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5 Ornamental Plants That Could Save Your Vegetables

What’s the work without the play? Bring beauty and benefit to your vegetable garden by using these flowers as companion plants.

By Dawn Combs


Do you make room in your garden for flowers? Last year, I let go of my need for a purpose for every plant and encouraged beauty, as well. Lo and behold, the vegetables did better. We spent more time in the garden as a family, collecting flowers to decorate the dinner table right along with the evening’s salad. We watched with our children as the beneficial insects hunted. When we chose to work in the garden alone, these insects sang of our mutual friendship. If that sounds good to you, give some of these flowers a try in your garden this year!

1. Valerian (Valeriana officinalis)

5 Ornamental Plants That Could Save Your Vegetables - Photo courtesy Leslie J. Mehrhoff/University of Connecticut (HobbyFarms.com)
Courtesy Leslie J. Mehrhoff/University of Connecticut

Valerian is an important plant for biodynamic farmers. As it grows in your garden soil, it has the ability to fix the soil’s phosphorus levels.

What does phosphorus mean to you? It’s the P in the "NPK” content of your fertilizer. Phosphorus is one of the nutrient precursors your soil needs to be able to absorb and hold nutrition properly. When your vegetables aren’t flowering very well, seem to be stunted or carry a yellowish tinge on their leaves, you might have a deficiency in phosphorus.

Valerian is a perennial in Ohio, where I live, but you can grow it in USDA zones 4 to 9. Its feathery leaves are beautiful and in mid- to late-summer they give rise to a white, foamy flower held high in the air. If you pinch off the bloom and take it inside the house to fill your favorite vase, it will encourage greater root development.

The root is harvested in the fall and used in herbal preparations to help the nervous system. You may recognize it most often as part of a sleep formula, but it also provides great relief for muscle spasms and can even benefit the health of your heart.

2. Wormwood (Artemisia spp.)

5 Ornamental Plants That Could Save Your Vegetables - Photo courtesy Mary Ellen Hart/University of Georgia (HobbyFarms.com)
Courtesy Mary Ellen Hart/University of Georgia

Most artemisias, such as tarragon and dusty miller, are characterized by a silvery tinge to their leaves and wormwood is no different. You can select either annual or perennial wormwoods from your local garden center and plant them near vegetables in the cabbage family to improve their quality and repel white flies. A wormwood tea made from the leaves and flowers can be sprinkled over soils where slugs are a problem in spring and fall to repel these pests. 

We like southernwood (A. abrotanum), and plant it near our orchard to repel the fruit-tree moth. Any member of this family can be grown for its addition to the landscape or for cut-flower arrangements, but you might like it best in the winter, as it can be dried and stored in drawers and closets as a moth repellant for your clothes. 

3. Borage (Borago officinalis)

5 Ornamental Plants That Could Save Your Vegetables - Photo courtesy Rachael Brugger (HobbyFarms.com)
Courtesy Rachael Brugger

This is a beautiful, albeit hairy-looking, plant. The deep-blue edible flowers are irresistible when added to salads or candied to top cakes. We plant this self-seeding annual in many places around our farm. Amongst the tomatoes it will help repel tomato hornworms and attract bees. We love to plant it with another common companion, the strawberry, to improve berry production.

Borage has been used to support the health of the adrenal glands, to lift the spirits and to strengthen the resolve of those who are run down by life. It’s hard not to love it dried in a tea, unless perhaps you’ve had it fresh in a salad, where its cucumber-like freshness outshines any other preparation.

4. Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)

5 Ornamental Plants That Could Save Your Vegetables - Photo courtesy Ohio State Weed Lab Archives/Ohio State University (HobbyFarms.com)
Courtesy Ohio State Weed Lab Archive/Ohio State University

All right, I know, many of you may not consider this plant to be an ornamental, but I would ask that you look at this companion plant in a different light. Its deep tap root does not compete with the more shallow root systems of your garden annuals. Dandelion uses that deep root system to hold the soil, keep soil moist and bring up nutrients that would otherwise have leached out of reach.

In the garden, allow dandelions to grow just until they are ready to bloom and then pull and compost them. If they bloom, they are known to inhibit the growth of plants around them by exhaling ethylene gas. However, you can allow them to bloom in a nearby yard, as they provide an early nectar source for lady beetles.

Dandelions are not only cheery, but they are a very important pollen and nectar source for the Honey bee. You may eat every last bit of the plant. The blooms are delicious in salads or batter-fried, the greens make a great salad or wilted greens, and the roots are amazing in soups. Your liver and kidneys will thank you for preserving this part of your lawn.

5. Cosmos (Cosmos bipinnatus)

5 Ornamental Plants That Could Save Your Vegetables - Photo courtesy Dow Gardens Archive/University of Georgia (HobbyFarms.com)
Courtesy Dow Gardens Archive/University of Georgia

Our favorite garden addition has to be our cosmos. This annual flower is very easy to seed just after the danger of frost or left to self-seed. My children enjoy picking flowers for mommy while they gather a tomato snack. These colorful beauties attract beneficial insects, such as hoverflies, parasitic wasps, tachinid flies and bees.

Get more info on helpful herbs and flowers around the farm:

About the Author: Dawn Combs has more than 20 years of ethnobotanical experience, is a certified herbalist, and has a bachelor’s degree in botany and humanities/classics from Ohio Wesleyan University. She is co-owner of Mockingbird Meadows, a medicinal herb and honey farm near Columbus, Ohio, where she consults with women and their partners on issues of hormonal imbalance, oversees the United Plant Savers Botanical Sanctuary and operates the Ohio Eclectic Herbal Institute.

 

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5 Ornamental Plants That Could Save Your Vegetables

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Reader Comments
Good to know
a', Houston, TX
Posted: 4/27/2014 6:24:27 AM
BEAUTIFUL FLOWERS!
Lorna, Poplarfield, MB
Posted: 4/26/2014 8:32:59 PM
I find alternatives to be much more useful and healthy for humans and other mammals, such as beets instead of valerian, wild onions, clover, or more edible weeds than dandelions, tarragon instead of wormwood, and yarrow instead of cosmos.
Jennifer, Berkeley, CA
Posted: 4/26/2014 7:22:58 AM
Good information!
Randy, Van Buren, AR
Posted: 4/26/2014 6:45:27 AM
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