In 2020, I did something in my vegetable garden that I’d never done in the past: I planted a variety of pollinator friendly flowers and flowering herbs, all grown from seed on our Homestead (except for a few petunias we picked up on clearance that had seen better days.) You guys, I cannot even begin to explain to you the positive impact that this one change has made on our garden and how many more pollinators these plants attracted to our garden than I’ve ever seen in years past. While we could discuss the impact that this change made on our honeybees, today I’d like to dedicate some time to our native pollinators.
Typically I’d plant a few marigolds and maybe some petunias in our garden, which I did still do. But in 2020, I planted flowering herbs as well: purple opal basil, bouquet dill, cilantro, and parsley. The parsley served as a host plant for Swallowtail butterfly caterpillars, while the blooms of the remainder of the herbs served as nectar and pollen sources for other pollinating insects. Also, we created a border of sunflowers along the southern and western sides of our garden, and a border of borage along the northern edge.
Interspersed into the rows were petunias, marigolds, cockscomb, annual poppies, pinks (dianthus,) and my newly found favorite: zinnias. Some of these herbs and flowers were obviously more beneficial to the insects, while others simply provided beauty.
A major rock-star that I mentioned briefly above was borage; it was hardy, fast growing, and profusely flowered. Its star-shaped, bright indigo blooms were host to a plethora of insects: our honeybees as well as butterflies and various bumblebees. As an added bonus, the blooms change color from blue to pink as they age! The plant stems are covered in prickly fuzz and aren’t bothered by nuisance insects. Although I didn’t utilize them medicinally, borage plants are purported to be a great diuretic when steeped as a tea. I will definitely plant them again in the future.
Borage wasn’t alone in its stellar effects on our garden, as the border of 130′ row-feet filled with sunflowers proved to be a “welcome center” for the pollinators, especially bumblebees, carpenter bees, and long-horned bees. It brought me great joy to snap pictures of these intriguing and gentle beauties as they feasted on the sunny blooms, to observe them going about their tedious work, and to be in awe at how it seemed that my presence rendered them undeterred from their diligent foraging.
FYI: If you intend to add sunflowers to your garden, please ensure that you choose a pollen-bearing variety. Many beautiful sunflowers are bred specifically for the floral industry and are therefore pollenless. While the pollenless varieties will add interest and beauty, these sunflowers do nothing to benefit our pollinators. Heirloom sunflowers are always a safe choice!
My favorite blooms in the garden in 2020 were the zinnias, hands down. There is something special about the bright and cheery blooms that would make me stop and soak in their beauty every time I passed them by. They are long lasting blooms, that will continue to bloom all summer until the first hard frost. Cutting the spent flowers helps the plant produce more blooms.
Daily, we had a plethora of fluttering guests light on the zinnias, one of which caught my attention in a very special way. As I hung laundry on the line, I caught a glimpse of a very large set of wings near the area where my zinnias were growing. Thinking it an unusually sized butterfly, I went over to investigate and found this battle scarred and tattered soldier enjoying a refreshing drink of nectar. After a quick entry on iNaturalist (my go to for plant and insect identification and documentation,) I discovered this lovely creature to be a Giant Eastern Swallowtail, and giant it surely was! As it was completely unthreatened by my presence, I was able to get very near to take several photos and a video on my phone. For several minutes it flitted from flower to flower before eventually lofting away to destinations yet unknown. That singular encounter made the zinnias worth it for me; to have attracted such a unique guest, the zinnias have earned permanent status in my garden and landscape annually.
Several years ago we purchased a large amount of beekeeping equipment from an elderly gentleman that had a very well-known pumpkin farm, but had given up managing honeybees himself as his health and ability waned. In conversation with this fellow, we were given an education about a type of bee we’d never heard of: squash bees. I thought that surely this gentleman was mistaken, that honeybees were the ones responsible for pollinating his pumpkin patch; I’d never seen nor heard of a squash bee. In 2020 I discovered that, not only do they exist, but they visited my zucchini and pumpkin blossoms every morning been 6:00 and 9:00 (except during rain.) Dozen of them came each day. Cucurbit family plants (squash and pumpkins, but not cucumbers oddly enough) close their blossoms before the heat of the day, so these bees have to get there bright and early. Bumblebees and long-horned bees frequented these plants, but very rarely did I see a honeybee in the squash flowers. Another fun fact that I learned is that, while female squash bees nest in the ground and rear young, male bees frequently sleep inside the folded up blooms once they close late-morning. I witnessed this myself, as the squash bee below had been resting inside this bloom for many minutes before finally arising and flitting between blooms in search of females.
Here is an interesting tidbit. Did you know that tomatoes actually require bumblebees for proper pollination? Bumblebees perform “buzz pollination,” which is exactly what is sounds like. Rather than just landing on a flower and gathering pollen, bumbles create a vibration that allows the pollen of certain plants to be more readily released from the flower’s anthers. If you ever get the opportunity to observe a bumblebee actively pollinating a flower, listen for the characteristic “buzz,” you can’t miss it!
Perhaps the moral of the story is this: if you aren’t planting flowers in your garden, you’re missing out. I challenge you to try it, and prepare to be amazed at the amount of beneficial insects that they attract. I’ve always had flowers around the border of the house and in our other landscaping, but planting them in our vegetable garden has been a complete game changer for me; I am anxiously awaiting this year’s native pollinator visitors, as I plan to have even more pollinator friendly plants!