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The Late Bloomer: Building a garden to help our disappearing pollinators

Two years ago, I got serious about creating a pollinator garden.

This had been evolving for some time as I learned about declining monarch butterfly populations, found out honeybees were in trouble, and fell in love with hummingbirds. (Did you know hummingbirds are pollinators? How about moths, flies, and bats?)

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I saw firsthand how valuable pollinators are one year when a blueberry bush didn’t produce a single blueberry. Online research revealed that it was an early variety, and winter lasted longer than usual that year, so the blueberry bush bloomed before the bees woke up. Since it never got pollinated, it didn’t produce any fruit.

Imagine what would happen if all the bees disappeared. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website, over 75% of flowering plants are pollinated by animals.

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By now, most people are probably aware of problems with honeybees, which are dying at alarming rates due to pesticide use, loss of habitat, parasites, and a mysterious condition called Colony Collapse Disorder. But it’s not just honeybees that are in trouble, it’s bees in general and other kinds of pollinators, too.

I’ve been building my pollinator garden plant by plant, testing which ones will thrive in our clay-based, less-than-ideal soil and which will resist the diseases and pests that so frequently attack plants here. The list of plants I’ve planted that didn’t survive is long. So, I experiment with one plant at a time and see what works, and it’s fun to see what comes back from year to year.

The cornerstone of my garden is a small area of heliopsis, a cheerful yellow flower that was planted by the previous owners of our house and has been reseeding itself and coming back every year for the past 16 years. It blooms all summer and right into fall. Bees love it, and so do I.

Heliopsis, Major Wheeler Honeysuckle, and All American Chief Daylily are shown.
Heliopsis, Major Wheeler Honeysuckle, and All American Chief Daylily are shown. (Judy Hake/Judy Hake)

I learned in years past that hummingbirds are attracted to trumpet shaped blooms, so I planted Major Wheeler Honeysuckle (noninvasive), which climbs on the fence and has gorgeous red blossoms all summer long. Hummingbirds adore it – and so do I!

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The pollinator garden is 5 feet by 12 feet and now contains monarda (bee balm), crocosmia, delphinium, foxglove, lupine, phlox, columbine, stiff goldenrod, liatris, Black-eyed Susan, and butterfly weed. I’m looking at catalogs and trying to decide what else to tuck into the available spaces. Annuals such as zinnias, Mexican sunflowers, and snapdragons are on the list.

Other plants around the yard have turned out to be good pollinator attractors, some accidentally. The pussy willow is an excellent source of early spring pollen when few other plants are blooming. I bought a bluebeard one year just because I loved the pure blue blooms, and it is alive with bees and butterflies when it blooms in summer. Our two apple trees attract bees in the spring when they’re blooming, and when apples appear, the bees (and wasps, I might add) feast on the juice. And the mimosa tree looks magical when the feathery pink blooms appear and butterflies and bees form clouds around the tree.

Of course, there is also the obligatory butterfly bush. I’ve heard it’s considered invasive, but pollinators love it so much it’s hard to resist, and I’ve never seen it propagate itself or spread.

I try to grow flowers, fruits, and vegetables as organically as possible, which of course is a challenge. Even standard organic treatments such as neem oil can cause problems by disrupting development or reproduction of beneficial insects such as monarch caterpillars. The rule of thumb, if it must be used, is to use as little as possible and keep it carefully targeted. A mixture of dish soap and water at a 1:10 ratio sometimes works and is not as devastating to beneficial insects.

If you’re interested in helping pollinators, consider not using weed control products on your lawn. Dandelions, clover, and other wildflowers and ground covers are essential to provide food for pollinators, especially early in spring.

And don’t forget to plant milkweed for the monarch caterpillars. Milkweed is the ONLY plant they can eat, and many wild milkweed sources have been destroyed by farming, development, and herbicides.

We may think that we can’t do much individually to improve the situation for honeybees, butterflies, and other pollinators that are in trouble. But if we each plant nectar-rich flowers, minimize use of pesticides and herbicides, and plant native plants wherever possible, our cumulative efforts can make a big difference.

Without pollinators, we would be facing an epidemic of food shortages and famine. They are critical to our survival on this beautiful planet. Let’s do all we can to help them thrive.

Judy Hake writes from Union Bridge. Her column appears on the third Sunday of the month. You can reach her at judy@hake.com.

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