Gardening for Pollinators in a Big Way

This summer I’ll be planting a small pollinator garden on our boulevard.  It’s the start of what I hope will be a bigger garden along my hellstrip—the 55-by-7 foot stretch of our property between the sidewalk and the street.  Start small, and grow it from there is a good motto in the garden. Still, seeing a big, private garden with a focus on pollinators is inspiring.

wildflowers in a field
From the driveway, the yard was a sea of wildflowers.

During the recent Garden Bloggers Fling in Austin, TX, we visited the garden of Ruthie Burrus. The property includes a magical stone garden house and a killer view of downtown Austin, but it was the long, hilly driveway flanked by native plants that blew me away. The field was buzzing with bees, moths and butterflies, and I’m sure, dozens of pollinators I could not identify. The sheer expanse of the garden was impressive.

closeup of Mexican hat flower
Mexican hat (Ratibida columnaris)

Native plants filled the space, including blanket flower, beebalm, Mexican hat, winecup and Texas lantana. I couldn’t identify all the butterflies and bees feeding along the hill but I recognized monarchs and painted ladies.

purple wine cup flower
Winecup (Callirhoë involucrata)

At the top of the hill, near the house, Ruthie uses more pollinator-friendly plants, including ‘Black and Blue’ salvia around this blue agave, and a hedge of a native salvia along one edge of the property. The back yard is much smaller than the front and includes a beautiful pool and patio area along with that stunning view.

agave cactus surrounded by salvia
‘Black and Blue’ salvia surround a blue agave
hedge with purple flowers
I have to admit I experienced more than a little zone envy when I saw this hedge of salvia.

I left the garden feeling even more inspired to plant my own pollinator field.

stone garden house
This adorable garden house is going to be covered with roses, Ruthie told us.
view of downtown austin texas
The view from Ruthie’s back patio is of the skyline of downtown Austin

Thanks to the Texas Highway Department’s helpful website for assisting me with identifying some of the plants in Ruthie’s garden.

Creating a Monarch-Friendly Garden

Last weekend, I had a chance to speak at the Duluth Garden and Flower Society (MSHS District 8) Spring Luncheon in Duluth. The luncheon attracted about 80 enthusiastic gardeners from Duluth, the North Shore and the Iron Range. It was a fun event and I was honored to be asked to talk about MSHS, Northern Gardener and gardening trends.

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Monarchs seem to like annuals, such as zinnias, but native plants are best for them.

One of the host groups was the local chapter of Wild Ones, a national group that promotes environmentally sound landscaping practices to preserve biodiversity. Wild Ones does a lot to educate and encourage the public about planting nature-friendly landscapes, including Monarch Way Stations. Wild Ones will even certify a garden space as a way station, if you provide what monarchs (and other pollinators) need. Whether you get your garden certified or not, it’s a good idea to learn about what it takes to attract pollinators. I decided to do a little inventory of how my own garden stacks up.

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If you want Monarchs, plant milkweed. It’s what those caterpillars need.

Larval plants: Monarch caterpillars require milkweed to grow into butterflies. It is their only food source. Wild Ones recommends having two types of milkweed in your landscape. I have lots (and lots!) of common milkweed on and near my property, but I think that is the only type. I’ll be looking this spring for either seeds or plants for swamp milkweed or prairie milkweed, both of which would do well in different parts of my landscape.

 

Joe Pye weed is one of the summer plants Monarchs use for nectar.
Joe Pye weed is one of the summer plants Monarchs use for nectar.

Early, mid and late food sources: Of the six early necatar plant shrubs Wild Ones recommends, I have one (serviceberry) in my yard, but there is pussy willow in the ponds near here. Of the eight recommended early forbs, I’ve got three (lupine, beardtongue and phlox). Not bad on early plants, but it could be better. Of the 36 shrubs, vines and perennials recommended for Monarchs for midsummer, my landscape has nine—again, not bad, could be better. Of the 10 plants recommended for late summer, I have three (goldenrod, aster and ironweed). Here’s the list of plants, in case you would like to see how favorable your landscape is for Monarchs.

Other landscape features to include for Monarchs include:

  • No pesticide use
  • Grasses (I have lots of those)
  • One or more water source, such as a birdbath or a puddling spot
  • Let things go a bit in the fall. Do not be quick to clean up flower stalks, grasses or leaves that may provide overwintering sites for beneficial insects.

