Pollinators: Birds, Bees and More in the Garden
Each year at In the Gardens we invest ourselves in learning something new, or studying more deeply about an aspect of the garden. One year it was composting. Another year we explored companion planting. A different year our focus was learning about weed prevention while simultaneously enriching our soil. There are side journeys each year as well: unexpectedly we had to learn how to protect our crops more effectively from deer last year, and one year we tried to do some container vegetables to see how they’d grow.
This year, somewhat by accident and somewhat intentionally, we put attention to natives and pollinators. Natives are plants that are indigenous to an area either because they grow there naturally or they have become a part of the natural landscape over many years. There is a growing desire around the country to plant native species, but why? For one, they require far less water. They are often less demanding in their care, saving you gardening time. Finally, they provide crucial habitat for wildlife, including birds, butterflies, bees and other pollinators.
This gets to the second piece: our interest in planting pollinators. The story for bees has been horrendous in recent years, with bee populations in frightening decline. The reasons are many: pollutants, pesticides, and one specific chemical that has been widely used to “smoke” the bees out of their hives to collect honey: neonicotinoids. The story for monarchs hasn’t been much better. Their favorite plant is milkweed. Their caterpillars only eat milkweed and this is where they lay their eggs. Bringing in herbicides on highways around the country, so many of these plants had been destroyed, eliminating the essential habitat for monarchs. We all know that birds are crucial pollinators as well, so a garden filled with plants that attract all these kinds of wildlife is a garden that feeds us both directly and indirectly.
This year we had to a replace a border of blueberry plants. We tried them twice. The soil here in Chicagoland just doesn’t have the acidity that these plants need to thrive. We thought and thought about what shrubbery to put in its place: elderberries, perhaps, lingonberries, gooseberries… they all sounded interesting. But we also wanted some color. So we chose to explore natives and pollinators, perennials that would return year after year, that would attract birds, bees, butterflies, wasps (I’m not a fan of wasps, but many of them are pollinators, too), and other pollinating wildlife.
We chose echinacea, also known as coneflower, in purple and white, famous for the wide variety of pollinators they draw. Coreopsis, with its yellow and red striped flowers, was a chosen favorite, with colors that just pop. We planted anise hyssop, the current star of the pollinator garden, drawing in many types of bees. And the smell is heavenly! We discovered we had a fair number of native pollinators in the garden already: two types of yarrow: white, the wild variety, and a larger, yellow. Violets, with their signal that spring has sprung, is another, and is particularly beloved by the butterflies. We have been continually surprised by the incredible level of pollinator activity on our leek and onion flowers. I’ll add that any herbs you let go to flower, like lavender, oregano, sage, thyme, hyssop, or mint, will also bring in the wildlife. I was so pleased to see hummingbirds and praying mantis in the hyssop and sage bed, alongside a variety of bees so wide that there were some I didn’t know existed.
One last thought – not all pollinators are looking for flowers. We found some very large caterpillars on our parsley plants last year. We discovered that they were swallowtail butterfly caterpillars. We relocated them to our fennel patch, because they’d eat the parsley down to stems in three days.
We were happy to spare some fennel leaves, but unwilling to sacrifice our parsley. Each year we are graced with the delicate swallowtails perusing our garden.
So plant some natives, plant some pollinators, and watch nature proliferate in your garden. They’ll be great for the plants, too!
Rabbi Robin Damsky