From the Garden Gate: Companion Planting

Jul 11, 2013

Credit Manfred Sause, Wikimedia Commons

Here's this week's "From the Garden Gate" by English professor and gardening enthusiast Roy Helton. This week's topic is "companions," combining flowers and vegetables in your garden.

Companions in the Garden

Probably when most of us hear the expression “companion planting,” we think of vegetable gardens and the kinds of flowers that are said to provide benefits for the veggies. The old-fashioned method of including marigolds and nasturtiums in vegetable beds is even receiving increased attention as scientific research catches up with garden lore. One list of suggested flower-vegetable combinations is catnip with eggplant to deter flea beetles, borage with tomatoes to attract beneficial insects, nasturtiums near squash to deter squash beetles, and petunias to act as an alternative food source for the aphids and beetles that go after cucumbers and pumpkins. 

And as fond as I am of that sense of the concept of companion planting, today I’m thinking more about flowers than veggies and more about aesthetics than insect pests munching on my beans. In other words, I’m sitting here, looking out the window, and considering whether the pink coneflowers and the pink phlox and the burgundy color of the Monarda variety called Raspberry Wine really ought to be separated for next season. So, here are some plants that, for my money anyway, make pretty good playmates.

As far as I’m concerned, no summer flower garden can be called complete without Crocosmia’s vibrant wands of scarlet, red, orange, and yellow. They offer a late pop of color when many gardens are languishing in the dog days. Their narrow, bladed foliage provides vertical accents much like gladiola leaves. The tubular blossoms beckon hummingbirds, and the seedpods that persist into fall also attract feathered visitors. As the flower buds form on the long bending stems, they look for all the world like the backbone of some odd creature. I know one seven-year-old who calls it a “dinosaur flower.” The classic, fiery red variety is appropriately named “Lucifer,” though there are also very striking yellow-orange varieties as well. Crocosmia corms can be planted in well-drained soil in fall or spring.

I have decided that Lucifer’s best friend in my garden is Agapanthus. There’s nothing quite as evocative of summer as a mass of agapanthus in full flower. Agapanthuses are easy-going, drought- and heat-hardy summer flowers. For those who don’t know this plant, next time you find yourself in Florida on vacation, take a look in the flower beds at your resort or condominium. Agapanthuses are those blue or sometimes white long-stemmed lilies bursting into bloom in flowerbeds everywhere. They grow about three feet tall, and though they are not supposed to be reliably hardy in Western Kentucky where I live, I have never had a problem with them when it comes to wintering over. The beautiful, intensely blue flower heads remind me of rounded hyacinths. These blue balls of color, when mixed with the spiky red backbone of the Crocosmia are visual showstoppers.

Tall Artemisia with its aromatic silvery foliage, works exceedingly well with almost anything, but it really shines with plants in its own three to four foot height range. At the moment I have a happy accident companionship of Artemisia, tall, brilliant yellow daylilies, and tall pink Phlox together at the end of one border.

The all-purpose companion flower for me is Verbena Bonariensis, also known as Purpletop Vervain or Tall Verbena. It grows as a self-seeding annual three to four feet tall. The long slender, almost leafless stems topped by small rose-purple flowers borne in tight clusters make it ideal for intermingling with other plantings while adding a good deal of color from midsummer into fall. It’s a skinny companion plant that you can thread in almost anywhere in your garden. Well, here’s to you—from the garden gate.

Roy Helton divides his time between teaching in the English Department at Murray State University and indulging his passion for gardening. Hear more from his gardening series, here