Planting A Pollinator Garden?

20160922_102156In this blog entry, allow me, your hip, non-hipster, gardener a little rant concerning all things pollinator.

There is much emphasis in gardening publications, research and landscape marketing on bee-friendly plants, with the overwhelming message being: plant a bee and butterfly garden and save the honey bees! The public outcry certainly has merit, as we all know about the plight the honey bee is having world-wide. Many of our food crops are heavily dependent upon the honey bee to complete their life cycle. Our dependence upon this species is in part due to the fact that we imported whole food systems from the old world, where the honey bee and domesticated crops developed interdependent relationships over a long stretch of time. Now, with the honey bee population at risk, we are suddenly interested in helping our native bee species, totally ignored by the vast majority of us until now. Seems a little self serving does it not? Perhaps. However, we are helping out other species while securing our own food resources.

Despite all these good messages, I want to put in a word for those other, less popular, pollinators out there, ones that do not necessarily benefit us directly (bees) or are not beautiful/flashy to the human eye (butterflies) like say beetles, flies, wasps and more. These little guys and gals (or if you are an aphid it’s guy one moment and gal the next), along with bees and butterflies, are critical cross pollinators for some thirty percent of human food crops and ninety percent of wild plant species, according to a 2011 NRDC report.

There is whole bevy of little critters out there we could be linking up with in addition to bees and butterflies just by the type of plants we plant in our garden and how the garden is designed. These critters have developed many connections with the plant species native to the area. They practically grew up together. As we alter their habitat, they will need a hand up too. Doug Tallamy puts it well in his now well respected book Bringing Nature Home. The more linkages a habitat has, the more resilient to change it will be, and this will bear on our food systems.

If you are thinking of planting a bee and butterfly garden this summer, especially one that comes as a kit, do a little homework please. Many of these kits only stock nectar sourcing plants for adult butterflies, but lack host species for butterfly larvae. Someone needs to support the very hungry caterpillar, support the whole life cycle. Adult monarchs feed on any a number of nectar supplying flowers, but need milkweed species to complete their life cycle. It takes several generations over the course of the season to reach their northernmost points in their annual migration. They eat and breed all the way along their annual trip (does not sound like a bad time to me). Be sure to include such species in your plans. But perhaps instead of planting just a bee and butterfly garden full of nectar-only species, often including non-native and semi-invasive species like Buddleja, try just planting a garden supporting a vast array of wildlife, including pollinators. Utilize your garden edges, seeking opportunities to plug in some wildness, opportunities to accommodate some different species needs for food, water, shelter and a place to raise a brood. For example, I would encourage home gardeners to clear a bit of mulch away, exposing some bare soil for those native ground dwelling bees in a nice quiet part of the garden where their seasonal coming and goings will not disturb any one. Even more importantly, plant a biodiverse garden. Plant diverse species, flower colors and shapes, diverse plant types, herbaceous as well as trees and shrubs (Yes trees and shrubs are important in the bee/butterfly garden too). Value biodiversity. Value those other insects who are pulling their ecological weight.

Josh Steffen
Horticulture and Facilities Manager

4 thoughts on “Planting A Pollinator Garden?

  1. Our flower gardening is very minimal. Most of what is out there is native vegetation. It is what local pollinators expect to find, so it works out just fine.

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