Falling in love with petunias

Highly beneficial petunias in the food gardens

I have to admit, I loathed petunias. Sounds funny, doesn’t it? Who on earth would loathe a flower, especially one as showy as petunias?

It seems like a lifetime ago I left a small, rural lifestyle for the captivating life of the big city—from the cattle country of interior Florida to the rat race of Washington, DC and northern Virginia. I climbed my way up the corporate ladder of the government contracting world, eventually coming to dislike the environment I felt I had become trapped in. I guess nothing represented that world to me better than petunias, the colorful adornments of the tightly manicured row houses in the city to the HOA approved garden beds in the suburban neighborhoods. They grew fast and filled the beds with endless blooms of bright colors. And, it seemed, they adorned nearly every front yard. When I left the city behind, I left the petunias.

Highly beneficial petunias in the food gardens

Until now, that is. We moved into this farm two and half years ago. The home was surrounded by large, empty, fabric protected beds of mulch and a few older shrubs. The canvas was wide open for flower beds and gardens. Each spring, a couple of petunia plants volunteered. One grew in a crack in the stoop at the front door and another in a crack between the landscaping fabric and the brick wall of the house. That second one got fairly large. But, it was tucked out of the way, in a bed I was not ready to tackle yet, so I easily ignored it. They came back again the second spring In same two places.

This was our third spring, and it greeted us with an abnormally warm March. So warm that things began sprouting. April was more normal with cool weather and rains. Then, the COVID restrictions hit and we were forced to close the school and stay home. While Chris turned his attention towards fencing installation, I turned my attention to gardens and landscaping. We planted so many flowers and herbs and got a nice vegetable garden going. Meanwhile, amongst the things popping up were petunias. Dozens of them. To my horror, they were literally all over the garden beds we prepped around that one side of the house.

We are in the beginning stages of a permaculture conversion of this farm with a main goal of working with nature, not against it. While petunias are not native, they were here and I was curious if they actually could serve a more useful purpose. After all, they never come up on a search for companion plants for any of the vegetables I have researched. I decided to approach this one from the petunia’s perspective instead. What is a good companion for petunia?

Highly beneficial petunias in the food gardens

I was very surprised by the results! Why these amazing plants are not on the lists for vegetable companions is beyond me. From what I can tell, they are nothing short of miraculous additions to the garden. Author Paul Miceli, at doityourself.com, claims that petunias are nature’s insecticide and lists the plants that benefit as well as the insects that they help protect from. The benefited plants include:

  • plants in the brassica family such as broccoli, cabbage, brussel sprouts, etc.
  • tomatoes
  • potatoes
  • eggplant
  • tobacco
  • grapevines
  • beans
  • basil
  • corn
  • peppers, and
  • roses

The list of pests they also help with:

  • Cabbage worms — are trapped by the petunia. Other pests are repelled or distracted.
  • aphids
  • moths
  • nematodes, and
  • hornworms

Highly beneficial petunias in the food gardens

While repelling this array of bad garden bugs, they attract beneficial insects like bees and butterflies. According to Modern Survival Blog, petunia flowers and leaves are even edible. Delishably.com claims petunias are “sweet and spicy” and have Vitamins A and C, iron, and calcium. Although some sources warn that they are in the nightshade family and consumption isn’t necessarily smart…

Surprisingly, I found the most information in UK sources. A British blogger and author of Growing Guides, lists each plant that benefits from petunia companions with a short description of how they benefit. To the list of plants above, he adds:

  • cucumbers
  • chilis
  • asparagus, and
  • peas.

What I found most interesting though, is his recipe for a petunia-based insecticide spray. It’s at the bottom of his petunia page. I am definitely going to try this! I wonder, too, if this would make a safe spray for livestock? It is worth investigation.

These plants, at least the ones that have self started here, are quite hardy. As soon as I discovered their potential as companion plants, I started transplanting them among all of our Zone 1 (permaculture term) gardens. I started this process in May and I find myself in mid-July still moving them as they continue to fill in spaces.  Even in the heat, they do just fine with just a bit of regular watering until they become established. I did buy a couple of petunia packs at a Lidl sale too. The self starters grow considerably faster and seem to be far more hardy.

I have no idea if they will do this again next year. But, just in case, I plan on saving some seeds and starting some of my own early in the cold frame or greenhouse if we have it built by then. For now, they have added so much color and delightful smells to our gardens and several variety of bees are constantly buzzing around the flowers. They have grown, quite literally, on me. How do you use petunias in your gardens?

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