Bread AND Roses

Sharon April 3rd, 2009

A reader who signs herself “Grandma Pansy” and who gave me permission to post this wonderful letter asked this:

I wanted to ask your advice about something.  For the last 14 years, my husband and I have shared in a wonderful project - a garden.  We’ve been building soil and tending our plants together.  Since we both retired three years ago, the old half acre garden has sprawled across another full acre of our property.  We sell at farmer’s markets, and donate to the local shelter, as well as sharing with our neighbors.  It has been the best gift to our marriage and made us happier together than we ever were - when Roger hit middle age, he told me he’d rather have perennials than a Ferrari, and watch me dig in compost than get a new girlfriend, and I’ve been glowing with happiness ever since (we’ve been married 31 years). 

What’s the problem?  Well, that acre and a half is all flowers.  We have a full acre of gorgeous perennial gardens, and a bit less than a half acre of annual flowers that we cut and sell at market as our retirement hobby (we were both music teachers, and we still give a few lessons to stretch the pensions too).  The gardens are beautiful, they are our babies (our daughter is grown and lives across the country), and our passion.  We do make some crab apple jelly, and give the ornamental quinces to a friend of ours, but there’ s no food in this garden, really just flowers.  I read what you write and agree that we’re facing tough times.  And we’ve talked about it, and that’s the right thing to do, we’ll start pulling out the peonies and irises and putting in blueberries, and stop growing zinnias and tuberoses and start growing potatoes and eggplant.  But we love our flowers so much, and we love our property as it is, and it is awfully hard to imagine letting the whole thing go.  What do you advise us to do?  And do you think our marriage will survive eggplant?

 Oh, Gosh, poor Roger and Grandma Pansy, worrying that food-obsessed blog chick is going to make them give up their gardens and their marriage.  I’m so sorry to have given that impression!  Let me start by assuring you that I think flowers have a major place in the future, and by thanking you for the stunning pictures.

Where?  Well, first of all, there’s the fact that they are cheap thrill.  A bouquet of basic summer annuals costs a few bucks at a farmer’s market - even when I was a desperately poor college student, I sometimes splurged on flowers.  We all need beauty to get through our lives and our days, and even getting poorer, there will probably be a market for flowers for a long, long time to come.  People in tough times need comfort and beauty and reminders of good things.  Flowers do all that.

In fact, when we ran our CSA, flowers were a major component, and they probably got us more customers than the vegetables did.  I admit, I never did anything as fussy as tuberoses - besides some perennials, my bouquets were full of wildflowers and easy to grow annuals like zinnias, rudbeckia, statice, larkspur, cosmos and sweet peas, but people seemed to like them.  And I admit, I used to save the process of arranging the flowers for the last step before delivery, because I enjoyed it so much! 

When Eric’s grandparents were alive, I promised to keep their vases full all summer, and I loved making sure they had nature inside even if walking too far outside wasn’t possible for them.  I could see how much pleasure it gave them, and I think there’s no question that they were one of the great pleasures of their lives - to feel that their house was beautiful, to smell the scent of flowers - these were basic sensual pleasures that could be enjoyed even when many other joys had passed.  There are reasons we send flowers to the mourning and the sick - because they are reminder of life and hope and beauty.

Moreover, my own faith has the idea of “Hiddur Mitzvah” which means that if you are going to do a good deed for the glory of G-d, you should do it as beautifully as possible.  I try to make sure that I have flowers on the table every Sabbath, whether dried flowers from last fall or fresh.  As more and more of us have to give up the idea that we can live “decorator” lives, we will be turning towards the beauties we can have - and flowers are everywhere and can be everywhere.

I also plant some flowering plants to help attract pollinators to my plants - I’ve been undercropping cucumbers with alyssum for years, for example, and it seems to improve my yields.  I grow sweet peas as a nitrogen fixing crop, since I saved a lot of seed a few years ago - they make a gorgeous, sprawling cover for a bed, and after I cut all I want, I cut them down and till them in.

Moreover, the reality is that people need to make a living and flowers often pay better than food.  This, I think, is somewhat unfortunate, but it is the reality - flowers can be a great transitional move for people looking to make some money growing, or establish a small market garden - today’s celosia is tomorrow’s cabbage.

