Save the bees: Attract pollinators all season longJun 02, 2020 09:24AM ● By Paige Slaughter
Pollinators and beneficial insects play a key role not just in the garden, but in our food system at large. Without pollinators like bees and butterflies, we wouldn’t get to enjoy peaches, strawberries, tomatoes, cucumbers, apples—even coffee, chocolate, tequila and wine!
In the U.S., pollination produces $40 billion worth of products —including medicine, crops and plant-based materials—every year. If you think food is expensive now, imagine a world without pollinators.
What is pollination?
Sweet-smelling, vibrant petals catch a pollinator’s attention. When a bug crawls all over a flower, it carries pollen grains from one flower to the next, leading to the formation of plant seeds.
In nature, pollinators have plenty of food throughout the season, with annual wildflowers and perennial trees and shrubs naturally providing a smorgasbord of pollen-filled blooms. Human-made environments, though, are not always so accommodating. Asphalt and concrete don’t offer much to a thirsty bee, nor do acres of plants covered with pesticides.
“Save the bees” is a cute slogan for a tote bag. But what does it really look like to save the bees, moths, bats, birds and beetles we rely on?
Every one of us can make a difference by planting for them and cultivating safe habitats for pollinators in our yards, gardens and outside churches and workplaces. From early spring to late fall and even during winter, we can provide safe and bountiful havens for pollinators.
Bulbs, cover crops, cold-hardy plants and perennials offer some of the first blooms for pollinators in search of food after winter.
Allium and crocus both flower in early spring, followed by iris, hyacinthus and muscari. Plant bulbs in the fall. After they bloom and wither, cut plants down to 2-3 inches off the ground, and they’ll return again next year.
Consider replacing or diversifying grass areas with cover crops like alfalfa, clover and dandelions, or broadcast annual cover crops like buckwheat and peas. These cold-hardy crops will come up early, providing early season habitat and blooms for beneficial insects.
Perennial plants that go dormant during winter are already established once the weather begins to warm, so they come alive quickly and with gusto. Chives, armeria, aster, creeping phlox, dianthus and peony are just a few spring-blooming perennials hardy to zone 5.
Fruit trees are also some of the earliest plants to bloom in spring. Not only do fruit trees flower for insects, but they also provide habitat for birds—pollinators we often forget about!
Poppies are annuals that easily seed themselves. Come spring, they grow and bloom quickly. You can even plant them in walkways between rows of late-season bloomers. After they’ve bloomed, stop watering, let them go to seed and trample them down to both mulch your walkway and lay down seed for the next season!
I also love planting both annual and perennial flowers amongst vegetable crops to attract beneficial insects and create habitats for earthworms and microorganisms beneath the surface. Marigolds and nasturtium in my bed of squash help deter squash bugs; my cucumbers love growing next to sweet peas and radishes left to flower.
A wonderful perennial for pollinators is lavender. Hummingbirds and bees especially love this aromatic plant.
Lavender is a drought-tolerant perennial that, in zone 5, goes dormant in winter. It thrives in well-draining soil and doesn’t need many nutrients. If you have a patch of rocky or nutrient-depleted soil, mix in wood chips and a bit of compost, build a mound and plant lavender. Once plants are established, you only need to water every few weeks. Prune in late spring and early fall to keep plants rounded and healthy.
Much of the lavender sold in nurseries is not hardy enough for our high desert. Choose a Lavandula angustifolia cultivar or a Lavandula x. intermedia.
Perennial flowers like black-eyed susan, echinacea and yarrow display beautiful autumn blooms.
You can also add blooms to your fall garden by not harvesting a few radishes, dill and basil plants, and other annuals. I like to do this in part to enjoy the full life cycle of a plant and get to know it through its blooms and seed pods.
While there’s not much blooming in winter, we can still protect pollinators in other ways. Build a bat house or a birdhouse. Put out bird seed in winter.
Leaves provide essential shelter for hibernating bumblebee queens and the larvae of butterflies and moths, and attract beneficial insects like lady beetles in spring.
Natural and organic gardening practices support the health of all living things. Creating a non-toxic habitat for critters is one of the best things you can do for your garden ecosystem. Not to mention the beauty and the aroma of pollinator-friendly plants!