Tag Archives: pollinators

Wildlife Friendly Garden: Fall Clean-Up

This fall, we’ve loved seeing an increased awareness about how pollinators and other beneficial insects are affected by garden clean-up. These creatures overwinter in organic debris such as plant stems, seed pods, and leaves. Overwintering songbirds also utilize this debris for habitat and food sources. 

So do we leave our garden as is in the fall for wildlife? No, we remove some material, leave some, and add some. These autumn chores are essential for the health and productivity of next year’s garden. Here’s what we recommend to keep your garden healthy and give wildlife a helping hand:

Clean up diseased plants.

In the fall, any diseased plant material should be removed from the garden and burnt, buried away from any garden beds, or composted in a well-managed compost pile that reaches at least 140°F. 

Nightshades or members of the Solanaceae family, including peppers, potatoes, tomatoes, and eggplants, are common candidates. These plants are affected by fungal diseases such as Alternaria (early blight), late blight, verticillium wilt, and fusarium wilt, which can overwinter in dead plant material.

You should also remove plants like cucumbers and squashes that have been affected by Downey Mildew.

Don’t leave soil bare over the winter. 

If your first frost is still several weeks away, you should be sowing cover crops like clover, Austrian winter peas, or winter rye in open beds. Cover crops prevent erosion, suppress weeds, add organic matter and nutrients to the soil, and provide habitat for beneficial insects, bacteria, and fungi.

However, depending on what zone you’re in, if you haven’t sown any fall cover crops at this point, you may want to use mulch instead. A thick layer of mulch can help provide a winter habitat for beneficial insects, bacteria, and fungi. It also suppresses weeds, slowly adds organic matter as it breaks down, and protects the soil from winter weather. We talked more in-depth about mulch in a previous post, but you can use straw, hay, old leaves, or wood chips.

Leave the leaves!

We’ve been taught that our yards and gardens should look tidy, but there’s nothing wrong with leaving autumn leaves right where they fall. They’ll break down and add organic matter and nutrients to your lawn and garden.

If you have places you want to remove leaves from, such as pathways to your home, there are a couple of great uses for them. You can add them to your compost pile; they’re a great source of carbon. You can also use leaves as an excellent free mulch to protect soil or perennial and overwintering plants like garlic, fruit trees and shrubs, strawberries, rhubarb, or tulips.

Don’t cut back seed-bearing flower heads.

Dead flower stalks are some of our favorite plants to leave standing. A few great choices include sunflowers, echinacea (coneflowers), bee balm (monarda), and rudbeckia (black-eyed Susans). The stems from many species are ideal places for native bees. You might also spot songbirds using them as winter perches and searching them for any leftover seed. They also add a bit of beauty to the winter landscape. Frost-covered seed heads are a lovely morning view. 

Plant more flowers.

Depending on your zone, you may still be able to sneak in a few flower seeds and bulbs. Many native flowers are excellent choices for fall sowing because their seeds are adapted to spending the winter in the soil in our climate. Check out our post, Spring Flowers: Fall Sowing, for a list of flowers that can be fall sown. 

Do cut back pest-infested material.

Another instance where we opt to remove and burn plant material is when it is infested with pests that may overwinter in the material. An excellent example of this is asparagus stalks that were infested with asparagus beetles. After they turn brown and die back in the fall, it’s a good idea to cut them about 2 inches above the soil and burn them. 

Other November odds and ends:

  • Drain the gas from rototillers and other equipment that will sit all winter.
  • Bring in terracotta pots that can crack during freeze and thaws.
  • Drain and store hoses and sprinklers. 
  • Clean and oil garden tools before storing them. This also helps fungal diseases from being transmitted to other garden beds.

As organic gardeners, we strive to work with nature. Following these simple ideas can limit time spent on clean-up, help build healthy soil, and increase the number of birds and beneficial insects in and around our gardens.

A Beginners Guide to Pollination

Gardeners often talk about the importance of bees and butterflies. While these pollinators are important, there are other aspects of pollination that are sometimes overlooked. Learning about the process of pollination can help gardeners produce more food and save seed successfully.

How Does Pollination Work?

Pollination occurs when the pollen, a powder containing male reproductive cells, is transferred from one flower’s anthers to another flower’s stigma. As plants can’t make this transfer themselves, they rely on outside forces to move the pollen. Pollination can occur in several ways.

Is Pollination Necessary?

Pollination is necessary for all plants to produce seed. Certain vegetables also require pollination to produce a yield. These include fruiting crops such as tomatoes, squash, beans, and corn. Root and leaf crops like beets and lettuce don’t require pollination to produce a yield but still need to be pollinated to produce seed.

Insect & Animal Pollination

When we think of pollinators, we typically think about bees and butterflies. In reality, various insects and animals pollinate plants, including moths, flies, wasps, birds, and even bats!

Pollination isn’t intentional on the part of the animals or insects. These creatures accidentally transfer pollen from one flower to another while harvesting pollen, nectar, or both.

Bees are considered some of the best pollinators of food crops. Their bodies are covered with bristly hairs which collect pollen electrostatically. The pollen rubs off on other flowers as they continue to collect it. Some native bees, like the Southeastern Blueberry Bee, also specialize in specific plants and do a better job at pollination than other species.

