Attracting more bugs to your garden may seem counterintuitive, but nearly every insect pest has an insect predator that would like to eat it. Since most of these beneficial insects snack on pollen and nectar at some stage in their life, planting loads of flowers in and amongst your veggies is one of the best ways to encourage good bugs to visit your garden and stay awhile.
Anise Hyssop (Agastache foeniculum)
Pollinators, including bees and wasps, fall into the beneficial insect category because a lot of the food we eat requires insects to pollinate the flowers. Squash, cucumbers, and melons all rely on pollinators to produce fruit, and tons of other crops including tomatillos and eggplant produce more fruit if pollinators pay them a visit. Anise hyssop is an herb that grows about 2 1/2 feet tall and produces a big flush of spiky purple flowers in summer. Bees swarm the pretty blossoms--I've counted more than 30 bees on one plant alone. Anise hyssop also has flavorful leaves that taste like, you guessed it, anise. For a refreshing drink, place a few handfuls of the leaves into a pitcher of water and refrigerate it overnight.
Calendula (Calendula officinalis)
Calendula is such a no-brainer flower to grow in vegetable beds, because it reseeds easily (but not obnoxiously) and spreads itself around the garden. The flowers range from dark orange to pale yellow and close at night and open during the day. I like to pull off the colorful petals and sprinkle them over a salad like confetti.
Cosmos (Cosmos spp.)
Cosmos rank high on the list of easiest flowers to grow. Just sprinkle some seed over the soil after the last frost, run a rake back and forth to cover up the seeds, keep the soil moist, and then wait for the plants to pop up out of the soil. Cosmos grow super fast and once they start blooming they will not stop until the first frost. The flowers produce lots of dusty yellow pollen and their sturdy stems and ferny leaves provide the perfect scaffolding for spiders to spin their webs. 'Sensation' cosmos grow nearly 5 feet tall, while 'Sonata' and cosmos in the 'Cosmic' series stay under two feet. All cosmos last a week or more in bouquets.
Sunflowers (Helianthus spp.)
In general, sunflowers make an excellent beneficial insect attractor because they produce lots of pollen and nectar and their big, open faces provide a landing pad for a wide range of insects. Unfortunately there is a trend among plant breeders to create "pollenless" sunflowers that do not produce pollen, which is undesirable in the cut flower trade because it stains. These pollenless plants are pretty much a food dessert for insects and worthless if you want flowers that provide a function in your garden other than just looking pretty. Luckily, there are still a ton of varieties available that produce pollen, including 'Arikara', 'Autumn Beauty', 'Mammoth' and 'Titan', which also happens to be one of the best varieties for edible seeds.
Like sunflowers, zinnias provide a place for insects to stop and sun themselves, as well as plenty of pollen and nectar to snack on. Zinnias grow fast from seed--in fact you can still get them in the ground and harvest flowers before frost in most parts of the country--and they produce lots of blooms as long as you cut back the flowers as they fade. Old-fashioned zinnias like 'Benary's Giant' are classic cut flowers, but I love the smaller, more delicate Mexican hybrid zinnias like 'Persian Carpet'.
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Willi Galloway writes The Gardener column. She lives in Portland, Oregon and writes about her kitchen garden on her blog DigginFood. Her first book Grow. Cook. Eat. A Food-Lovers Guide To Kitchen Gardening will be published in January 2012.
(Images: All images by Willi Galloway)