New Guide to Protecting Pollinators

After almost 50 hours of Master Gardener training this month, there is one image that I cannot get out of my mind. During the lecture on growing fruit, the professor put up a photo of some workers in China, up on ladders in the middle of an apple tree that was covered with blossoms.  The workers were pollinating the flowers by hand because excessive pesticide use in the area had killed all of the bees and native pollinators for apples.

Pollinators — bees, wasps, flies, butterflies, birds, and a host of other insects and animals — are crucial to food production, whether you are growing a home garden or apples for the world market. That’s one reason I was so excited to receive a review copy of the Xerces Society’s new book, Attracting Native Pollinators: Protecting North America’s Bees and Butterflies, (Story Press, 2011). This is a well-illustrated, down-to-earth guide to why pollinators matter, what is happening that threatens pollinators, and the simple things any of us can do to increase the world’s pollinator population. (In a nutshell: Plant flowers and back off the pesticides.)

While considerable attention has been given to diminishing populations of honeybees and Colony Collapse Disorder, honeybees are not native to North America. They are hugely important in pollinating some crops (almonds, especially) but the average Midwestern garden is far more likely to be visited by bumble bees, orchard mason bees, or the guys who seem to love it at my place, leaf cutter bees. Most of these bees (and 90 percent of all North American bees) are solitary insects who play a vital role in helping us produce vegetables and fruit as well as helping to control problem pests.

The book provides detailed instructions on how to provide habitat for pollinators, what plants to plant in various regions (I was pleased that more than half of the recommended plants for the Midwest and Great Plains are in my garden now, with more to come), and how to recognize and support the pollinators in your yard.

So how do we support pollinators? The simple answer is to provide a diversity of plants. If possible, choose plants that are native to your area and plan for a sequence of blooms from early spring through fall. Try to provide habitat as well, such as a bee house or nesting sites for ground nesting bees.  Don’t be too obsessive about keeping your garden cleaned up — a pile of brush can be home-sweet-home to many pollinators. They also like holes in the ground and hollow logs, if you have one hanging around. Also, plant “sacrificial plants,” those that you know may be eaten by caterpillars or other larvae on their way to becoming butterflies.

That’s the simple answer, but for more detail and some fantastic bee and butterfly photos, check out Attracting Native Pollinators. If you are a member of the Minnesota Horticultural Society, the review copy I received will be in the hort society library in a few weeks.

Keeping Vegetable Gardeners on Track

If growing more vegetables is one of your New Year’s resolutions (it is one of mine), you might want to check out a new book designed to tell vegetable gardeners specifically when to do what. The Week-by-Week Vegetable Gardener’s Handbook (Storey Books) by the father-daughter team of Ron and Jennifer Kujawski was just published, and is a combination calendar/how-to manual. It tells gardeners which specific tasks to do when based on the last frost date for your area — a key statistic for determining what kinds of crops you can grow and the best way to grow them.

After you determine your frost-free date, the book asks readers to back up 20 weeks, and from there, provides week-by-week tasks to prepare, plant, weed, and harvest a great vegetable garden. According to the book, my frost-free date is May 3. That’s the date for Rochester, Mn., the nearest city listed in the appendix, and it seems about right based on experience. So, backing up 20 weeks from May 3, I should have already inventoried my seed-starting supplies (check!) and inventoried and cleaned up my gardening tools from last year (double check!).  Anytime in January I should order seeds, start from seed any herbs I plan to plant, and even sow leeks indoors, if I plan to grow them.

Because Minnesota’s season is especially compressed, not every task can be done on the schedule the Kujawskis set out — but when that’s the case, they usually note it. So for seven weeks before the frost-free date (mid-March in Minnesota), they recommend gardeners sow carrots, beets, and leaf lettuce outdoors — if the soil is workable — or in containers, if it is not. It’s almost certain I’ll be sowing beets and leaf lettuce in containers.

The book is more than a to-do list, however. It offers charts and drawings that show gardeners how to do the tasks, and it provides insights obviously gleaned from years of experience. (Ron Kujawski was a Massachusetts extension educator for 25 years.) A few examples:

  • Having a shady yard doesn’t mean you have to give up on vegetables. Gardeners with as little as two to four hours of sun can grow leafy greens and herbs such as parsley and chives. If you have dappled shade, you may be able to grow small-headed cabbages.
  • If you are plagued by dry weather, some vegetables endure it better than others. While all vegetables need water as seedlings to develop good root systems, some such as asparagus, eggplant, melons, squash, sweet potatoes, and tomatoes, can tolerate a dry period.
  • Even if your tomatoes are covered with blossoms, that’s no guarantee you will get fruit. If temperatures are below 58 degrees F or above 85 F (each a distinct possibility in Minnesota in July), tomatoes will not set fruit. I wonder if this is why we had such a poor tomato year in 2010.

If you are planning on buying a vegetable garden book in 2010, this is definitely one to consider.

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of The Week by Week Vegetable Gardener’s Handbook from Storey Press. No other compensation was received and my copy of the book will be in the MSHS Library in a few weeks. The library has one of the largest collections of garden and horticultural books in Minnesota.