Pollinator Power – Garden Mechanics

All too often the news contains snippets that suggest headlines of bad sci-fi movies. Lately the “Great Insect Apocalypse” is the culprit. Look into it, headlines read “Insect Counts Down All Over the World,” “Forty Percent of Earth’s Insects Gone in a Mere 50 Years,” “Honeybees Facing Extinction.”

Heavens! Who really wants to see that loser movie? For that matter…who cares about insects? Never did like those dumb June Bugs and I’ve always been for shipping those Japanese Beetles back to Japan. Who needs ‘em? Sure, I’ll watch the movie.

But the plight of Chinese fruit farmers, who are driven to hand-pollinating their fruits, has forced the recognition of the lousy movie plot’s reality. Imagine the cost of our favorite oranges, olives, tomatoes, avocados, almonds, etc., if they are pollinated by people. And yes, it could come to that. Soon. In our lifetimes, certainly our children’s.

Amsonia, a native perennial, works well as a hedge.

It’s pretty obvious. We need insects. Particularly pollinating insects, for sure, but other insects are the basis of huge food webs all over the planet. The disappearance of so many insects has led to the disappearance of larger animals and birds that eat them. In fact, the decline of songbirds can easily be traced to the disappearance of caterpillars which used to be chock-a-block on every street but now are punishingly hard for a frantic parent bird to find.

What’s a homeowner to do? Unremarkably, it boils down to creating for insects the same necessities of life we’re all familiar with – food, water, and shelter. While the perfect pollinator yard depends upon more than we’ll discuss here, good landscape mechanics will go far to keeping pollinators happy and up for their job.

It starts with not applying pesticides and herbicides in your yard. Those chemicals are what caused the hand-pollination in China. Wow. Skip all that work applying pesticides and herbicides…what a deal. Less work, better results, it’s a win-win.

Now that we’re not poisoning our little garden friends, we should look at how we can make them so happy they’ll never fly off to somebody else’s veggie garden.

Food may seem obvious – good gardeners always aim for season long bloom, and that’s a great thing for flower loving butterflies and bees. We tend to forget, though, that their babies might not be able to enjoy all the things we provide for the grownups. It’s rather like a toddler in the midst of a wine-tasting party; really, we need to provide some milk or apple juice, or just water, that they can enjoy.

Provisioning the youngsters can be done rather easily by planting foods that baby butterflies (etc.) like to eat. Adult insects will seek out those plants, hoping their offspring will have plenty to eat. This makes for happy insect parents…who, despite their careful choice of delicious-to-baby-butterflies plant(s), will not create an army of progeny, because…Parent birds seek out the exact same plants. They make a nest for their own young as close to it as possible. In this way parent birds are a mere hop, skip, and jump away from the baby insects which baby birds can digest (baby birds need soft food; they can’t digest seeds).

Thus, the happiest yard starts with the most delicious trees. Oaks are known for their insect deliciousness, supporting at least 400 types of butterflies and moths (most butterflies and almost all moths start their lives in trees) in addition to many other insects. Rather obviously, the birds eat an awful lot of insects, or there wouldn’t be an oak standing.

Other native trees have their own appeal to our favorite pollinating insects. This is good, because another vitally important element of the pollinator friendly yard is height variety. If you consider a staircase, which has lots of steps, and consider that there is something that prefers to live on each step because for them it’s the perfect step, just the right height off the ground (floor) and just far enough away from the top story, you’ll get a good idea of how to think about planting your pollinator friendly landscape. Go for something at every level possible. Tall trees, shorter trees and shrubs, ground covers, both tall and shorter.

A grove, where several native trees, shrubs and, in a perfect grove, ground covers, grow closely all together is a pollinator’s Xanadu. Pollinators like different heights. And birds love pollinators.

Trees, shrubs, perennials and leaf litter make a bird and pollinator haven.

This is an incredible win-win. That dream grove draws pollinator adults in droves so they can lay their eggs for the next generation at just the right height on the most deliriously delicious plants, and those baby insects, in turn, will draw adult birds in droves, because they can make their nest at just the right height right next to the perfect groceries for their own babies. For us, less mowing.

Wow. We’ve tossed out the pesticide/herbicide job, enticed our favorite butterflies and birds, and made less work for ourselves along the way. Gee…anything else? As it happens…

Golf courses aren’t the only places where “the rough” is an essential element of the plan. “Rough” areas, where grasses, flowers, shrubs, you name it, grow higglety-pigglety are fabulous places for small, eager to rest butterflies, who, being colorful, need dense cover to hide from hungry birds. They’re also wonderful places for toads and birds, who will eat some butterflies but mostly will find other insects to munch on there. Yes, you might see a weed or two…but what’s a weed compared to colorful butterflies and endless birdsong? And…as you guessed…a little “rough” means less work mowing and weeding. Win-win!

In the fall, let’s love leaves a little. Leaves are soil’s best friend. How about instead of raking and bagging and eradicating leaves in the fall, we make use of them instead? Pile them loosely, perhaps 2” deep, around your grove(s). Many little butterflies winter over in leaves, using them to wrap up in a nice, warm, cocoon that will keep them going until spring’s warmth. They’ll wiggle out when the time is right and get busy pollinating and finding mates, so they can lay eggs in time to feed all those baby birds…

Bees are easily pleased, too. Most bees don’t make hives; instead, they live in the soil. These busy bees almost never sting humans – they’re way too busy doing their thing – but they pollinate an amazing array of plants.

You can make life good for these friendly creatures by leaving some soil uncovered, or very loosely covered with mulch; “green mulch” is perfect. Heavy wood mulches bury small bees and they suffocate. Green mulch, which is achieved with growing ground covers rather than “dead” wood, straw, etc., cools and enriches the soil like other mulches, but provides “open” soil beneath their leaf cover that delights small bees. Those small bees will pollinate many plants for us; hurrah!

There are many native plants that will cheerfully act as a great ground cover in your yard. Consider your soil conditions, sunlight conditions, ability to feed baby butterflies, and height preferences (Black Eyed Susans make great ground covers, but are much taller than what you probably think of when you hear “ground cover”). Violets, wild strawberries, and Virginia Creeper make wonderful low growing ground covers in sunny areas; wild Ginseng, Coral Bells, Foam Flowers and many others make a shady area lovely without towering over your head.

Water is easy, too. Bird baths, close by a tree or in a grove, will give fresh water to thirsty birds and, if you keep a branch “ramp” from water to edge, can give a drink to a thirsty butterfly or bee, too. Butterflies and bees like “muddlers” best; they’re easy to make. Old pie tins, takeout bowls, and the like can be filled with soil almost to the brim; add sand or gravel to bring the level up as high as possible. Place it in a covered area where the visitors can’t be easily spotted and fill with water to the level of the sand or gravel. Thirsty pollinators can stand on the sand/gravel and drink their fill. The soil will provide minerals and nutrients they need, providing them with a “Gatorade” type drink.

Plant groves of native trees/shrubs and have less grass to mow. Let a little “rough” find a spot in your yard. Grow pretty ground covers. Prepare for less work next year and the year after; and be prepared for birdsong.


Maureen Rice is a master naturalist living and writing in Talbot County.

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