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SocietyOctober 21, 2023

Their house, my garden: Is there any point in growing flowers?


Flowers are absolutely not just decorative, but would it be such a bad thing if they were? This week on Their house, my garden, the many reasons to let your garden bloom.

Through summer in the northern hemisphere, hundreds of sunflower plants completely covered a terrace on Al Khalil Road, Bethlehem, in the West Bank, Palestine. The green mass was tall and dense: they grew so thickly that you could not have passed through without damaging stems. And at the top of it, yellow and orange sunflowers – some bigger than your palm – bloomed, waved in the breeze, were pollinated, and then made seeds.

The sunflowers were not there to look pretty and joyful (though they did); they were there to repair the damaged and contaminated ground. The terrace is part of an artist-run community space and has for decades been exposed to contaminants from armed conflict (like skunk-water) and urban pollution. Mohammed Saleh, a permaculture designer, educator and activist planted the sunflowers there to clean the soil

Saleh was guided by the book Earth Repair, a practical guide to grassroots bioremediation; ie using nature to heal contaminated and damaged lands and waters. Bioremediation puts flowers to work, and sunflowers are particularly hard working. They can store radioactive elements like uranium and take up heavy metals like lead from the soil

Take a cue from Saleh. Here are the many reasons to let your garden bloom.

For your dirt

Great for the dirt: sunflowers, lupins, sweat peas and clover.

The soil in your garden is impacted by what was there before your garden, as well as things like the old lead paint on your house, the treated timber you may have used to build your beds, industry and chemical storage in the region, the cars that drive by, cat poo, drunk human piss, and historic mining. Plants can suck up baddies in the soil and put them into the vegetables you’re planning on eating. By the same token, they can remove the contaminants – provided that, once their life cycle is complete, you remove them from your garden and do not put them in the compost. Flowers are a good choice of clean-up crew because you will be less tempted to eat them.

Other flowers improve your soil by keeping good things in. Nitrogen is essential to plants. Many fertilisers sold at the garden store are nitrogen in one form or another, and compost is rich in it too. There are some plants that can take nitrogen from the air down into their roots, and in doing so they enrich the soil, feeding the plants around them. Lupins, peas, beans and clover are some of these nitrogen fixers. Unlike the clean-up crew, they should be kept in the garden. Once their life cycle is up, tuck them into the soil, so that the nitrogen and other nutrients in their bodies can be reabsorbed.

For your bugs

Pollinators love flowers. You might even say flowers are what they live for. If you want a bee or wasp to pollinate the flowers of your vegetable plants (so that they make the vegetables, as we learned last week), you should attract them to your garden with MORE FLOWERS.

Some flowers also protect your vegetables against foe bugs. This is why grandmas (and my partner) love to grow marigolds next to tomatoes. The smell of marigolds repels aphids and attracts hoverflies, which eat aphids. Marigolds can also be a sacrificial plant, as slugs love them. You can plant a marigold moat around your veges to drown the slugs in flowers.

Because they can cater to your allergen needs

I think it’s mean to the bees, but there are some pollenless sunflowers.

For your other plants

Plants like to befriend each other. Think about nature: lots of different plants grow together and we call it an ecosystem. In the scale of a garden, we call it companion planting or a guild. (More on good companions and guilds next week). For now, consider whether you would like to be in dirt all by yourself, unable to move and with no friends? Or whether you would like to be surrounded entirely by ugly people? Well, plants don’t like that either. Put beautiful friends in close proximity to the funny ones so they don’t get sick of each other’s company.

For eating and drinking

Yum is probably too strong a word but these are edible: calendula, viola, marigold and chamomile.

It’s unlikely we’re going to have a flower-heavy diet, but a few petals in a salad or atop a cake really impresses people at potlucks. You will see borage in most garden nerds’ gardens. It was a popular herb in the middle ages and tastes kind of like cucumber. You can float the star-shaped flowers in cold drinks or boil them into a tea. Also, once you’ve got it growing, it will start to crop up all over your garden with absolutely no effort from you. Consider a single packet of seeds a lifelong investment.

You can eat calendula flowers (sweet, buttery, peppery), viola flowers (subtly sweet with a touch of mint), nasturtium flowers and leaves (peppery), lavender flowers (pungent and perfume-y, best for cakes or drinks), roses (again, perfume-y, so cakes or drinks too), marigolds (sharp and tangy, some say like saffron) and chamomile (for sleepy tea). And, of course, you can eat sunflower seeds once they form, so long as you beat the birds (this sometimes looks like putting a cotton bag over the sunflower). 

Having said all this, and to be entirely honest, I wouldn’t describe flowers as delicious. They are more for the eyes than the mouth. Which leads me to my next point…

For the pursuit of beauty

On Sunday, I saw a friend share a photo of the sunflowers in the West Bank. I did not know that the sunflowers were on cleaning duty. I thought they were there to bring joy to Palestinians through their beauty. 

Something lovely happens when you grow a garden that is visible to passers-by: they stop to admire it. Once, when I was rummaging around in my garden, a neighbour passed by and said she’d been following the growth of the pumpkin vine, which was flowering, and that it made her happy each day as she walked to and from the bus. Older ladies who pass by in groups always inspect and discuss the magnolia flowers.

In Plato’s Symposium, which he wrote about 2,400 years ago, Socrates says: “only in the contemplation of beauty is human life worth living”. It may or may not have been used as an argument to be slutty, and there is certainly something in it. 

The pursuit of beauty is a noble endeavour in life, just like seeking truth and justice. In a world frankly obsessed with making everything (and everyone) useful so that it (we) can be considered worthy of existing, growing something for the pure pleasure of beauty is the least unhinged thing you can do. 

Top tip: Grow flowers!

Task for the week: Let a flower make you happy.

Plenty of pretty options.
Keep going!