Does that mean they shouldn’t grow any practical crops?  Well, I’d tend to bet that they already do.  Daylily petals are delicious.  So are sunflower, poppy and flax seeds.  Many, many ornamental plants are also medicinal or have dye or fiber uses.  They may already have the beginnings of quite a good medicinal herb garden.

Instead of wholesale giving up the peonies and dumping the iris, what I’d suggest is a much more moderate course.  Look into edible landscaping - consider adding in plants that are both ornamental and food, fiber, dye or medicine producing.  The blueberries are a great idea - they turn flaming red in the autumn and are gorgeous.  Some species of viburnum are very tasty.  And I’ve never been clear on why people don’t grow eggplant, colored chard and okra ornamentally - they are stunning, as are many hot pepper plants and asparagus ferns.  You don’t have to keep everythings separated - mixing these plants into annual and perennial plantings will keep the basic structures of your gardens intact and allow you to gradually add food plants.

 But I’d hate to see you give up the flowers - right now I’ve got a flat of marigolds and calendula, one of zinnias, another of perennials, one of sweet peas and still one more of alyssum and poppies in my house, so I’m certainly no one to talk.   The future is going to be about food - but with bread must come roses.


38 Responses to “Bread AND Roses”

  1. Rebeccaon 03 Apr 2023 at 7:43 am

    Hear hear Sharon! I could never do without my flowers. And I absolutely love that song. ‘Give us bread but give us roses!’ (John Denver did an excellent recording of it, btw.)

  2. Green Hill Farmon 03 Apr 2023 at 7:57 am

    Studies have been done that flowers do benefit ones mood. I grow a couple rows of flowers each year for my CSA, most of the folks love it. As Sharon said nothing fussy, sunflowers, cosmos and zinnias. This year I am going to grow less cosmos, they just haven’t performed as well as I’d like, sunflowers and zinnias will remain the same, plus I bought some cleome, snapdragon, and bells of Ireland seeds. I think I bought a few other things as well :) .

    Some CSAs even make the flower portion extra I don’t I love growing them and I don’t want to have to worry about their quanity.

    I agree with Sharon mix it up some prettys and some edibles. I think I might start by leaving all or most of the perenials and decrease the annuals and add some edibles. I can picture zucchinis planted on the edge of a flower garden or winter squash etc. I think you might find you’ll love the veggie plants as much as the flowers I do. I love touring my gardens (about 2 acres) every day each summer, note was ready for harvest, really look at the flowers some of the plants produce, squash flowers are as pretty as lillies and potatoes plants get tiny whiteish flowers.
    Spying honey bees up close, so close you can see the pollen in their legs is a treat. I love seeing toads up out when you disturbed them due to weeding. I even like spying snakes, oh they always make be jump but then I slowly take a closer look :) . Oh and humongous (sp?) spiders in giants webs with dew sparkling in the sun love those :) .

    Flowers and veg are beautiful :) . Picture a table with a vase of flowers,candles and plates full of garden veg, oh la la no marriage problems :) .

    Next it will be chickens :)

    Beth in Massachusetts

  3. koryon 03 Apr 2023 at 8:19 am

    I’ve come to the conclusion that food gardening is incomplete without flowers in the mix. I’ll have to try alyssium with cuccumbers, I usually pair them with nasturtiums.

  4. Green Assassin Brigadeon 03 Apr 2023 at 8:58 am

    Amaranth is another stunning plant which produces a quality food, scarlet runner beans are also quite pretty.

    I agree that destroying that much work and beauty would be a crime but with that much space you could still produce a reasonable supplement to your normal food supply just in nooks and crannies without turning it into a market garden. Slight modifications to add herbs (culinary and medicinal) could even add to the beauty and would give you an additional product for the market. I would also think that this much land and variety of flower would be a great place for a bee hive, more food and income.

  5. Kellion 03 Apr 2023 at 9:03 am

    Totally agree! When neighbors worried about the appearance of our front-yard garden, the giant sunflowers completely won them over. Now that we have an empty lot to grow in, we’ve got a flat of sunflowers and one of zinnias to keep the neighbors at bay and to bring joy into our house (along with the eggplant!).

  6. Heatheron 03 Apr 2023 at 9:47 am

    I think I need to work more on integrating flowers and veggies myself, although we’ve done some here and there.

