In the vegetable garden at Sissinghurst we have dedicated a large area to edible and medicinal herbs. The herb garden has a dual purpose. Firstly, to provide the kitchen with culinary herbs, such as thyme (Thymus vulgaris), rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), and sage (Salvia officinalis), which we cut fresh for the chefs on a regular basis. The second purpose for the herb garden is to attract pollinators and other beneficial insects into the vegetable garden. Some vegetable or fruit plants are self- or wind-pollinated but many plants rely on insects for pollination and will not set fruit without them. There are many insects which will pollinate plants, including bees, butterflies, moths, flies and beetles. Most commonly we think of bees when imagining pollinating insects. If you stand in the middle of the herb garden at the moment you will hear the constant drone of bees busy at work as many of the herbs which we grow are attractive to bees when they are in their flowering state. Borage (Borago officinalis), chives (Allium schoenoprasum), hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis) and even the tiny white flowers of lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) are all excellent pollinator attractants and draw bees and other insects into our vegetable garden.
Borage (Borago officinalis) is an attractive annual, standing at approximately 2 feet tall and displaying a dazzling display of blue, star-shaped flowers from May until September. We regularly harvest the flowers of the borage in the herb garden to provide an attractive addition to any salads or desserts in Sissinghurst’s restaurant. It is commonly cited that the flowers and young leaves have a cucumber-like taste, whereas I personally am reminded of green beans. Not only do these striking blue flowers look attractive to us but the bees love them and they are a great way to encourage pollinators onto the vegetable garden.
Another herb that has several uses, including attracting bees and pollinators into the garden, is chives (Allium schoenoprasum). We harvest both the onion-flavoured leaf and the flowers of the chives in the herb garden for use in Sissinghurst’s kitchens. If you stop to watch you will notice an abundance of bees lazily hopping from one purple pompom flower to another throughout the summer months. Once the flowers have gone to seed we cut our chives right back to the ground which encourages regeneration of fresh leaves and should encourage a new flush of flowers.
Some of the herbs that we grow in the vegetable garden also work really well as sacrificial companion plants; attracting the pests away from our vegetables and onto them instead. I was interested to look at the feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium) a couple of weeks back and find that not only were the tips absolutely black with aphids, but that there were ladybirds all over the plants as well. Ladybirds are a brilliant insect to introduce into any garden as not only do they eat aphids but in time they will produce ladybird larvae which will also eat aphids. Encouraging populations of aphids onto a sacrificial herb such as feverfew not only spares our vegetables from aphid damage but also provides an environment where beneficial ladybirds can feed and multiply.
The larvae of both hoverflies and lacewings are also aggressive aphid predators and encouraging the adults of these insects is beneficial in any garden. Adult lacewings and hoverflies feed on flower nectar and can also be instrumental in pollinating some crops. Any umbelliferous plants are said to be attractive to these insects, including the flowering heads of parsnips or carrots that have been left to go to seed. In the herb garden the plants which are especially attractive and therefore beneficial to lacewings and hoverflies include angelica (Angelica archangelica) which is most commonly known for its use in the kitchen by candying the stems in sugar, and fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) which is used to soothe various digestive problems and has a strong aniseed taste.
It is reassuring that through simply growing a selection of different herbs we can encourage so many different beneficial insects into our vegetable garden, both to help pollinate and also to keep pests at bay.
Helen Silver – vegetable gardener