April showers may bring May flowers, but they also warm and wake up a beautiful, slumbering, food garden ecosystem, including flowering, life-saving perennials.
In my Pacific Northwest garden, we are in a more-or-less constant state of cold and damp from late October, straight through to April. Granted, the sun moves markedly higher in the sky right after Valentine’s Day, and March teases us with the possibility of peas, but it isn’t until April, when tepid showers stir up a dense and foggy layer of warmth over the landscape, that the growing season begins in earnest.
The first plants to greet me, ironically, are already in bloom. Not the tender annual sort of bedding plants that one buys at a nursery, but the cold-hardy perennial and native species like winter heath Erica, and cornelian cherry that seem so pleased to have survived another winter, that they wave tiny bright white, gold and pink flowers, to summon me to the garden.
I am smitten. And, together with hundreds of newly hatched native bees whose very survival depends on the nutrient dense blossoms, I return again and again to revel in the miracle and sweetness of the ritual. How do they (the plants and the bees) know just what to do?
Understanding something of the history and plight of native bees, and the growing loss of biodiversity in many urban centres, has called me to task to incorporate flowering native and non-native perennial plants, herbs and bushes into my urban permaculture garden.
Instinct and intuition fuel a miraculous continuum of bees and other pollinators heralding spring, but, as a by-product of urban and suburban development, their numbers dwindle year after year, in tandem with a loss of native habitat.
The cumulative affect of regional native habitat loss is catastrophic, as evidenced by climate change, but thankfully we are not powerless, and through many small initiatives close to home, can turn the tide in favour of pollinators and the ecosystems they benefit and benefit from.
I am a case in point.
While at one time, I purchased impatiens and other tropical or non-native annuals to add light and seasonal colour to flower beds and containers, I now choose perennial and native plants that are both beautiful and productive, that is they serve one or more righteous purpose.
Consider that perennial plants are very often priced equally or comparatively with popular tropical annuals, and always they provide greater value over the long term. Always they promise a smaller and lighter environmental footprint, and almost always they are far more resilient. And finally, hardy and native perennials do not require hothouse propagation, or the burning of fossil fuels to tease them into short-lived existence.
Most of my favourite blossoms are attached to perennial herbs, vegetables, ground covers, bushes, trees, vines and fruits that blossom in waves throughout the season, providing ever-changing colour across the garden landscape.
None of this happens by accident, of course. It happens spontaneously every spring — a symphony of nature, conducted by the sun and the rain, and orchestrated by the warming of the earth. Microorganisms within the soil become more active, seeds germinate, fungi sporulate, trees foliate, pollinators incubate — and gardeners of course, we celebrate.
It is not necessary to understand the science and traditional wisdom governing natural ecosystems to participate in creating or preserving one. We can all do our bit by following a few simple guidelines for choosing righteous plants over purely or primarily ornamental ones.
Permaculture and urban permaculture designers like myself consider many factors when choosing flowering plants for particular sites and for particular functions. First on my list is whether or not a plant is native to the ecosystem into which it will be planted or help create. Always I prefer perennial or self-seeding plants (plants that drop seeds into the soil themselves, for germination the next spring or the spring following).
Always, I ask myself a series of questions about my choices, interviewing the plant and its natural assets, for its place in my garden. The process applies equally to plants destined for in-ground beds, raised beds, container gardens, hanging gardens, for aesthetics, for gifts, and for food. My interview questions read something like this:
Does this flowering plant offer more than just beauty?
Does this flowering plant require minimal amounts of fertilizer to thrive?
Does this flowering plant require minimal amounts of water to thrive?
Does this flowering plant produce a food or market crop? (vegetable, spice, fresh or dried herb or herbal tea, fruit, natural medicine, natural fibre, cut flower, edible flower)
Does this flowering plant attract beneficial insects
Does this flowering plant repel predator insects?
Does this flowering plant help aerate the soil with tap roots?
Does this flowering plant help mulch the soil?
Does this flowering plant attract/feed pollinator insects and birds?
Does this flowering plant provide habitat, structure, and/or shelter to insects/birds/amphipians?
Try it yourself when you are planning a garden or adding to it. If the answer to several or many of these questions is yes, then bravo, your are part of the solution and you will have learned valuable lessons to share with other gardeners. An online search for ‘companion flowering plants for vegetable gardens’ in your specific area, will yield insightful results.
Some of my favourite worker-bee flowering plants include popular companion plants, but also some non-traditional ones. I don’t necessarily use companion plants as recommended, or plant them in places they traditionally grow, but what I do works for me and it benefits my garden. For example:
I will put ground cover flowers such as alyssum in beds and in pots, not only to attract beneficial insects, but to act as a natural mulch (to help soil retain moisture and temperature), which over the course of the growing season can stretch end to end in a beautiful carpet of white (or pink or purple).
On a slope or mound into which one might plant squash or heat loving herbs, alyssum or a flowering moss, can help provide stability and prevent soil erosion. Looking to nature, provides clues as to how to solve mechanical and systems challenges in your garden by utilizing plants with specific architectural attributes and growth habits.
Tender herbs such as basil don’t always do well in my exposed herb spiral along with the other culinary herbs. However, they do very well in the semi-protected tomato planters, where, together with a mulch of lavender cuttings, they help keep pests away from the tomatoes while providing rainy day shelter and sustenance for bees, birds and butterflies.
If my neighbours and the thousands of bees who depend on the lavender berm/swale that surrounds our boulevard wouldn’t object, I could harvest the English lavender blossoms for retail sale, and earn a tidy income. So too, could I market the sunflowers and sweet peas. I may do that one day, but for now I leave them for the bees, butterflies, and birds.
