grew the first batch as a 6-pack in the greenhouse. Territorial Seeds and other heirloom seed companies can supply Limnanthes if your local seed shop does not have it. I was drawn to it when I read that it does well in heavy clay soil, which describes the Santa Clara Valley soil quite well in my backyard.

The name 'Poached Egg Flower' comes from the bright yellow centers of the white or cream colored flowers. I'm really looking forward to seeing it bloom. I hope it will establish itself in the garden along the verges, the way that alyssum does. I had to pull out my alyssum because the flowing drapery of it was perfect cover for dozens of snails, alas. Perhaps I'd have done better to keep it and just check for snails periodically.

Immature flowering plants: Cosmos and Bishop's Lace

Bishop's Lace, ammi majus, is often confused with Queen Anne's Lace or wild carrot, but in fact is a different cultivar. It's a common cottage garden flower, with big snowflake-like flower clusters floating airily on a tall plant. Butterflies are drawn to it, as well as bees. I thought it would be nice to have some on the outside of the garden. It's not long-lasting, so I hope it will reseed itself and keep going. This is an experiment!

Like the Limnanthes, I started the Bishop's Lace in the greenhouse. I soon found that it was susceptible to overwatering, and ended up with only 3 plants from a six-pack. Fair warning, if you are going to grow it! Bishop's Lace is readily available at most places that stock Renee's Seeds or Botanical Interests.

A couple of square feet of beets behind a pair of agrostemma.

The corncockle, agrostemma githago is another new flower experiment for this year. Tall and feathery, it should do well at the sunny edge of the garden and hold its own with the corn and squash. I chose Renee's Seeds cultivars "Purple Queen" and "Pink Contessa" mix. The package made them look like the pink and purple of the old PDP-11 keyboard. Who says gardening isn't nerdy?

I planted all the cosmos at the same time, but this one leaped ahead of the pack, blooming beautifully and earliest!

Last but far, far from least is my garden flower par excellence, cosmos bipinnatus.

Available in a range from my preferred pink/purple/magenta (Sonata mix) to ornamentally petalled varieties like Seashells or Double Ruffle, to the hot jazzy colors of cosmos sulphurens in orange, gold, and red, or even in dainty white, there is a cosmos color scheme for every gardener!

Cosmos is quite drought tolerant, and does best in dry soils. Many folks, myself included, make the mistake of overwatering their cosmos. This can kill the plant in poorly drained soils. With good drainage, overwatering merely makes the plants tall and spindly. Cosmos attracts bees and butterflies readily, as well as small birds who enjoy feeding on flowerheads gone to seed.

A honeybee enjoys a ruffled cosmos flower.

The plants go to seed readily, and benefit from deadheading. Snip back the plant to a height of 10 - 12 inches in the hottest part of summer, and scatter the seeds in a quarter inch of soil. A light watering at that point will generally get you a crop of fall cosmos, filled in and lower growing, with a rebloom of your original plants.

I've heard a story that the beautifully symmetrical blossoms led the early Spanish Missionaries to name the flower 'cosmos', aka 'harmony'. While that may be apocryphal, it does seem to be the case that the flowers came to California via the Missions, and stayed to the present day.

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