    Kale has beautiful leaves, I love how curly they are. They could be a great flower garden accent, as well as being very nutritional.

    Also, sometimes flowering plants have an effect on the plants around them, and not just for attracting pollinators. Some help deal with pests (like pot marigold for tomatoes). And I found out by accident one year that chrysanthemums grow taller next to tomatoes (I had mums as the front border for my garden that year).

    Might be worth looking into Companion Planting — this could help both with what will go well together and what _won’t_. For instance, sage and onions aren’t compatible, but roses and garlic are.

  7. Theresaon 03 Apr 2023 at 9:49 am

    I planted rainbow chard along with pansies in my ‘ornamental’ whiskey barrel planters last year, and I’ll do something similar again this year. There surely are lots of beautiful plants that are edible or otherwise useful! And I’m sure the marigolds (and garlic) I planted around the perimetre of my veggie garden helped keep the deer away! But there has to be a place for flowers just for the sake of flowers too - their simple beauty is restorative in ways that are just as important as food.

  8. Greenpaon 03 Apr 2023 at 9:52 am

    Grandma Pansy - I SO totally agree with Sharon. PLEASE don’t dig up your peonies to plant blueberries, just for food.

    This argument was one of the frictions that messed up my first marriage. We had a huge vegetable garden- and I always wanted to put in a couple rows of flowers. Spouse thought they were an utter waste of time- and refused to help care for the zinnias and marigolds and whatevers. Which took a lot of enjoyment out of them, for me.

    Mostly that illustrated a basic difference in our personalities. For her, the garden was, and should be “work” - and “work” was never to be confused with “fun” - or “enjoyed”. And I’m on the other end of that pendulum; labor is and should be enjoyable, for its own sake.

    Anyway! For one thing- there will be TONS of newbie vegetable gardeners out there; who are just learning- and their flower attempts are very likely to be flops. Your years of expertise and love of the flowers is HUGELY valuable.

    Should be possible for you to swap your flowers for their squash; or peas; or whatever it is they succeed at and are proud of.

    And your flowers on their table, as they enjoy their peas- and vice-versa; just makes the whole thing stronger- and more satisfying, for everybody.

    Never doubt the value of what you’re doing!

  9. DEEon 03 Apr 2023 at 11:28 am

    Flowers are food for your soul. Don’t dig them up. If you want veggies support your local farmers markets and keep selling flowers. It was so sad at the nursing home where I worked- when I’d bring in flowers so we’d have bouquets the first comment most residents would make was “who died?” Now they know I bring them as often as I can…even in the winter with just a simple bunch of store bought posies.

    I know I enjoy my garden more for the flowers I scatter throughout. Some I grow in memory of lost loved ones…dalhias for my husbands grandmother who adored coming to our farm way into her 90’s…and grew those huge dinner plate ones that I don’t like but there are jillions of others that grow gladly from seed. My dad always had peonies and glads…raised a Chicago city boy he came late to gardening but really enjoyed his “ditch garden” in the north woods of MI…only place he had enough sun. My mom loved her patch of lily-of-the valley by the backdoor and would often wear a few in an old pin that was a minature vase and help enough water to keep them from drooping all day.

    Yes, we grow tons of veggies but people visiting the garden are still drawn first to the sunflowers and the lilies and the Russian sage. My DH and I are in our 60’s and we garden together. It draws us together and we enjoy winter,too building trellises and Adirondack chairs and putzing in our little greenhouse. DEE

  10. Safiraon 03 Apr 2023 at 11:31 am

    Grandma Pansy, you and your Roger are bringing joy to the whole neighborhood with those flowers!

    I’m sure you can find places to tuck some lettuce and chard into your borders, add some peppers to the annual display, run some peas or beans up a trellis instead of morning glories, and put some tomatoes in big planters if you don’t want those funny gangly plants in with the pretties. I’ve converted some of my flower garden to veggies…but mostly I’m just filling containers and appropriating more lawn.

  11. Shiraon 03 Apr 2023 at 12:42 pm

    Ah, flowers are very nice… It only takes 40 square feet of raised bed per person to grow as much green stuff as you can put in your face, three seasons in a temperate climate. That’s a tiny corner of a large garden. Add some spots for heirloom tomatoes and sneak in some zucchini and cucumbers and problem solved.

