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    5 ways to make your vegetable garden a pollinator destination
    • March 14, 2024

    As the weather warms, anticipation grows in people eager to grow vegetable gardens. Gardening daydreams become a canvas of plump tomatoes, colorful dangling peppers, and sprawling squash vines covered in sunny blooms.

    The secret to making these bountiful dreams come true is simple: Create a welcoming space for pollinators in and around your vegetable garden. Once that neon welcome sign is turned on, your garden will burst with the activity of these winged workers. Their presence will sweeten the success of your garden by boosting pollination, yield, resistance to pests, and local biodiversity.

    While you might notice insects like flies, beetles and butterflies casually moving from flower to flower, bees are the ones doing most of the pollination work.

    The image of honeybees clasping at squash flowers might suggest a simple exchange in pollination services. The reality is that pollination can be complex and nuanced, depending on the flower to be pollinated. Honeybees, introduced to North America in the Colonial era, tend to steal the spotlight in pollinator discussions. Their generalist and nondiscriminatory pollination behavior benefits farmers and a wide range of crops, making them highly desirable.

    But they are not, as many people assume, the quick fix for our pollination problems — including loss of habitat and species diversity, and overuse of chemicals — that have cut the population of pollinators and, thus, pollination itself. The assumption about honeybees is how the vital work of native bees is overlooked.

    Jonathon Gruenke / Daily Press

    A goldfinch — a pollinator — among sunflowers.

    The life cycles and behaviors of native bees are in sync with the blooming periods and pollination requirements of native plants — a perfect, more efficient pairing. When populations are healthy, native bees are active in weather that honeybees avoid, and they tend to be more adaptable to local climate challenges. Bumblebees, for example, have a unique pollination behavior valued by crops like blueberries, peppers and tomatoes. The flowers of these plants have pollen grains that do not loosen or transfer easily, resulting in less-than-ideal pollination by most insects. Bumblebees, though, can release stubborn pollen using buzz pollination, vibrating their wings while gripping the flower.

    About 20% of our native bees are specialists, using only the pollen from one species or plant genus. The squash bee, for instance, relies solely on pollen from cucurbits (squash, pumpkins, cucumbers) to feed its offspring. Although the spiny texture, low nutritional value and chemical defenses of squash pollen repel many generalists, squash bees flourish on it.

    Supporting these specialized pollinator relationships leads to efficient, well-rounded pollination in flower beds and vegetable gardens. Here are a few easy tips to turn on that neon welcome sign and invite biodiversity into your garden.

    1.  Plant pollinator-attracting plants in and around your vegetable plot.

    Include perennials such as:

    Anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum)
    Aster (Symphyotrichum species)
    Beebalm (Monarda species)
    Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)
    Goldenrod (Solidago species)
    Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium species)
    Mountain mint (Pycnanthemum species)

    … and annuals such as:

    Basil (Ocimum basilicum)
    Borage (Borago officinalis)
    Dill (Anethum graveolens)
    Sunflower (Helianthus annuus)

    Jose M. Osorio / Chicago Tribune

    Coneflower is a perennial great for attracting pollinators, such as this monarch.

    2. Plant so that you can offer a continuous food source — and continuing pollinator activity: Choose plants that flower at different times through the growing season.

    3. Delay garden cleanup: Leave dead stems, sticks and limbs that are valued nesting sites for native bees.

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    4. Instead of regular mowing, consider using strategic string trimming to maintain neat garden edges and allow central areas to stay wild. This adds flexibility and structure to a space without compromising habitat.

    5. Implement careful pesticide practices. Avoid broad-spectrum and systemic pesticides; apply in the morning, when fewer pollinators are active; and educate yourself about your garden’s common pests and diseases. This will minimize the chemical impact on the environment and allow pests and natural predators to thrive.

    Meredith Simmons is the greenhouse manager for the Norfolk Botanical Garden.

    ​ Orange County Register