In Praise of Flowers

An edible gardener's conversion story

We have had something of a momentous event, as we count these things, in the garden this past weekend. The black hollyhocks which Rachel started from seed in our first year here have begun to bloom. We expected a wait, as these short-lived perennials can’t be expected to flower in the first year, but our challenging conditions likely extended the wait. I confess I’m not blown away by the form of the flowers, but the color is undeniably impressive, so black and satin that the plants look as if they are wearing mourning dress.

A number of other perennial or biennial flowers have been emerging in our garden this year as well: columbines, poppies, yarrow. Rachel has purchased or propagated a number of bulbs this year, encompassing iris, lilies, daffodils, day lilies, bleeding hearts, oxalis, cannas. And of course there are the functional flowers, those we use for compost, fiber, or food: comfrey, coreopsis, nasturtium. And the annuals: zinnia, linaria, flax. And much more planted this year and yet to emerge. As you see, we are growing a bit of a flower garden this year. Rachel has put a lot of energy into cultivation and propagation of flowers this year, with good results.

We have not done a lot of flower growing in the past. Our garden has been dominated by edibles, and not by accident. The typical American landscape produces nothing: the grassy sward of lawn, the smattering of shade trees, and, yes, the flower borders essentially act as luxury goods, signaling one’s ability to consume nursery products, chemicals, and fossil fuels. We have never had much interest in such consumptive gardening, instead wishing to make our garden a part of a true home economy, a means to feed our family and reduce our reliance on extractive commercial systems. Growing a lot of ornamentals didn’t always seem to fit with that goal; it seemed like typical surburban-lawn stuff.

Certainly I’m not so utilitarian as to think that beauty and pleasure don’t matter, or that human cultivation of plants for the ornamentation of our landscapes ought to be out of bounds. And yet, with limited space and even more limited time to work in our garden, with our production so far from my goal of providing all our fruit and vegetable needs, growing flowers just didn’t seem like a priority. Any time we spent or land we allotted to flowers could surely be better used turned over to growing food.
My attitude changed based on two simple arguments. First, many flowers grow more easily, and with less care, than practically any food crop. At the very least, they do not require harvest, processing and use of what they produce. Coming off my year of garden burnout, growing more flowers has served as a means of keeping our garden in production while reducing maintenance requirements. With more of our garden planted to flowers, I’m more free to enjoy the garden.

But the benefits of the flowers extend beyond lightening my workload to the garden itself. Growing more flowers has expanded the biodiversity of our garden, and thus should enhance the overall health of the site simply through the presence of additional species of plants. Most organic or natural gardeners know about cover cropping, using purposely chosen plants to build the soil through enhancing its nitrogen content or organic matter. But in reading a remarkable interview with the Australian farmer Johannes Meier, I learned that having diverse species of plants can be even simpler and more valuable than this. Meier, with his fellow members of the Bruderhof (an Anabaptist community), operates a ranch that had lost significant amounts of topsoil and had even begun to go totally infertile as salt built up in the soil due to poorly managed grazing and irrigation. Once the Bruderhof switched the farm over to regenerative practices, however, recovery was swift. In contrast to the conventional wisdom that replacing topsoil takes generations, Meier and his fellows saw rapid improvement. And much of this rebuilding of the soil comes from biodiversity:

We’re learning that as plant diversity increases, there’s a certain trigger point – called quorum sensing – where topsoil begins to build rapidly. How many species of plants do you need for a quorum? The more the merrier, microbiologists are saying. Different plants produce different root exudates, allowing access to specific soil nutrients. There have been positive results from as few as twelve species, and more rapid success with forty.

Having a greater variety of species in our garden should, then, improve our soil more rapidly than a plan dedicated to relatively few crops. Whether or not the plant types have specific soil-building benefits like legumes, their presence is intrinsically beneficial because it contributes to the greater diversity of the plant population as a whole. Even non-edible plants, if grown as part of a diverse plant community, can seemingly contribute to this process underneath the soil.

So, ease and soil-building convinced me to give flowers more of a try. Delight came later. Only now have I really discovered the satisfactions of this form of gardening: a bulb pushing up from the ground, poppies tossing in the wind, or a black hollyhock opening after two years.