Our large herb spiral in out front yard produces three to five prolific harvests annually, of lemon balm, several varieties of mint, sage, thyme, oregano, and chamomile, to dry and produce custom teas. I don’t make custom teas for retail sale, but certainly I could. And so could you.
Always, rather than pinching or cutting all of the basil blossoms to encourage bushiness and lateral growth (or basil vinegar), I leave a percentage for the bees. Their happiness is reward enough for any potential food or market crop loss, and given that we’ve been destroying pollinator habitat knowingly and unknowingly for decades (centuries actually), the least I can do, is all that I can do.
My favourite flowering plants include the following multi-taskers. I have included the aforementioned popular annual ‘impatiens’ in the list for comparison.
In fairness to beautiful impatiens, the bedding plant varieties offered for sale at nurseries are largely bred for showiness, disease resistance, and vigorous growth, leaving little pollen or nectar to be of interest or use to bees or other pollinators. Perhaps impatiens growing wild in Africa and India are perennial and pollinator-friendly; certainly they play an important and productive role in their native ecosystems.
Hard-Working Flowering Plants
To demonstrate how easy and rewarding it is to become part of the solution in creating pollinator habitat while growing a food garden, I offer you the following super-easy and beautiful recipe for basil blossom vinegar. The recipe can be adapted to any variety or varieties of basil that you can grow at home, indoors or outdoors, in pots, containers, in-ground, or raised beds. Mixing green, white, purple and blue blossoms and leaves in varying combinations produces fragrant vinegars in many shades of lime, to lavender, to ruby red.
This is a waste-nothing recipe which utilizes 100% of the beautiful blossoms that appear relatively early in the season, on basil plants. Bees love basil blossoms and they create the most exquisite basil honey by gathering basil pollen and nectar. For this reason, I recommend that you leave 25-50% of your basil blossoms on the plants for the bees and other pollinators, and harvest the rest for basil vinegar. Basil plants will flower several times during one growing season, so if you get it a bit wrong or over-harvest initially, you can adjust your strategy soon enough.
To harvest basil blossoms, pinch or cut them off of their stems, below the first set of leaves, but at the point just above the second set of leaves -- leaving as little or no stalk sticking up from the second set of leaves. Doing so will encourage the plant to grow two stalks, creating more leaves and more blossoms. You can see where this is going ... and how much basil you can grow.
Have fun with it, knowing that at summer's end, all of the big bushy basil plants that you have produced by virtue of pinching blossoms throughout the season, can be made into traditional basil or mixed herb pesto, or basil-based chimichurri, chermoula, salsa verde, Thai dipping sauce, zhoug, or green goddess dressing. They are all delicious, nutritious, and they make much-loved gifts from the kitchen. Watch for these and other fun garden to table recipes featuring basil, in the coming weeks.
For now, start some basil seeds indoors in inexpensive seed starting mix, in a seed tray, recycled take-out container, or plant pots. Place in a warm location such as the top of a fridge or sunny windowsill, or use a heat mat set to 70-75F (21-24C). Seeds will germinate in 3-7 days. Keep soil moist but definitely not wet as basil is prone to damping off (fungal or mold rot of tender stems at the soil level). Placing a fan on low near but not next to the seedlings will help prevent damping off.
Traditionally, basil is transplanted or direct sown in the garden after the true start of summer, or after the longest day of the year. But that is here where I live, so check the online growing recommendations of a seed company in your general area, or ask at a garden centre, when it is safe to plant basil. Most types of true basil are fragile and sensitive to damp and cold, so consider that when planting.
Quick and Easy Basil Blossom Vinegar
Any variety of basil blossoms, small leaves included (see above for method)
Inexpensive plain white vinegar (rice vinegar and white wine vinegar work well also) containing minimum 5% acetic acid
Clean glass, heat-proof jars with lids
Metal or wooden spoons
Pack clean and dry blossoms into your jar or jars.
Bring vinegar just to a boil on the stove or in the microwave
Pour hot vinegar into the jar(s) slowly, onto the metal or wooden spoon which will absorb/deflect some of the heat and help prevent the jar from cracking, which happens rarely but on occasion (my grandmother showed me this trick).
Add just enough vinegar to cover basil by one-half inch (1cm), stirring to remove air bubbles, and topping up as needed.
Cover jar loosely and set aside in a cool dark spot for at least three weeks, and up to several months.
Strain vinegar through a sieve lined with muslin or cheesecloth (I used old stained but clean dinner napkins), and place in decorative bottles for giving, or a glass or plastic container for storing. Don't use aluminum containers, as the acetic acid in vinegar can dissolve aluminum.
Retain and refrigerate the strained and 'pickled' basil flowers as they make a delicious pizza topping (chopped), and can be pureed into homemade salad vinaigrettes and meat marinades.
*Full disclosure, I don't wash my basil blossoms, knowing that the odd bit of insect protein will find its way into my diet, and also that vinegar kills pathogens. I always wash herbs, greens and vegetables that are eaten fresh or added to recipes not involving heat or processing.
Worth noting is the potential longevity of this undertaking, which can go for a long as your basil plants thrive. By the time I am done making blossom and herb vinegars in the fall, I have dozens of well-steeped quart jars full, ready to strain and bottle. For me, a right of passage into the cold season -- a fragrant and delicious farewell to summer.
I hope that I have inspired you to pause and consider asking more of the flowering plants you buy and grow for your garden. If we each do our part to right the wrongs of the past by planting productive gardens and creating pollinator and natural habitat, we can indeed make a big green beautiful dent in the universe.
Until next week, happy gardening!
To learn about urban permaculture and permaculture principles, watch Modern Farmer Magazine's Urban Permaculture video series in which publisher Frank Giustra and I introduce the basics.
If you haven't subscribed to MF's Million Gardens Movement newsletter, please do.