Late summer and fall are terrific times to start planning for next year’s gardens. Common fall tasks include preparing beds, dividing plants, and even getting some plants seeded or potted so that they can put on some good root growth before the cold weather and shorter days arrive. And, fall is the time when many of us choose the flowers that we will put out in our gardens the following spring.
Many gardeners strive to create gardens that are both beautiful to people, and attractive to pollinators such as bees, butterflies, moths, and hummingbirds; and for good reason. The stunning visual displays of carefully planned flower beds are made to seem so much more vibrant and alive when birds and insects are flying between the blooms. But does the choice of flower affect the type and number of pollinators that you will receive in your garden? One factor that you should take into consideration when selecting flowers is the plant’s breeding. There is sometimes a noticeable difference between different varieties of the same flower when it comes to scent, pollen, and nectar production. How do hybrid flowers stack up against their heirloom ancestors? Sit down comfortably and I’ll tell you what has worked to attract many pollinators to my own gardens both on the west coast in British Columbia in zone 8 and now here in Nova Scotia in zone 5.
Plant breeding began not long after humans discovered farming. Whether you believe in the Garden of Eden or in evolution, the story is much the same. Man found himself in an environment where he needed to feed himself and so he (and she) went to work. Gathering food was time consuming and so it’s logical to assume that they would have concentrated their gathering at the best berry patches and the most dense areas of grain and roots. To us in these modern days, it is an annoyance if one crop of potatoes yields less than another and we have to go to the store to buy more of them during the winter. But to our ancestors this was a matter of life and death. Over time nature lent a hand in helping the best plants to proliferate. For example, those plants best adapted to their environment could survive freezing, drought, high rainfall, disease, pests, soil conditions, and all the other things that threatened to kill them off. Plants that could adapt by growing longer roots, fuzzy leaves, thicker stems, etc. fared better than their companions and then went on to produce seeds with these changes written into their DNA.
Places with a concentration of edible plants would have been visited by more animals coming to feed and in turn those plants would have benefited from the animals’ droppings and from the animals spreading the plants’ seeds.
The ability to adapt to the environment is just mother nature’s selection process, and it’s happening all around us, every day. But we humans are always up for a challenge aren’t we? If you tell me I can’t grow peas in November in Canada, I’ll prove you wrong by building a greenhouse. Want a rose that’s a different color than pink? I’ll breed you one.
Man struggles and delights in his battle for supremacy over nature in many ways. Of all of our struggles against nature, in my opinion the most futile and evident is our lawns. We fertilize, trim, cut, and generally pamper our lawns in North America just to look good when compared to our neighbors. But despite our best efforts mother nature still laughs at us and gives us dandelions, thistles, and clover. Give up! Grow a garden instead! You’ll be happier, and your local pollinators will be happier too, I promise.
Back in the garden, our struggle against nature can be seen in our intensive breeding of selected varieties of both plants and animals to meet our wants and needs. Now I’m not saying that all the hybridization and breeding we do is bad. Without it we wouldn’t have bigger meat animals, hens who lay more eggs, or the variety of vegetables that we can choose from today. Think of all the amazing varieties of sweet peas that have come from the single wild strain that was bred by monks back in the 1700s around Sicily. In 1800s Britain, Henry Eckford dedicated his life to establishing the sweet pea as a preeminent flower in Victorian gardens, and by the time he died he had personally bred a total of 115 of the 264 cultivars that were available at that time. That’s a staggering number. But the question we are asking today is this; are these new varieties also better for our pollinator friends?
Hybrids are usually bred with a specific goal in mind. In hens it might be the ability to lay the most eggs with the least amount of food, or the ability to grow and get fat the fastest. But sometimes when we concentrate on one aspect such as breeding for more eggs, we sacrifice another trait like the ability to go broody and raise chicks.
A similar trade-off occurs in plants when we select for certain colors, an intense scent, or in the case of vegetables things like stalk length and yield. But nowhere on the list of desirable plant characteristics is there any mention of increased nectar production, increased pollen production, or ease of feeding for pollinators. When we breed for more colorful petals we might sacrifice pollen production, vigor, or disease resistance. And yet we keep doing it. Why? Because we value the visual appearance and so we are willing to take more time to care for our plants to make up for their lack of hardiness. We dig up rhizomes and store them for the winter, we re-plant new seeds each year in little pots to give them a head start on our growing season, and we regularly water our flowers so they stay happy all summer long. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, but how does it affect our flower beds if we’re actively trying to attract more bees and birds; trying to keep them happy in our gardens and trying to keep them coming back year after year?
I think that a balance can be achieved through planning and study. There are some native plants that are especially favored by our pollinator friends and so you should make an effort to find a suitable spot and plant some of their favorites. It is also beneficial to maintain a good mix of plants. Keeping a diverse flower garden and a diverse property overall is a great way to attract a wide range of garden visitors. Just like humans, every bird and insect likes something a little different.
In order for your pollinators to be at their healthiest and best, they need good sources of pesticide-free pollen and nectar. Observe your garden and keep notes on which plants are most favored by different pollinators. Note which plants will reliably make viable seeds or grow back from the roots; these plants will come back to feed your pollinators year after year with no work required on your part. If your research shows that a certain plant makes less nectar but produces more flowers, you know that this will balance out. If you love the flowers, grow lots of them. Your bees will still be fed, but perhaps a little over-worked.
