The cold, white winter is fertile ground for colorful flower dreams; so as I order seeds for the vegetable garden, lots of flowers creep into the plan.

Sweet alyssum is great for beautifying vegetable gardens and, at the same time, attracting beneficial insects, such as ladybugs, lacewings and tachinid flies; supporting bees; and producing fragrance (especially white-flowered varieties). This low-growing, spreading annual, which comes in white, yellow, pink and purple, is easy to grow from seed and is commonly found in six-packs at garden centers. Try growing some at the edge of the garden, under taller plants such as tomatoes or peppers. Grow some among cabbage plants, where they may support parasitic wasps that can limit populations of caterpillar pests on those plants.

The yellow or deep orange flowers of calendula, or pot marigold, also attract pollinator bees as well as butterflies and syrphid flies (also called hover flies or flower flies). Syrphid fly larvae feed on aphids and thrips. Calendula self-seeds in the garden, so rather than planting it each year, I’m always pulling out excess plants — a painful but necessary process to prevent them from taking over the garden. The pretty petals of calendula add a vibrant, contrasting color to green salads, and they look especially pretty with a few Johnny jump-up flowers set on top of the salad as well. Another asset of calendulas: they flower for such a long period. In fact, the name “calendula” is related to the word “calendar” and supposedly reflects that, somewhere, these plants flower every month of the year. In my garden, I’ve seen calendula flowers into November.

Sunflowers seem to have no bounds as dramatic garden plants and increasingly beautiful cut flowers. At a talk about cut flowers at the November 2009 Farmer to Farmer Conference, cosponsored by Maine Cooperative Extension and the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, Dr. Lois Berg Stack of the University of Maine recommended that people who want to get into the cut-flower business start with a few easy, high-value, big-impact flowers, such as sunflowers, lisianthus and exotic zinnias. “Those are three flowers that you will sell,” Stack said. “And never sell a sunflower for less than 50 cents; $1 to $1.50 is more reasonable.”

Of course, sunflowers also attract pollinators to the garden, and they help support the imperiled bee population. Research at the University of Florida found that sunflower plants grown within rows of vegetable crops attracted significantly more beneficial insects to those plots, compared with plots without sunflowers. In fact, sunflowers attracted 30 kinds of beneficial insects, and crop plants within 1 meter of sunflowers had almost the same number and diversity of beneficial insects as the sunflowers. With sunflowers of so many heights and growth habits available today, many possibilities exist for integrating them into vegetable gardens.

Marigolds are also must-have flowers in vegetable gardens, for attracting pollinators and beneficial insects and for their beauty and, sometimes, scent. I especially love the fragrance of “Lemon Gem” and “Tangerine Gem” marigolds. Plant them where you’ll bump up against them as you weed, and your weeding will become a pleasanter job.

Zinnias end this column, but not the list of flowers you could combine with vegetable crops. Easily grown annuals, zinnias come in so many colors and sizes that you’ll find one or a dozen suitable for every garden. Plant a few, and you’ll never be at a loss for a simple but full summer bouquet, and the bees won’t be at a loss for pollen. We learned at Farmer to Farmer that Johnny’s Selected Seeds now offers a variety called “Giant Dahlia Mix” that costs less than the popular but expensive seed of Benary’s “Giant” zinnias.