    I garden on a narrow strip of former ratty lawn that makes a long L around two sides of the house. The city requires a 24 inch set back from the sidewalk, which is perfect for flowers and herbs. The flowers provide food for pollinators and shelter for predator insects. Into my statutory set back, I plant herbs for flavor and medicine, radishes for seed production and hosting the predators of the carrot fly, flowers for the gardener’s soul and amusing the passers by.

    The predator hosting and companion planting is working. I noticed that there was a big difference in insect problems last year between the older raised beds in the front of the house, with established flower and herb borders, and the new ones down the long side of the L. Grandma Pansy, starting with a mixed garden of annual and perennial flowers, is probably going to wonder why other people think growing organic vegetables is hard.

    Shira in Bellingham, WA

  12. ETon 03 Apr 2023 at 12:53 pm

    Why not go the middle way- dig up some flowers and give them away to people who have too many veggies. Or maybe a trade veggie seeds for flower seed, blueberry bushed for roses?
    Or trade flowers for veggies.

  13. George Anonymuncule Seldeson 03 Apr 2023 at 1:21 pm

    Post the pix or you made it all up. ;^)

  14. graceon 03 Apr 2023 at 1:29 pm

    I think it’s Wordsworth? The ONLY poetry I memorized as a child

    “If of thy worldly goods thou art bereft, two
    loaves alone to thee are left,

    Sell one, and with the dole buy
    hyacinths to feed thy soul.”

    grace, NM

  15. amyon 03 Apr 2023 at 2:03 pm

    What about trading your neighbor flowers for veggies? I might start replacing/mixing in some veggies for the annual flowers, but keep the flowers! :)

  16. Ellenon 03 Apr 2023 at 2:08 pm

    Other great edible ornamentals include rugosa roses, with their big tasty hips, and many of the stone fruits- if you’re in an area where peaches grow, look into the dual-purpose varieties with big double blossoms followed by tasty fruit. Another one of my favorites is blue podded peas- the vigorous vines are covered with big, beautiful purple blossoms that look a lot like the early heirloom varieties of sweet peas, though sadly unscented. The pods are a lovely blue/purple, and they can be eaten as snow peas or left to mature for dry peas. Flax is another beautiful and extremely useful crop, and you can also grow certain varieties of nigella and poppies for their seed. Here in Southern California we also grow pomegranites and passionfruit, which have stunning blossoms- if you live in the north, you may want to look into maypop, which is a hardy northern passionfruit. Also, so many flowers are edible- violets, calendula, hollyhocks, nasturtiums, daylilies, roses, saffron crocus, etc… so there’s no need to give them up.

    There are several great books on edible landscaping out there, as well as books on companion planting which have ideas for combining flowers, herbs and veggies together in mutually beneficial ways. I agree with Sharon and the others though- please don’t rip out your peonies and irises! If you just make your next Salvia a pineapple sage, or your next vine a passionfruit or a painted lady runner bean, you’ll soon have a garden that’s as useful as it is beautiful.

  17. Billon 03 Apr 2023 at 2:48 pm

    I truly enjoyed the responses to Sharon’s latest post.

    Concerining the debate about vege vs non-vegetarian, there’s a huge gap of debate.

    My feeling is, if you want to survive the coming years, kill and eat your neighbors. Protein in what ever form will suffice.

    The capitalist mode we’ve all seemed to adopt is headed for nothing but failure. Just because your political leaders won’t admit to the fact (consider the G20) doesn’t make it less so.

    Meat is, and will be, where you find it. If you need meat to survive, good fucking luck. Don’t eat me and I won’t eat you.

  18. Edon 03 Apr 2023 at 5:17 pm

    I’m pretty sure people have been asking and answering this question for a very long time:

    “When you have only two pennies left in the world, buy a loaf of bread with one, and a lily with the other.” -Chinese Proverb

    “Bread feeds the body, indeed, but flowers feed also the soul.” -The Koran

  19. Leila Abu-Sabaon 03 Apr 2023 at 5:26 pm

    Love this post. Re: vegetables as ornamentals - I see rainbow kale around the Bay Area as ornamentals all the time. Don’t know if it’s edible but it’s gorgeous and it sure looks like kale you would eat.