Wind & Water

Wind pollinated crops produce billions of super light pollen grains that are easily carried by the wind. They typically have feathery stigmas to help catch wind-borne pollen. These crops include most grains like corn, barley, wheat, and oats. Many nut trees are also wind-pollinated. 

In our Corn Growing Guide, you may have noticed that it says to plant corn in blocks at least five rows wide for good pollination and well-filled ears. As corn by wind-pollinated, it has a much better chance of being pollinated in larger block plantings than if you plant a row or two.

You may occasionally notice insect pollinators visiting these crops. Bees and other insects may gather pollen but are generally ineffective at pollination.

Water pollination is rare but there are a few species of aquatic plants that rely on pollen transfer through water. 

Human

Why would humans need to pollinate crops? Hand-pollination is typically done when natural pollination is either lacking or undesirable. 

The most well-known example of hand pollination being necessary is vanilla. The vanilla orchid, which is native to Mexico, is pollinated by a specific species of wild bees. Vanilla crops grown in other locations such as Madagascar have to be hand-pollinated because natural pollinators don’t exist.

Natural pollination may be undesirable when breeding plants or avoiding cross-pollination. When trying to breed a new variety or create a specific hybrid, gardeners may rely on hand pollination. You can also use hand-pollination to keep plants from cross-pollinating if you don’t have the space to separate them the necessary distance. Bagging or covering and hand-pollinating flowers will keep your varieties pure.

Hand pollination is simple to do. You need to identify the flower’s anthers and use a cotton swab or small brush like a paintbrush to move pollen to another flower’s anthers.

Keeping these pollination facts in mind can help ensure your garden is a success.

10 Plants to Attract Beneficial Insects to Your Garden

Many insects play vital roles in helping our gardens grow. Flies, bees, butterflies, and moths pollinate crops while spiders, beetles, mantids, parasitoid wasps, lacewings, and other predators feed on pests. On the soil level, worms, millipedes, and other decomposers help turn organic matter into usable nutrients for your plants.

Attracting some of these insects to your garden can reduce pest pressure, help build healthy soil, and improve yields. Here are ten plants you can grow this season to help attract some of these important insects to your garden:

Buckwheat

Buckwheat

This tasty grain and fantastic green manure crop is also excellent for attracting pollinators and parasitoid wasps. It grows quickly, and both wasps and bees love the flowers! Sowing a patch and have it buzzing with activity when flowers appear in as little as six weeks!

Dara

Dara

This delicate flower is closely related to Queen Anne’s Lace but isn’t as aggressive in the garden. The flower clusters in pink, dark purple, and white attract various pollinators, including tachinid flies that parasitize squash bugs.

Creeping Thyme

Creeping Thyme

Slow-growing at first, Creeping Thyme will eventually form dense mats. This thick ground cover provides excellent shelter and shade for predatory beetles as well as decomposers like millipedes.

Bronze Fennel

Fennel

Fennel has beautiful delicate flowers that attract tiny wasps and other pollinators. Its leaves are also a food source for some swallowtail butterfly caterpillars.

Mint

Mint

Like thyme, mint is a great way to create dense shady areas of foliage that are multi-purpose. You can harvest mint for tea and culinary uses while it provides habitat for decomposers and predatory beetles. The flowers are a favorite with bees.

We’re currently out of stock of mint seed, but you may be able to get a start from a friend. Alternatively, other plants in the mint family that work well include lemon balm or anise-hyssop.

Sweet Alyssum

Sweet Alyssum

Sweet Alyssum forms low, spreading mounds with fragrant, tiny white flowers that are excellent for attracting bees, butterflies, and other pollinators. It’s long-blooming, especially when spent blooms are cut back. It also provides shade and shelter for ground-dwelling beneficial insects.

Echinacea

Echinacea

This native flower can help you attract a variety of butterflies and bees to your garden. It’s also drought-tolerant and medicinal.

Dill

Dill

Like fennel and Dara, dill’s tiny flowers are attractive to many small beneficial insects, including parasitoid wasps, flies, and bees. It will do double-duty when it’s time to make pickles!

Rudbeckia

Rudbeckia

Sometimes known as Black-eyed Susan, it has composite flowers which will attract bees, hoverflies, parasitoid wasps, and robber flies. It’s also a great low-maintenance planting for an untended space. Rudbeckia self-sows and naturalizes aggressively.

Zinnias

Zinnias

These are the workhorse of any flower garden. Zinnias are easy to grow and will bloom all summer, especially if you keep up with deadheading. They’re excellent for attracting bees, butterflies, and other pollinators.

Bonus: Welcome-to-the-Garden Pollinator Collection

Support pollinators all season with this special collection of 13 old-fashioned single-blossomed heirloom, open-pollinated flowers and herbs. It includes calendula, echinacea, cosmos, sweet alyssum, bachelor’s button, cleome, sunflowers, rudbeckia, beebalm, phlox, and zinnia.

We give 30% of your purchase of this mix to the Piedmont Environmental Council for their “Buy Fresh Buy Local” Food Guide.

Additional Tips

  • Avoid using pesticides. Even organic pesticides can negatively impact beneficial insects the same way that they’re intended to harm pests. Opt for integrated pest management instead.
  • Let things get a little messy and provide natural, wild habitat whenever possible. Let part of your lawn grown, leave standing dead plant material, don’t get rid of autumn leaves, and let trees and shrubby areas grow. 
  • Build an insect hotel! You can find instructions here.