How welcoming is your landscape for Monarchs and other pollinators?

Bee Condo Update: Solitary Insects Move In

As I noted a while back, critters have taken up residence in my bee condo. But they do not seem to be orchard mason bees. When an orchard mason bee moves into a condo like this, the signs are a rough mud plug in one of the holes. The bees use the holes to protect their offspring and fill the holes with baby bee food before plugging it up for safe keeping.

I have mud plugs, finally, but they are not rough. They are smooth, which I originally thought was a wasp, but the holes also include lots of cut up grass, which is not the usual m.o. for orchard mason bees. I did manage to catch a photo of one of the occupants leaving the condo the other day. He is longer than a bumble bee, also thinner, with a pronounced waist. Unlike the orchard mason bees, which are usually bluish, this bee was black and yellow.

Having long ago reached the limits of my knowledge of insects, I sent the photos above to David Zlesak, an extension educator at the University of Minnesota, editor of the U’s Yard and Garden News, and an occasional contributor to Northern Gardener. David is not a bee guy, but he knows an insect guy–Jeff Hahn–who checked out my photos and determined that it’s probably a leaf-cutting bee living in the bee condo. Leaf-cutters are solitary insects and effective pollinators. Their only negative is the leaf-cutting. I do have quite a few plants showing holes, especially one rose, further confirming the leaf-cutter theory. As Hahn noted, “They probably like your house just fine.”

Bee Condo Occupied At Last

I was starting to feel like one of those high-end Minneapolis developers, thinking no one would live in my condos, but some insects have finally moved in. I just hope they are bees. Earlier this spring, I built a bee house for orchard mason bees.

Orchard mason bees are solitary, non-honey producing bees, that are gentle but effective pollinators. They are prized by orchard owners and other gardeners. I certainly don’t have an orchard, but we have a decent-sized bed of raspberries, a couple of apple trees, a cherry tree, and lots of flowers. So, why not provide housing for the guys (well, actually, they are all gals) who do the work pollinating. The houses are easy to make, but mine sat empty for a long time.

The other day, I noticed that three or four holes seemed to be plugged with grass. The web sites on mason bees describe them as plugging the holes with mud, so I’m not sure if these are mason bees or something else. While examining the house last night, I noticed a blue-black insect going into the house, and mason bees are described as blue. So, maybe that’s who has moved into the neighborhood. If so, welcome! If not, does anyone else know what kind of insect would nest in holes like these and plug them with grass?

Condo for Bees Open

Unlike so many condos for people, I am hoping my just completed condo project for orchard mason bees will soon be abuzz with activity. I’ve been meaning to build one of these since I read an article in Fine Gardening about raising raspberries and the importance of orchard mason bees as pollinators.

Last fall, we had an article in Northern Gardener on the honeybee crisis. Honeybees, which are responsible for much of the pollination of commercial crops such as almonds, have been dying off in large numbers. Marla Spivak of the U of M is a bee expert, and she believes several factors may be causing the die-off, including mites or diseases and changes in habitat, such as prairies becoming residential areas and large monoculture crops (corn). If you are interested in honeybees or just want to see pictures of people with bee-beards, please check out the U’s great Bee Lab web site.

Well, no matter what the situation with honeybees, gardeners need bees of all types for pollination. Orchard mason bees are perfect bee neighbors. They are not social bees–each little bee wants her own condo. They are very gentle and pollinate like crazy. To build the house, you need a block of wood deeper than 4 inches (see comment below) of any length (mine is about a foot) with an angle cut on one edge. You also need a spare piece of wood or a cedar shingle for the roof, and another piece of wood to mount the house on. If you are lucky and have a friend with lots of spare lumber and a rotating arm power saw, the job is a snap. (Thanks, Steve!)

Once you have the wood, you drill holes 5/16th of an inch in diameter about 3 inches into the wood. Drill as many holes as you want, but there should be about 3/4 of an inch center to center between the holes. I got 28 on my block. Then, attach the roof to the block, and the block to the mounting piece and you are ready to hang your bee house. The bees like it facing south, so I mounted mine on one of the posts of my pergola. The bees use the holes in the house for nesting. They love pollen from apples and raspberries and I have both very close to the bee house. With any luck, the bees will help produce a good crop of raspberries, apples, veggies, flowers, and more bees this summer.