    Many folk around here grow food crops in the front yard; it wouldn’t be a Berkeley/Oakland garden if it didn’t have nasturtiums sprawling over the fence. Also: lavender, rosemary, tree mallow, amaranth, sunflowers and society garlic. All wildly popular. And most people grow some kind of roses among the kale. Roses like our weather.

  20. Leila Abu-Sabaon 03 Apr 2023 at 5:26 pm

    BTW I realize that the tree mallow is probably not edible although some species might be medicinal. Nor is society garlic AFIK.

  21. AnnMarieon 03 Apr 2023 at 7:29 pm

    I, too, am delighted by your advice. The favorite part of my garden are the zinnias, which I finally planted last year. Mom always grew them in between rows of onions and I finally did the same. I LOVE them. And watching the birds all summer…we even saw hummingbirds at them.

    I’d also encourage edible flowers, and sell them in packages at the farmer’s market. No one at mine does, and I remember fondly the ones I’d get back in grad school (rarely went to the market, to my regret now, but when I did, I always got a little bag of flowers along with greens). I only have a few edible flowers each year-and would love the variety someone else could provide. Plus, I find it hard to remember which ones are okay when I’m getting seedlings. So, anyway, a vote to sell these, too!

  22. Katkinkateon 03 Apr 2023 at 10:38 pm

    I have visions of a rose garden in my (hopefully) soon to be acquired block of land: rose-scented potpourie to make my house smell good; rosewater to make me smell good; rose petals in the salad; rose-flavoured cakes, custard and turkish delight; rosehip jam and cordial; and a big bunch of roses in large vase on the dining table. I’ll grow lots of herbs and veges underneath the bushes.

  23. Wendyon 04 Apr 2023 at 8:29 am

    When I first started my gardening adventures, I wanted flowers, but my husband was adamant - nothing that wasn’t “useful” - either edible or medicinal. Luckily, his mother didn’t totally agree, and kept giving me extra flower bulbs from her garden :) .

    But the more I learned about gardening and different plants, the more I realized that flowers often have a great deal of value in an edible landscape. We found a particular viola at a local nursery that has my daughter’s name (her name is very unusual and so to find the flower that shares her name was amazing), and we bought them. We didn’t know anything about violas at the time, but have since learned that they are edible flowers, and not only do we enjoy their beautiful, delicate little faces in our garden, but they smell wonderful, the bees love them, and we can add them to salads.

    This year, edible flowers will have a prominent place in my garden. I found a collection of edible flower seeds on Johnny Seed and will be adding them as soon as planting starts in my area.

  24. Debon 04 Apr 2023 at 8:39 am

    Sometimes the only thing that gets me thru the last bit of winter is knowing that soon my spiderwort will bloom and I can go down the road and see the pasque flowers on the hill. Roses and daisies and bergamot will be coming…….it’s almost better than the sight of the first robin or bluebird.

  25. Greenpaon 04 Apr 2023 at 9:24 am

    The edible flowers direction is interesting and fun, too. Day lilies- edible as bud, flower, and closed past bloom; roses- some have the hips, candied rose petals, and rose-petal jam are wildly expensive; nasturtiums? and on. Another dimension to explore. And medicinals. :-)

  26. dogear6on 04 Apr 2023 at 9:45 am

    I loved Sharon’s advice to the question that was posed her. It was balanced, encouraging and gave a great additional perspective on raising the flowers for cash. The responses to this blog are also giving additional ideas and insights and I am enjoying not only the interchange of ideas, but the suggestions of things to try myself. Thanks for taking time to post this question, respond to it and letting us all give our opinions as well.

  27. Green Assassin Brigadeon 04 Apr 2023 at 11:45 am

    People from a planet without flowers would think we must be mad with joy the whole time to have such things about us.

    Iris Murdoch

  28. Maeveon 04 Apr 2023 at 12:27 pm

    I’m sure it is true for other places as well around the US, but up here in Montana you can wander around abandoned pioneer homesteads, where all that remains of “people” is a fallen-in husk of a log cabin and… some hardy lilac bushes.

    Flowers nourish our soul, as food nourishes our body.

    Even if a flower has no edible or medicinal purpose, its beauty is still reason enough to have a place in the garden.

    I personally interplant flowers and herbs and veggies. I’ve found that by doing so, all my plants thrive much better.

