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Pollinator Flowers or Vegetables

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I couldn’t decide. Beauty with pretty flowers? Or vegetables, even though—with last year’s heat—I got virtually no tomatoes or peppers? Balancing water requirements, I also wanted to conserve as much as possible.

I’m a container gardener, planting in small ceramic pots, half wine barrels, laundry tubs and a livestock trough. Last fall I planted a cover crop to add nitrogen to my soil. I chose crimson clover; good for the soil, keeps weeds down and my local deer might like it.

My pollinator garden surprised me with the lovely success of a winter cover crop of crimson clover. Even though it was only watered by Mother Nature’s sparse rain this year, it was gorgeous. The beautiful green carpet of clover sprouted all winter long with no weeds. There were no visiting deer so it continued to grow long and lush. Our warm early spring produced clover so thick I couldn’t dig through it or barely pull it out. No matter how hard I tried, roots and stalks were so intertwined I couldn’t remove my cover crop. What to do? In a few days nature helped with beautiful crimson clover blossoms rising from the lovely green carpet. Bees, butterflies and hummingbirds loved it!

Since I couldn’t remove the clover, I added potting soil on top and planted through the clover. Because I couldn’t choose between vegetables and flowers, I did both.

I started with tomatoes. Last year’s crop was so disappointing, producing only a few very late in the season. Our extended period of extreme temperatures prevented tomatoes and peppers from setting fruit. However, the lure of fresh picked tomatoes is strong so I bought heirlooms, beefsteak and several varieties of cherry tomatoes. I also put in several peppers and a tomatillo.

Not wanting to forget pollinators, I planted pansies, petunias, salvia and daisies. Some were tucked in among the vegetables and others I put in plant stands in the wine barrels. I installed a drip irrigation system that waters the flowers on top and drips through to the vegetables below.

Intertwining flowers and vegetables is definitely out of my comfort zone but I like the experiment. I got so caught up in the unexpected beauty of that crimson clover I wanted it all—the beauty of pollinators AND the flavor of homegrown veggies

Now there are a few flowers on the tomatoes and tomatillo; the pepper plants have not bloomed yet. The bees are faithful visitors to my clover, as are the butterflies and hummingbirds. (Tomatoes and peppers are wind-pollinated, so do not require pollination by honeybees. However, native bees, such as bumblebees, know the trick of hanging on the stem below the blossom and “buzz-pollinating” the flower to remove the pollen.

It’s been so nice to sit on the patio, rooting for the vegetable plants to produce while the butterflies and bees flit from one flower to the next. After dark, when the mosquitoes are gone to bed, I’ve even seen some moths visiting. Maybe this haphazard, double-deck method will work for my little patio container garden What a win-win, as I get to enjoy the wonders of nature.

Diane Miller is a University of California Cooperative Extension Master Gardener of Tuolumne County.