When Lisa Mason Ziegler married into a family that had long grown vegetables to eat fresh and keep for winter, she faced a steep learning curve on managing big gardens without using pesticides.
Learn she did. Ziegler, who had been a shade gardener, now runs an all-natural cut-flower farm in Virginia, and a website, TheGardenersWorkshop.com. In her new book, “Vegetables Love Flowers: Companion Planting for Beauty and Bounty” (Cool Springs Press, $21.99), Ziegler details how she learned to use nature to create healthy and productive gardens by interplanting flowers amid plots of vegetables. We caught up with Ziegler to talk about the best flowers to plant with veggies, which ones are “trap plants” for insects, and why wasps can be a tomato grower’s best friend.
Q: What motivated you to write this book?
A: I wanted to raise awareness that flowers are more than just another pretty face; they can more than pull their weight in the garden. Many gardeners struggle to go all natural but just can’t make it work. Flowers, with all their benefits, are often the missing piece of the puzzle for going organic.
Q: You’ve been gardening for a long time, but you didn’t start out relying on natural methods. What made you change?
A: When I threw in the towel on pest treatments years ago, I saw nature jump into action on my farm. I watched as beneficial insects ate the pest bugs, and saw birds feed thousands of insects from my gardens to their babies. I was hooked. My research revealed that nature can help a garden from top to bottom. Plants sink their roots into the community of pollinators and predator insects and wildlife. All courtesy of nature.
Q: So much garden advice is about repelling bad bugs. Your book emphasizes attracting good ones. To new gardeners, this might seem counterintuitive.
A: I used to be one of those gardeners — all bugs must be bad, right? Wrong. After witnessing some predators in action in my garden, I was intrigued and learned that most insects are beneficial or benign in the garden. We need not fear them.
Q: Proper placement of annual flowers among vegetable plots seems to be your main weapon in the battle against pests. Why is the emphasis on annuals rather than perennials?
A: Annual plants bloom longer and tend to be more productive, so they are a perfect fit for a little cutting garden in the midst of a veggie patch. Once that light bulb went off, and I learned to prevent problems like weeds, pests and diseases instead of trying to fix them, gardening got a whole lot more fun and satisfying. Today, I spend my time tending my farm and gardens instead of being a slave to problems.
Q: What do you tell people who say they want to use natural methods, but won’t tolerate imperfections in their gardens? It took several years for your gardens to reach a balance you were happy with.
A: I tell them to hold onto their hat, because the end reward is big. Gardeners who have been using pesticides have sterilized their environment. It takes time to restore the natural order of nature — two years is normal. But once a gardener witnesses a good bug carrying off a pest, they get a fresh dose of patience and tolerance. The benefits of going organic in soil-building are less irrigation and healthier plants. Who doesn’t want that?
Q: I found it fascinating that calendula can be used as a “trap plant” for aphids, and marigolds as bait for Japanese beetles. Are there other annuals that actually lure pests away from the veggies we’re trying to protect?
A: A trap crop can actually even be the same species plant as the one to be protected. It’s just planted earlier to intercept the pest, and then you can destroy them by handpicking.
Q: Not everyone has room for a big garden. If you had to plant one or two annuals to benefit a vegetable garden, what would they be?
A: Bachelor buttons are the first to bloom in my garden in spring, and they attract beneficial insects early, so provide a jump on building the community. Zinnias for summer and into fall are by far the favorite of both gardeners and beneficial insects. Their bright, showy blooms are prolific, and butterflies and hummingbirds enjoy them, too.
Q: You say that even wasps and snakes have a place in the natural garden. Some people are going to question that.
A: Nobody was more terrified of a wasp than me — until I watched one carry off a tomato hornworm that was decimating my tomato plants. Wasps are meat eaters. They eat other bugs and are some of the most efficient and hardworking insects in my gardens.
If you have voles or garden mice eating your plant roots, chances are you don’t have a snake. Snakes are natural predators of these plant-destroying rodents. I’m not a fan of snakes, but even less a fan of mice and voles and the damage they do.
Mary Jane Smetanka is a Minneapolis freelance writer, a Hennepin County Master Gardener and a Minnesota Tree Care Adviser.