  29. Mark Non 04 Apr 2023 at 12:30 pm

    A forest garden has its own beauty. If you have a vegetable garden and it is well-maintained, neat, with marigolds and such to repel insect pests, that too can be attractive looking. I maintain a perennial border but only because of the beneficial insects it draws in and feeds. Utility (for me and for the wild critters) is my main concern. If I, say, inherited a one acre garden of strictly ornamental plants, I would mow it down and plant a forest garden including nut and fruit trees, shrubs, and vines.

  30. Shezon 04 Apr 2023 at 7:49 pm

    Our local heritage seed company, the Diggers club, maintains a heritage display garden on the Mornington peninsular near Melbourne (Australia) which is notable for its integration of flowers and veg in formal plantings, often using the vegetable leaf forms to great effect. There’s a pic at the link

  31. graceon 05 Apr 2023 at 9:11 am

    Rose petal beads
    made into necklaces. Finished beads are dark
    brown regardless of color of petals. If black is prefered, add rusty nails to pot as you cook them or cook in cast iron pot.
    5 C highly scented rose petals
    barely covered with water
    simmer gently 2 hours
    stirring to break up petals.
    Remove nails and let sit overnight.
    For next 2 or 3 days simmer petals to evaporate more and more water.
    Knead well and form individual round or oblong beads larger than desired as they will shrink as they dry.
    Pierce each with thick needle, centering as perfectly as possible and thread all on wire and hang where they will hold their shape. Move back and forth daily to keep hole free. In a week they will be hard as rock and can be strung or carved with designs. The beads retain their scent a long time.
    paraphrased from 1975 instructions of
    Mariel Dewey

    grace N Mex

  32. Johnon 06 Apr 2023 at 4:50 pm

    One plant we love to grow among the veggies is borage. The leaves are edible of course but the flowers look stunning frozen into ice cubes for a summer drink. They also attract beneficial aphid eating insects such as hoverflies.

    Greetings from Cornwall, on the other side of the “pond”.

  33. ctdaffodilon 07 Apr 2023 at 7:40 am

    My parents always planted marigolds in with the veggies every year - I remember them saying the scent was undesireable to some worm/grub/bug. Since it was my job to get the insects off plants when I saw them - I NEVER minded the marigolds being with the veggies

    I plant marigolds in my front planters because they survive the southern exposure well and are for me like the Spider Plant version of a flower - wicked easy to grow

  34. KathyDon 07 Apr 2023 at 3:55 pm

    The U of M horticulture garden has incorporated some lovely dwark Honey Crisp apples into the landscaping bushes, ferns, flowers. The contrast of that dwarf apple, with those shining red apples right at mouth level is beyond any resistance. Eve would have never stood a chance with these apples, with or without the snake.

  35. Ponyon 07 Apr 2023 at 9:47 pm

    I want to make the case for dahlias. I have very limited gardening space (less than 100 sq ft in a community patch) but one 4 x 4 square is full of dahlia bulbs. In this climate (just east of Seattle) you don’t have to dig them up in the winter, so mine have been in the same place for 5 years and every year I have armloads of cut flowers from July through October, at least, and enough to give away to anyone who wants them. And they are great for saying thanks for gifts of any veggies I don’t grow myself.

  36. Rhisiart Gwilymon 08 Apr 2023 at 6:44 am

    “If of all your worldly goods you were bereft,
    And of your store, two loaves alone were left,
    Then sell the one, and with the dole
    Buy hyacinths, to feed your soul.”

  37. Earl Mardleon 09 Apr 2023 at 5:09 am

    I second all that.

    We have been seriously growing food in our garden for just over a year. My wife is very big on companion planting and attracting pollinators and predators and we have never grown so many flowering plants as we have had this season.

    Zinnias, calendula, nasturtium, cosmos, cliome, alyssum, thyme, rosemary, sage, flowers and scented herbs out the wazoo.

    Of course flowers are included

  38. Kathleenon 17 May 2023 at 10:49 pm

    Another wonderful side-effect of having edibles and flowers mixed in together is the delightful buzzing of the bees, enjoying the pollen from both the flowers and the vegies. It is likely that you’ll have excllent pollintation for your cucumbers and tomatoes (for example) when they are in flower. It sounds like a great opportunity to create a beautiful mix of flowers and edibles. Inspirational!

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