Vegetable gardens aren’t just for vegetables anymore. With the current pressure on pollinator populations due to habitat loss, pesticide exposure, pathogens and forage scarcity, it’s more important than ever to include flowers in your vegetable-garden plan. Without pollinators, your harvest suffers. There’s no doubt about it—having lots of flowering plants in your garden means increased pollinator numbers and improved pollination. But, not just any flower will do. To reap the maximum benefit, turn to some of the best flowers for a vegetable garden before deciding which blooms to plant.
In addition to the European honeybee, there are more than 4,000 species of bees native to North America, and there’s a great diversity in physical traits and foraging habits among all those different bees. Knowing the best flowers for a vegetable garden means knowing which kinds of pollinating bees you’re hoping to attract.
Here are a few examples of how to partner your flower choice with the veggies you plan to grow.
The Best Flowers For Beans
If you’re looking to improve yields of peas, bush, pole and runner beans, whose flowers are self-fertile but their enclosed nature means they need a heavier bee to pop them open to knock the pollen onto the stigma, target your efforts toward attracting bumblebees and other larger bee species. These big bees need large landing pads and sturdy flower stems to support them. Plants like coneflower, sunflowers and tithonia are the best flowers for a vegetable garden that grows these crops.
The Best Flowers For Tomatoes
If you want to a lot of ripe, juicy tomatoes, again, you’ll need a lot of bumblebees. Tomato flowers are self-fertile, but they need a good bumblebee buzz to vibrate their pollen loose and fertilize the flower. Sometimes the wind does this, but often it’s the job of bumblebees who vibrate their flight muscles at the perfect frequency for optimum tomato pollination. As mentioned above, flowers with large landing pads and sturdy stems are great at attracting bumblebees. A few more flowers to include for these pollinators include bee balm, zinnias, black-eyed Susans and helenium.
The Best Flowers For Blueberries
If blueberries are part of your vegetable garden, then you’ll want to attract lots of little native bees that can easily crawl up into the bell-shaped blooms of the blueberries (see video). Each flower needs to be visited by a pollinator many times for good fruit production. While honey bees and bumble bees are also good blueberry pollinators, smaller solitary bee species do a great job of moving pollen from flower to flower. To attract these small bees, include anise hyssop, oregano, dill and fennel flowers in your vegetable garden. For more on blueberry pollination, check out this article from NC State Extension.
The Best Flowers For Squash, Cucumbers & Melons
To maximize pollination of members of the squash and cucumber family, you’ll need as many busy bees as possible because in order for a squash, pumpkin or cucumber to form, the blossom needs to be visited by dozens of bees. Members of this plant family have separate male and female flowers, and effective pollinators need to transfer pollen from male flower to female flower over and over again.
Our native squash bee looks a lot like a European honeybee (the squash bee has lighter stripes on its abdomen and small comb-like structures on its back legs), but it’s more effective at moving this pollen. The squash bee feeds exclusively on the pollen of the squash family, and the female bees build solitary nest chambers right under the leaves of their host plants. Squash bees are docile and very important for good production, and they do not emerge from overwintering until the early summer, when their host plants are in bloom. They also sleep inside of the spent flowers at night. To encourage squash bees, there are no special flowers to plant. Instead, just plant lots and lots of curcurbits for them, and switch squash, pumpkin, and cucumber fields to no-till methods so you don’t disturb their nesting habitat.
The Best Flowers For Seed Saving
If you plan to save your own vegetable seeds, you’ll need bees, too. Greens, such as lettuce, kale and mustards; herbs such as cilantro, chives and marjoram; and root crops like parsnips, rutabagas and radish, all need to be pollinated in order to produce seeds. In order to for this to happen, you’ll need to have as many small, native bee species around as possible. These tiny bees relish the nectar from the tiny flowers these plants produce. To increase the number of these bees, the best flowers for a vegetable garden include oxeye daisies, cosmos, fennel, gem marigolds and mountain mint.
As you can see, the best flowers for a vegetable garden are not just planted for their good looks, but rather for their incredible pollination power.