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.

Blown into the Garden

Blown out of his home and into the vegetable garden.

This little guy — I think it is a brown thrasher baby — was jumping around my garden this afternoon, clearly having unintentionally fallen from the nest. It’s been very windy today and I think this nest is in one of my burning bush shrubs — thrashers like to nest in a dense shrub. I first encountered him in the perennial bed with the shrub, and he hopped off to the vegetable garden.  At one point, both of the bird’s parents were standing next to it, apparently offering advice. After taking this photo, I took off to give them privacy.

Attracting Wildlife

A pair enjoys the early morning sun in my yard and my neighbor's driveway.

Despite intermittent battles with varmints of the burrowing kind, one of my gardening goals is to attract wildlife. We have lots of birds around the garden, including hummingbirds, hawks and (last year, at least) Baltimore orioles. We have bees, butterflies, frogs, snakes,  (they keep down the varmint population), and most recently a pair of ducks who enjoy sunning in our front yard.

It’s not hard to attract wildlife, especially because we live near ponds and a nature area. Most creatures want only three things — habitat, food, and water. For attracting birds, for instance, a thickety stand of shrubs (birds here love sumac, burning bush and highbush cranberry), a few berry producing plants, and a regularly filled birdbath. Keeping the garden slightly messy and as pesticide-free as possible will make your place even more attractive.

Attracting Hummingbirds

IMG_6046I planted Yvonne’s Giant Salvia on the recommendation of Donald Mitchell, a speaker at the Rice County Horticulture Day in March. This annual salvia with prolific, bright red flowers is said to be a hummingbird magnet. The original plants seem to have been a natural variation on salvia and they often reach 5 feet tall. Mine have barely hit 3 feet so far this summer, but they are certainly living up to their reputation for attracting hummingbirds. I’ve very rarely seen hummingbirds in our yard, but this year, I’ve seen them several times, usually hoovering around the salvia. No luck getting a picture of the bird yet — but I’ll post one if I succeed.

Why are my plants so short? My guess–and that’s all it is–is that the plants do not receive enough sun. The spot they are in gets several hours a day, but most of it is in late afternoon. Since these seeds are not available through retailers, I plan to save a few and try again next year in a sunnier spot.

Garden Visitor

Ever since we put in our pergola in the backyard we have had intermittent visits from hawks. I think they like to perch on the pergola and watch for varmints in our meadow. Usually I am not fast enough with the camera to catch the hawk, but tonight I got a shot of him or her on the pergola and flying away.

We have thought our hawk is a red-tail hawk, but checking with the Birds of Minnesota field guide, I think this one could be a Northern Harrier, which is also known as the marsh hawk. Given the ponds and other marshy terrain in our area, that’s a possibility.