Much is being written these days about the importance of pollinators to the world as we know it. Indeed our future food supply may depend on these tiny workhorses of the natural world. With the decreasing populations of bees, gardeners are stepping up across the planet to help not just the bees but all those little pollinators that help keep us alive. As a gardener, there’s a lot you can do.
This time of the year, gardens are winding down. We’re outside whenever possible cleaning up for next year. But wait! Don’t make the garden one sterile void. As the folks at the Xerces Society say, “Put down those pruners: Pollinators need your ‘Garden Garbage!’” You now have license to take it easy this fall and leave the leaves and some of the garden refuse alone.
Seventy percent of native bees nest in the ground during the winter. Tilling the garden in the fall or early spring can wipe out these ground nesters. Bumblebees don’t make a winter nest but they do burrow into loose soil and leaf litter. The eastern black swallowtail spends the winter as a pupa, hidden to all but the most observant, camouflaged as a dried leaf or a tiny twig.
Rake up all that litter and dispose of it and you’ll be destroying those pupae. Fritillary butterflies host on violets and spend the late days of summer looking for violets and laying their eggs. The eggs will hatch and the resulting larvae will hide out in leaf litter, waiting for the violet plants to emerge in the spring.
Of course, there are exceptions. Any diseased plants should be removed. If stalk borer is a problem in your garden, you will need a weed-free area in that affected area.
Some plants turn to mush over winter and those won’t benefit anyone. But otherwise, think long and hard before doing a ‘spotless cleanup.” With our broad expanses of green grass and the vision of plowed farm fields, we have been accustomed to associating cleanliness with emptiness.
Perhaps it’s time to change that attitude. Will you have more severe insect infestations next year? I’ve not found that to be true. For decades I have practiced my own version of pollinator protection, which some call procrastination. Leaving some garden plants and all of the leaves has been my answer to a shortage of time and it is good to know that my benign neglect has been helpful to pollinators while causing no problems in the garden. For more information, check out the Xerces Society at https://tinyurl.com/y4a6x3dy.
Pollinators also need protection from the hot sun, driving rains and strong winds. Garden fences and windbreaks can benefit both the garden and the insects that help it thrive.
When planning next year’s garden, think again of the pollinators. You can even act now and plant some spring-flowering bulbs that benefit nature’s miracle workers. Crocuses and grape hyacinths are particularly valuable to honeybees. See Table 2 at https://tinyurl.com/yxqcykmk for specific varieties. Pollinators, including honeybees, need both protein from flower pollen and carbohydrates from flower nectar.
Not all flowers provide one or the other of these valuable nutrients. What should you plant? This site, https://wisconsinpollinators.com/Gardening/Gardening.aspx, offers suggestions for bee-friendly plantings, as well as separate listings for gardens designed to attract hummingbirds and another list for butterflies.
Remember too that spring clean-up should be selective. With fritillaries feeding on violets and bees savoring both dandelions and the valuable nectar of Creeping Charlie, don’t be too eager to eliminate these plants. Check out the info on that scourge of the gardener at https://turf.umn.edu/news/creeping-charlie-management-and-value-pollinators
Beverly Carney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.