Thursday, January 22, 2009

Planning for Pollinators

When planning a vegetable garden, it is important to remember to plan for flowers. I’ve been asked more than once why food gardens always seem to include sunflowers, zinnias, and other flowers. It turns out that, in addition to being pretty, flowers attract pollinators to the food garden. Our gardens would produce fewer vegetables without bees, wasps, beetles, and flies.

These insects do the good work of pollinating the flowers of a lot of the plants I want to eat the fruits of: tomatoes, peppers, squash, cucumbers, and more. However, even though these plants themselves produce flowers that are attractive to pollinators, in order to get really good fruit-set on our plants, sometimes the insects need a little extra incentive to visit our yards. The incentive is those flowers we plant alongside our veggies.

In my yard, I’ve observed that some plants are more crowded with pollinators than others. These are the ones I want to make sure are replanted year after year to bring the insects back to my garden. Besides the usual sunflower (I grow a short variety called Sunspot), these popular-to-insect-pollinator plants include marigolds, coneflowers, anise hyssop, assorted small-flowered herbs like thyme and oregano, and China asters.

In the past, this list also included a native shrub, the silky dogwood that I didn't have to actually replant (less work!), which rapidly became my favorite native shrub when it appeared all on its own in my side yard. At first, I wasn’t sure what it was, but it looked like “something good,” so I left it. In the third year, it flowered, and when it did, I think every insect in the neighborhood dropped by for a visit. That shrub had a galaxy of beetles, tiny bees, and flies swirling over it, landing to visit the small flowers, then taking off to swirl over it again.

Unfortunately, when the city needed to do some work on the overpass of the small creek that runs along my yard, they dug up the silky dogwood, which was in their way, and dumped it into a dumpster. When I realized what they had done, I walked out and asked one of the younger guys to climb in and pull some of the black berries off the shrub for me. He did, even though I’m sure he thought I was a slightly crazy old lady. I've sprouted those berries, and now I have eight pots of year-old silky dogwood, and I will probably plant one or two of these this Spring. In another couple of years, maybe the galaxy of insects will return.

As important as knowing what flowers attract insects is knowing which ones don’t. One year, I planted a pretty little plant called Summer Snapdragon. When it didn’t have insect visitors in the Spring, I thought that maybe its pollinator appeared in the Summer, but I checked that plant every time I went out and it Never had any insect on its flowers, even though there were always LOTS of flowers. I’ve never seen anything like the insect desert that this plant turned out to be. Although this Summer Snapdragon would be a good flower to grow for people who are allergic to bee stings, it didn’t turn out to be useful for attracting pollinators to my garden.

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