Some pollinators also need plants where their eggs will be safe and their young can grow. Many garden plants that are very popular in garden centers and nurseries don’t support the larval stage of pollinators because they’re inedible. No caterpillars now means no butterflies later, so be sure to include some larval food sources in your garden. Understanding the life cycle of the pollinators you hope to attract just gives you one more step towards success.
How to Be a Good Host for Your Pollinators
Hummingbirds – The Rufus is the most common hummingbird we see buzzing around our gardens here in Nova Scotia and they particularly like the areas with trees and willow down near the river. They are attracted to long throated flowers with lots of nectar such as honeysuckle, and they also need a steady diet of protein in the form of insects. They are especially attracted to orange and red flowers but any flowers that have a good source of nectar will make them happy. If you are hanging hummingbird feeders out, it’s currently recommended that you use a red plastic bottle or feeder but do not use any dye in their food. Just use plain sugar water or a hummingbird nectar mix which contains vitamins necessary for their health. Having a leafy tree for protection can benefit hummingbirds, but resist the temptation to hang feeders where cats can sneak up on them.
Moths – There are so many species of beautiful moths and they do more pollinating than we realize. I’m sure you know of some flowers that only bloom at night and do you know why? They’ve evolved to be pollinated by moths who are active after dusk. These flowers such as evening primrose, 4 o’clocks, stock, and the appropriately named moonflower attract moths but also bear beautifully pale flowers that have an amazing scent. If you have an arbor or another place for moonflowers to climb you’ll be rewarded with tall leafy green shades during the day and flowers that seem to glow in the moonlight and smell divine all night long. I want to put an arbor outside my bedroom window and train up a rose and some moonflower. Here they’re grown as an annual but in many places south of us they’ll self-seed and come back year after year. Planting a mix of cultivated and native plants to attract moths and leaving wild areas on your property give them places to lay eggs and develop a thriving population. Every year you’ll notice more and more in your evening or moon garden.
Butterflies – We can all recognize butterflies from the most humble cabbage butterfly (actually a moth) to the most spectacular species like the Two Tailed Tiger Swallowtail with its beautiful markings. Butterflies rely on specific plants for their larval stages of development just like moths do. Lupines, service berry (the larval plant of the swallowtail) and other fruit bushes are the breeding and host grounds for the caterpillars to grow before pupating into butterflies. If you’re worried about butterflies or moths migrating into your vegetable gardens that’s certainly a concern and I recommend using row covers to protect the vegetable plants. Killing the grubs and caterpillars in a veggie garden doesn’t bode well for the plants’ pollination or for the pollinators developing a healthy population.
Bees – We’re constantly being bombarded with ‘the plight of the bee’ because of our use of pesticides and other factors affecting bee health. And yes it is a concern, but all the evidence is based on our data from apiarists who raise domesticated honey bees. Most honey bees live in such an unnatural environment, being moved from one mono-crop to another that they get stressed and don’t have a very balanced diet. I myself am a registered bee keeper (my hives stay put at home) so I understand how this system works. But I’d like you to think for a moment about the other kinds of bees. According to the USDA there are 47 identified species of bumblebee in the US. These big flying fuzzy balls often nest in the ground, so keeping some naturalized areas that have ground cover such as shrubs and sticks and get left alone is key to maintaining native bee populations. Mason and orchard bees are native all over the US and Canada and make their homes in places like hollow stems, old trees and even the wood around your house. We lived in a house once where the veranda posts and barn timbers had lots of little round holes and tunnels in them. Sure enough they were filled with bees who were overwintering. Come spring they all left and got to work pollinating the apple and cherry trees around the property. I leave my hollow stemmed perennials untrimmed over the winter because the hollow stems often house individual bee larvae and the stems also catch the snow which provides an insulating blanket for my plants, to protect them from drying winds and temperature fluctuations. These amazing solitary bees require no help from humans to survive and are very efficient pollinators but anything you can do to lend them a hand is a good thing. A honeybee hive of between 10-25,000 bees would pollinate an acre of orchard just as efficiently as 250 mason bees or blue orchard bees according to the USDA. I’m a bit surprised but I’ve seen our orchard bees at work and they’re amazing little things. Bees generally like open faced flowers such as sunflowers and asters as well as penstemon.
Look around your neighborhood for ideas about which plants will do well in your area. Those wild plants in the woodlands and ditches can be beautiful and often they have a specific season so you can arrange a mix of early, mid and late flowering plants to provide a long period of nectar and pollen in your garden. I encourage you to do some research specific to your area about the pollinators you’d like to attract. From the first dandelions in spring that provide a much needed pollen source for bees to bee balm and other herbs in the kitchen garden, the variety of plants you can grow doesn’t have to be limited to those available in the nursery. Plants can also be multi-purpose, attracting bees as well as tasting delicious in the kitchen. When you’re planning and planting your garden it’s best for pollinators if you plant clumps of plants and not just individual ones as it maximizes their efforts. They can visit more flowers in a smaller area and thereby conserve flying energy. And leave a little room for the plants to spread and naturalize too. When your beds get overcrowded as they eventually will, divide your plants and compost the bed, and then use the extra plants you have to start a new bed or give them to a friend or neighbor to get them started. Then sit back in a comfy chair and enjoy the fruits of your labor. It may take a while for pollinators to find you initially but they’ll come if you’ve provided what they want, just be patient. Over time as your flowers become more established, so will your pollinator populations.
What plants have you found that work best in your neighborhood, and where are you located? Please comment below and let’s share information so we can build up a good list. I really enjoy hearing from you all. To get us started here’s my list of recommended plants, in no particular order:
Service berry, salmon berry and blackberry