Great vegetable gardens don’t just happen, you know! They require thoughtful planning, along with some know-how about nature’s shortcuts! Pollinators increase the bounty from our gardens without us even noticing it, says Newport News, VA-based Lisa Mason Ziegler, owner of The Gardener’s Workshop, an organic market farm and author of the new book Vegetables Love Flowers: Companion Planting for Beauty and Bounty. We asked Lisa for her best advice.
Why should gardeners think about attracting pollinators to their gardens?
Pollinators make our vegetable gardens more fruitful! Plants like cucumbers and squash would not produce a crop if a pollinator hadn’t carried the pollen from the male bloom over to the female bloom. No pollination, no harvest.
Want the most abundant tomato harvests? Invite bumblebees into the garden. Tomatoes can self-pollinate because the male and female parts are in the same bloom. However, when a bumblebee visits the tomato blossom, it ensures that pollination occurs, which increases the quality and quantity of fruit produced. This is called ‘buzz pollination’ and only the native bumblebee is equipped to do it for tomatoes.
There are so many other native pollinators right out our doors, just looking for a place to live, eat, and raise a family. Native bees, butterflies, moths, hummingbirds, and others – they all have a job to do in our gardens.
Attracting and supporting native pollinators goes beyond our own backyards. As more natural habitat is lost to development and with the use of pesticides on the rise, native pollinators are running out of options. While your own vegetable garden stands to benefit from providing habitat and flowers for pollinators, the surrounding landscapes of our forests, fields, parks, and beyond will also benefit.
You feature an amazing Beneficial Creature Hotel in your new book. What are some options if you’re short on space?
Any of the components that make up the creature hotel can be used independently. The bee block can be included in even the smallest garden, as can the bundles of hollow bamboo sticks. One of my favorites is an old tree woodpile. Many native bees are wood nesters, and use the abandoned beetle holes to lay eggs.
Other habitats I love doing in my garden for small gardens is to stuff dog hair into a quart yogurt container with holes punched in the bottom for drainage and a couple at the top for a string to hang it from a tree. Birds make quick work of grabbing it up to make a nest.
Providing a place where pollinators and beneficial creatures can hide, rest, and protect their young is so important. Look at your garden and imagine you’re a bee: Are there flowers for them, all the time? Is there somewhere for baby birds to hide from predators?
What are some effective ways to pump up the presence of pollinators?
Plant flowers and they will come. Providing blooms in the garden from the first crack of spring right up until frost not only attracts pollinators but also keeps them in the garden, right where we need them the most.
Once you’ve attracted pollinators with flowers, cause them no harm. Use zero pesticides, not even organic, which can harm pollinators and other beneficial creatures. I’ve been gardening and farming without any pesticides for over 12 years.
What else should home gardeners keep in mind when planning pollinator-friendly gardens?
Providing places for beneficial creatures to eat, set-up house, drink, rest, hide from predators, and raise a family safely leads to a stronger community of pollinators. I’ve surrounded my working gardens with a mixed native plant border of shrubs and trees. It attracts and sustains many of the very creatures that help in my garden by eating pest insects. These permanent planting areas are full of nesting sites and food sources for these good guys.
Many water sources are too deep for pollinators. Placing pebbles or a large rock in a birdbath allows them to get to the water level to drink. Spraying plant leaves that will hold bits of water is another welcome source of water for them to drink from. My goal is to provide for as much of their needs as I can so they don’t need to travel from my yard.
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Photos: Bob Schamerhorn