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Welcome to my blog. I talk about gardening, and my friends and family are happy I have another outlet.

It's Not a Bug, It's a Feature! Attracting Pollinators

It's Not a Bug, It's a Feature! Attracting Pollinators

This monarch’s upper right wing is damaged, but it’s still getting around

I started my garden in the 90’s when insects in the garden weren’t tolerated. Japanese beetles were eating everything, stinging insects were treated like Cold War adversaries, and butterflies may have been grudgingly tolerated, but caterpillars munching was not acceptable. Many hybridizers were developing plants with double or sterile flowers and no one cared that they didn’t supply the goodies that pollinating insects needed. Plant variety was much more limited, and a lot of gardens were done blooming after the rhododendrons finished.

I had already made the decision to avoid pesticides (more lazy-faire than environmentally conscious) and constant bloom was always my holy grail, so I always had a lot of six legged visitors. Since then insects, like tattoos, have gone from being slightly disreputable to an artistic must. As we have come to appreciate pollinators more, their favorite plants have become available and their foamy, delicate, slightly chaotic look has also become more fashionable.

Like any fashion trend, it’s a little overhyped, so I am going to deflate it a bit. They are being touted as an incredibly easy way to get a beautiful garden constantly full of blooms. Pollinator gardens are great, but they cannot be all things to all people, and I think someone should talk about problems before enthusiastic newbies start ripping up their yards and filling them with fake meadows.

Meadows

I see a lot of large, expensive meadows being installed, and I can pretty much guarantee that after a few years most of them will be “extensively modified.” Unless you live in the plains, meadows are not natural. There are some perpetual meadows that exist because trees won’t grow there (high altitude, lack of rain, boggy conditions, frequent fires, salt spray), but your yard probably isn’t one of them. If you live in a perpetual meadow, you probably already know that a lush field of perpetual bloom is a bit of a fantasy.

I live in southern New England, and there have been Europeans here for about 300 years. When they arrived, they found that the area was mostly swamps and forests, and if you find an area here that has been left to naturalize for a while, you will discover that it’s trying hard to go back to being a swamp or forest. If no one cuts down the trees, it becomes a forest, and if there are no trees, that’s because it’s a swamp. Meadows full of native plants look great right after they are installed, but any garden will become a mass of tree saplings, poison ivy, and invasive weeds unless you maintain it. This is war, and ultimately regimentation makes battle easier.

Taconic in July from Google Maps. It looks much better at 60MPH

Taconic in July from Google Maps. It looks much better at 60MPH

Self Seeding

Pollinators pollinate. Flowering plants and their pollinators have co-evolved to create a mutually beneficial system where the pollinator gets food and the flowers seeds are pollinated. The pollinator wants food to reproduce, but there are a few more steps along the way. However the flower’s reproductive needs are immediately satisfied: the seeds are good to go. You can reduce the volume of seeds by deadheading, and you can try to mulch the problem away, but you cannot eliminate the seeds.

Verbena bonairiensis self seed to create a purple haze over large areas. Their stems and leaves are skinny and almost invisible. Individually, they are a rather odd plant, but hundreds of self seeders are magical .

Verbena bonairiensis self seed to create a purple haze over large areas. Their stems and leaves are skinny and almost invisible. Individually, they are a rather odd plant, but hundreds of self seeders are magical .

Deadheading will remove a lot of seeds, but it’s a lot of work and it’s practically impossible to deadhead before any of the seeds are dispersed. Did I mention that it’s a lot of work? The more assiduous you are about deadheading, the more blooms the plant produces. This looks great, but it makes eliminating the seeds even harder.

Mulching can help, but its virtues are overstated. First of all, it’s very difficult to keep a consistent level of mulch for the entire period when plants are self-seeding. Secondly, mulch doesn’t really work unless the plants are discrete and clump forming, which severely limits the number of meadow and native plants to chose from. Besides, you need some self seeding because many of the best butterfly bait are short-lived (echinecea) or annuals (verbena bonariensis), so you need to let them seed, buy new ones, or let them disappear.

Aesthetics

It is possible to choose only beautiful native pollinator plants, but they aren’t all beautiful, and even the best have awkward phases. Bugs see the world differently than we do. They actually see colors that we don’t see, so many of their favorites have tiny, pale grayish purple flowers that are obscured by foliage and may even face the ground. Many beautiful non-natives are excellent butterfly magnets, but you do have to be careful. Some of the most stunning flowers don’t attract pollinators.

A” low maintenance” Native Butterfly Garden that was installed a few months ago. The only blooms that are attracting pollinators are the weeds (pretty red clover flowers, which are not native). The garden consists of three plants that are all native (rudbeckia, echinacea, and monarda), but they have a very limited bloom time, especially if they are not dead-headed. So aside from being ugly, it’s only pollinator friendly for about five weeks.

The “Tough Love” border on the same day. They are only a few yards apart, but this area looks cheerful and the sedum (the reddish flowers) attracts many pollinators. Soon, the native asters will bloom and keep butterflies happy until November. This border isn’t perfect, but we can tweak it to make it even more pollinator friendly, whereas I suspect the other one will be mowed down.

Caterpillars can do a lot of damage. I hear a lot of butterfly enthusiasts talk about “sharing their plants,” but caterpillars are like ungrateful teenagers who empty your fridge and leave their trash on the counter - sometimes it's hard to wait for the metamorphosis.

The hardy hibiscus attracts hummingbirds, but I have to share the leaves with some leaf-muncher.

The hardy hibiscus attracts hummingbirds, but I have to share the leaves with some leaf-muncher.

If you want to have pollinators all season, you must have bloom all season. Personally, I prefer having a lot of different plants, even though large groupings of a few plants is more fashionable right now, and it is definitely lower maintenance. Pollinators prefer a smorgasbord.

Smorgasbord of Verbena b., Nasturtium ‘Alaska’, Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’, Sedum ‘matrona’, and Dahlia ‘Bishop of Dover’

It won’t look the same every week

When people start gardening as “outdoor decorating”, they usually want a particular look. That’s why annuals and boxwood are so popular - you can have the exact same look five years later. If you want to attract pollinators, you have to give up on the idea of gardening as decorating, unless the upholstery changes color and stepping stools become dining room tables. You need accept seasonality and growth, but I don’t think that is a problem: I think it is one of the best things about gardening.




Bugs and Features

In case you are too young or too senile to understand the title reference, lightbulb jokes were very popular in the 90s.

How many therapists does it take to change a lightbulb? - One, but it has to want to change.

How many PTA members does it take to change a lightbulb? - Three, one to change it, one to collect the release forms, and one to make a T-shirt.

How many surrealists does it take to change a lightbulb? - Fish

These were very popular among the math/computer nerds I hung around with, and one of my favorites was:

How many computer designers does it take to change a lightbulb? None! Darkness is not a Bug! It’s a Feature!

So, How many gardeners does it take to change a lightbulb?

My Fall Garden Secret

My Fall Garden Secret

Too Much of a Good Thing - Sedum 'Autumn Joy'

Too Much of a Good Thing - Sedum 'Autumn Joy'