The Good Seed: Planting For Pollinators In Your Vegetable Garden

Lynn Coulter
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I confess: I want it all.

I want a vegetable garden overflowing with crunchy cucumbers and sweet cantaloupes, strawberries, dark purple eggplants, and summer squash.

I want so many tomatoes to process, my countertops disappear under speckles of seeds and puddles of juice. I’d like plenty of basil to freeze for pesto, chilies to dry and string, and baskets of tender okra pods to pickle with garlic and sugar, vinegar and dill.

In other words, I want a bountiful harvest from my veggie patch, so I’ll have fresh food for the table now, and plenty to preserve for winter. To get that kind of yield, I’ll have to work harder. Right?

Not if I work smarter and invite some of nature’s tiniest gardeners to help me: bees.

Of course, I’ve still got to use the right nutrients and soil amendments. Good gardening also means proper irrigation, weeding and mulching.

But I’ll grow more food if I lure more bees to my garden. Butterflies, birds, and other insects also help (and animals, but we’ll get to that in a minute).

Landscape designer and gardening author Tara Dillard knows the value of planting to attract pollinators, a subject she often lectures about. You could potentially double your harvest of Lima beans, apples, and other crops, she says, if you’ve got enough buzz and flutter. Eggplants, okras and peppers also produce better when bees visit.

Tara Dillard / Sasanqua

(While bees also collect pollen and nectar from tomatoes, sweet corn, snap beans, and peas, researchers at Purdue University say they don’t pollinate them. Some plants are self-pollinated, and others are pollinated by the wind. Still, bees get the credit for every third bite of food we eat.)

Growing a productive garden was once a matter of life and death, says Dillard, who studied landscape design in Europe for 15 years. “Subsistence workers were not uncommon across Europe for centuries. What does that mean? The workers were paid with food. Nothing else.”

Wealthy landowners knew their servants could perish, she says, if their crops and fruit trees failed, so landowners added flowers and other pollinator-pleasing plants to their orchards and fields.

“The Italian gardens of today, that we’ve fallen in love with, originated centuries ago during poverty cycles. More flowers meant more pollination, which meant more food production.”

Early ‬cottage gardens‭ ‬packed with foxgloves‭,‬‭ ‬hollyhocks‭, ‬fragrant roses‭, ‬pansies‭, ‬and daisies‭ ‬were‭ ‬carefully planned‭. ‬“The charming cottage gardens common across England a centuries ago were not about the pretty flowers,” Dillard says. They were practical designs that attracted pollinators to medicinal herbs and edible flowers, as well as fruits and vegetables.

Dillard’s own garden surrounds her home, in a quiet neighborhood east of Atlanta, in a kind of leafy, bushy embrace. A Chinese snowball bush, bought from Home Depot many years ago, has been pruned into a small tree with an open canopy. “Butterflies visit when the tree blooms in the spring, and songbirds feel safe in the high branches. They sit and eat insects.” Birds are pollinators, she adds, when they brush against plants with their feet and feathers. “Everything is a pollinator.”

Her list of pollinators includes deer and domesticated house cats; bats, beetles, moths, ants, possums, rats, raccoons, rabbits, chipmunks, squirrels, humans, and, of course, the wind.

Tara Dillard

To encourage more pollinators to visit your garden, Dillard recommends using “high density” and “low density” plantings, so there’s a contrast between open spaces and lushly planted areas that provide shelter and protection. A wildflower meadow, a walkway under an arbor, a flagstone terrace, or even the street outside your house can be a low density area. So can a neighbor’s lawn.

High density areas should incorporate both deciduous and evergreen plants, Dillard says. She plants in layers, so to speak, starting with tall trees, then understory trees and shrubs, medium level plantings and ground covers.

The goal, Dillard says, is to “create a mosaic of interest for a diversity of pollinators all year.” Her recipe for a “perfect pollinator habitat” includes plants with overlapping bloom times, so there’s an ongoing buffet of flowers, berries, seedpods, and foliage for foragers.

Since insecticides, weed killers, fungicides and even fertilizers can kill pollinators, Dillard gardens organically. Her designs and plants are chosen to provide nectar sources and host plants for larvae, too, like caterpillars that turn into beneficial butterflies.

She’s also a fan of what she calls a “rusticated look,” borrowing English author Jane Austen’s word for a country garden effect that isn’t perfectly pruned and neat. In Dillard’s garden, sweet English daises and blue ageratums edge close to footpaths, while ferns, hydrangeas and hellebores tuck into shady corners. Her pond adds water for visiting creatures. It’s popular with metallic blue dragonflies and white moths that flutter around her abelias.

Tara Dillard

A pool in a woodland garden increases pollinator habitat.

No space is too small to plant for pollinators, Dillard says, glancing at the clouds drifting over her garden. “The whole sky is mine. Even a little garden can live big.


Plants for bees in southeast gardens:

  • Trees and shrubs: red maple, redbud, apple, tupelo, sourwood, crape myrtle, blackberry, butterfly bush, abelia, rhododendron, blueberry
  • Flowers, vines, and herbs: honeysuckle, bee balm, purple coneflower, sunflower, pineapple sage, ajuga, Mexican sage

Plants for bees in northeast gardens:

  • Trees and shrubs: poplar, black locust, catalpa, and spring flowering fruit trees, witch hazel, sweet pepperbush
  • Flowers, vines, and herbs: aster, sedum, heather, borage, salvia, sage, hellebore, crocus, Oriental poppies, Glory of the Snow

Top image: Shutterstock

 

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