Thursday, April 5, 2012

Starting herbs for edible food forests

One of the basic necessities for an edible food forest is drawing in both the pollinators and the beneficial insects that keep the predators under control.  Some folks call these insectary plants. The "friendly insects" include ladybeetles, bees, ground beetles, hoverflies, and parasitic wasps. Other animals that are frequently considered beneficial include lizards, spiders, toads, and hummingbirds. 

Beneficial insects are as much as ten times more abundant in the insectary plantings area. Elimination of scale insects double with insectary plantings. Additionally, a diversity of insectary plants can increase the population of beneficial insects so much that these levels can be sustained even when the insectary plants are removed or die off.

Many members of the Apiaceae (formerly known as Umbelliferae) family are excellent insectary plants. Fennel, angelica, coriander, dill, and wild carrot all provide in great number the tiny flowers required by parasitic wasps. Various clovers, yarrow, and rue also attract parasitic and predatory insects. 

Low-growing herb plants, such as thyme, rosemary and mints provide shelter for ground beetles and other beneficial insects. Composite flowers like daisy, chamomile and mints will attract predatory wasps, hoverflies, and robber flies. The wasps will catch caterpillars and grubs to feed their young, while the predatory and parasitic flies attack many kinds of insects, including leafhoppers and caterpillars.

I have many of these insectary plants (which are now big enough to be divided this year) already in my garden, but as I expand my planting areas, I need more plants I don't already have for both the new and old areas. So, I started seeds of some herbs. Not all are insectary plants, but if not, they will still attract pollinators so it's a win-win.

New herb starts include:

garlic chives
green shisho (perilla), which is also edible
Mrs. Burn's lemon basil
summer savory
sweet marjoram
sweet basil (old seeds, not expecting anything much to germinate)
An Italian basil a friend sent 3-4 years ago, (old seeds, not expecting anything much to germinate)
lemon bee balm
tall purslane

I have a flat of bulbing Florence fennel I started a month ago, and last fall it looked like my dill had reseeded everywhere. The yarrow has grown enough since last spring to divide several times, as has the mint and anise hyssop.

I have chamomile seeds to start, and plenty of 2-3 varieties of shasta daisy's to divide for new guilds. My recent trip to Edible Landscaping brought me a couple of trees that can be an anchor in new guilds, but mostly I bought some fruiting vines and shrubs I wanted. I have great hopes for the fruit tree cuttings I have in mini-greenhouses but I'm not holding my breath since I'm new at rooting cuttings.

It's an adventure, for sure!


  1. I love purslane but here (Richmond, VA) the purslane leafminers get 90% of it.

    1. I'm hoping the interspersion of all the various plants will create a jungle of mixed odors thus confusing pests. Also, I have lots of columbine which acts as a trap crop for leaf miners.

  2. Funny, I was just on the Edible Landscaping site recently! Thank you for this informative article....I'm re-doing my back yard to be more edible, and will work in some companion planting....although I am happy to know that I already have many of the plants on your list! (Except a group of my hens decided they needed minty-fresh breath today and mowed down my mint shoots!)

    1. You'll love having more edibles, and you cannot have too many companion plants if you want to control any pest problems!

      From the looks of all the greenhouses at Edible Landscaping, I think they must have a greater variety than their website shows.


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