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May 5, 2022

Donna Balzer is a Horticulturist, speaker and author based in Qualicum Beach, BC. For more tips check out her book “No Guff Vegetable Gardening” or connect with her directly at donnabalzer.com

Best Vegetable Garden Ever? Include Flowers

My dad was a farmer. When my mom tucked parsley into flowerbeds or carrots into pots of flowers it made him a bit cranky. He wanted vegetables in orderly rows and flowers with flowers. Wow, how have things changed!

Today’s gardener takes care of so much more than rows of cabbage or fields of corn. The modern gardener takes care of the whole environment including beetles, birds, soil and yes, even wasps. We feed and water everything so the end result is better food with better taste.

How do you get this great food? Grow it yourself. In soil you have prepped. With a good supply of both flowers and food crops working together.

My dad isn’t alone. Mass planting of single crops is the norm. Sadly, this practice exposes crops to pests, like cabbage butterflies, who bounce from leaf to leaf, tasting with their feet before they make the big commitment to lay eggs and launch the next generation.

Companion Planting Beats Monoculture:

When plants in the cabbage family are planted in giant patches, watch out. The white butterfly, scourge of cabbage and it’s close relatives like broccoli, kale and Brussels sprouts will taste plants to confirm their identity before laying their eggs. A huge patch of similar plants becomes a major munch-fest.

Luckily modern home gardeners mix it up with flowers to discourage pests like the cabbage butterfly. Inserting flowers like chamomile between heads of cabbage or planting French marigolds every 2 metres distracts or even repels pests. Often called companion planting, this plant mix-up looks great and works perfectly for home gardeners.

Another trick used by home gardeners is to add pollen producing flowers like alyssum, cilantro and dill to pots and beds. The pollen, in these multi-blooming plants, provides a quick snack for beneficial bugs waiting on the sidelines to protect vegetables from pest attacks.

Hoverflies and Lady Beetles, for instance, eat pollen and drink nectar while waiting for aphid outbreaks. This gives them the energy to fly around in search of food before laying their eggs in a patch of aphids. (link to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hoverfly)

Companion planting works because flowers supply food for beneficial bugs and pollinators. Companion planting allows tasty plants like cabbage to almost disappear in a field of mixed plants.

Gardening Art Knapp Courtenay

Locate Your Planting Area:

Garden spaces are not all created equal. The secret is to meet plant needs over time. Cool, shady planting areas are good for growing broccoli or lettuce because the cool air keeps these crops stress-free longer. Other cool loving plants include radish, leafy greens like mustard and kale, peas, celery, cauliflower and chard.

Meanwhile, a former motor home parking pad or a south facing wall along a garage is perfect for heat lovers like tomatoes, peppers, beans, tomatillo, zucchini and winter squash.

A rooftop garden or a row of pots in full sun is perfect for heat lovers. A dappled shade area works for potatoes and leafy plants including everything in the cabbage family. Match your crops to your available site.

Perennial vegetables like Asparagus, Rhubarb or Sunchokes tolerate full sun but prefer some shade in their dedicated beds. These crops come back to life every year and permanent plantings like these need the soil prepared in advance but they also appreciate mulch and regular additions of compost or worm castings.

Unlike perennial vegetables, tomato and squash, most vegetables are planted once or twice a year in our 4-dimensional Vancouver Island gardens where spaces are seeded often and harvests are expected almost year-round.

Planting Styles Vary:

Plants need nutrients, water and support to grow. By growing in the ground or in raised beds the plants are easily watered and fertilized. If the raised beds are connected to natural soil instead of isolated with landscape fabric, they are connected via microbes like fungi.

Reaching across your yard in the soil, the fungi access water and nutrients anywhere in the garden and pass it along via the fungal roots (mycelium.)

Containers are small compared to in-ground or raised beds. This means the watering effort is increased. Zucchinis, for instance, really benefit from deep soil so are better in the ground than in pots. Special varieties of short beans like Mascotte French Beans do well in pots but the tall climbing Scarlet Runner beans dry out too fast in pots and prefer in-ground planting.

Here are ten planning tips for best success with vegetables:

Make a general list of the food you like to grow. I crossed Swiss chard off my list years ago but it might be your favorite delicacy. In my garden the annuals I love include peas, beans, zucchini, winter butternut and red Kuri squash, lettuce, onions, garlic, potatoes, carrots, tomatoes, onions and everything in the cabbage family. You might prefer eggplant or lovage, leeks or tomatillos. Until you make your list you won’t know how much space you need for the plants you love.
Just as retirement or sudden down-sizing changes your life, vegetable gardens change during the season as they grow and are picked and removed. I transplant green onions in June into the spot where I pull radish, but I start and plant green onions again in late August for a winter crop.

I also plant beans or a second crop of peas where radish or bok choi thrived in early spring. I fill the empty garlic patch in July with fall and winter transplants like Galleon cauliflower and Green Magic broccoli. Later crops of radish are seeded as heads of lettuce are pulled and gaps open up. Once overwintered Cauliflower or Cabbage are picked in April I seed or transplant lettuce to fill the spot until warm-season crops like tomatoes are planted.
Take advantage of every spot large or small. A single bush cherry tomato like Tiny Tim thrives in a pot beside your back door. In the fall it is replaced with the herb pot you buy or start mid-summer. Herbs like parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme thrive in late-season pots outdoors. Bay Leaf is always handy next to the kitchen door.

Even shady spots under a tree canopy are put to use. Pots planced under trees are ideal for strawberries , potatoes or lettuce and thrive in the heat of summer.
Straw bales in an alley or parking pad are perfect on top of tired soil where the same crop has been grown for years. At the end of the season , when the straw is decomposing, the bale is torn apart and saved to protect winter cauliflower or bagged up for summer mulch the following year.
Flowering herbs are planted in or near “traditional” veggie beds to bring in beneficial bugs and decrease pests. Use the herbs you love like dill and cilantro but include flowers like cosmos, alyssum and zinnias to beautify and improve the garden.

Allow vegetables to reseed and collect some of the seed. Early lettuce will suddenly bolt and seed and I keep my best early spring butter lettuce called Kweik by letting a few plants go to seed right in the garden. It surprises me with lettuce in March but always goes to seed before summer varieties like Winter Density romaine or Ice Queen iceberg sail through summer under light shade. Bok choi is allowed to seed and then appears in the garden close to where it grew last year, making an early spring addition to the still-cool garden. Parsley is a biennial but if you forget this and don’t let it go to seed in its second year, it will vanish.

If you prefer traditional rows, like my father, make sure the rows are narrow enough to reach across without stepping into the soil because big feet compress soil, squeezing out air spaces and making it harder to grow a crop next year. Typical rows against a fence are less than 1 metre across (32” is ideal) and rows accessed from two sides are about 1.25 metres wide (about 4 feet.)

Remember to mulch. Roots are never as hardy as top-growth and we certainly discovered how fragile plants can be in the summer of 2021 when the heat dome killed or damaged plants on the Island. For mulch, save fall leaves or used straw for next year. Meanwhile use weeds or the leaves of the dead plants you’ve pulled out this summer to cover soil.

Manage water by installing a drip system into beds or pots. A timer helps you remember to turn it on and off but if this is too complicated just stick your finger in the soil and water early in the day when it is dry more than an inch down.

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