“Abracadabra, please and thank you!” We Baby Boomers will recognize Captain Kangaroo’s immortal magic words, encouraging us to mind our manners. Those magic words do work, and our relationships thrive when we express gratitude and kindness. Kind words spread good will, and we are transformed by them.
Our gardens and orchards likewise need a bit of magic, and no matter how attentive we are to them, many plants won’t bear fruit unless they are pollinated. Pollinators are the magicians in this drama, and our task is to make sure they stick around!
Bees, butterflies, birds and bats all serve to help pollinate our tomatoes, apples, peppers, and pears, but they can be endangered by our actions. Persistent—even—capricious pesticide and herbicide use is one of the biggest threats to pollinators who depend upon the plants in our gardens to make their magic. For bees, colony collapse disorder is becoming more and more common, and scientists believe that systemic pesticides called neonicotinoids are contributing to the disorder. Some seed companies have been injecting these pesticides directly into the seeds of plants. Each plant, then, contains a systemic toxin and poisons the insects it comes into contact with, not discriminating between the good or the bad. Bees, of course, have intimate contact with flowering plants by feeding on the pollen and nectar. If bee populations decline, we would not have as much honey, certainly, but our own food supply would be threatened as well. The USDA has determined that at least one-third of the food we eat is dependent upon pollination.
While beekeepers are asking the EPA to ban neonicotinoids, what can we as home gardeners and urban farmers do in the meantime? First, invest in organic seeds. There are numerous seed companies that carry organics: Seed Savers, Territorial, Seeds of Change, Fedco, and even Burpee has an organic line of seeds. We can also include native plants that will attract many different pollinators because the species need what those plants offer. Native coneflower and monarda (bee balm), prairie clover, milkweed and Black-Eyed Susans will attract beneficial insects and birds to the garden. During my morning bike rides around the lakes, I’m happy to see milkweed growing along the shoreline. You may know that milkweed is essential to the Monarch butterfly population. I allow milkweed “volunteers” to stay in my garden in order to support these essential pollinators. I have a designated spot that I move them to.
Here are more plants to include in a pollinator garden: violets, phlox, columbine, chives, dill, squash, the mint family, borage, asters, goldenrod, sunflowers, and Joe Pye Weed (not a real weed), Fall feeding by butterflies and other insects are crucial for their great migrations or hibernations that will get them through the winter months.
As gardeners, we can also adopt practices of pest control that don’t involve toxic chemicals. I pick off cucumber or Japanese beetles from my vegetables (that’s MY eggplant, pal!) and drop them into a pail of soapy water. I’ve gotten beyond the “ick” factor, obviously. Aphids can be washed off plants with a strong spray of water, or you can use a soapy solution to kill them. You must spray the bug; spraying the plant won’t work. You can purchase insecticidal soap, or make your own by combining equal parts of oil, liquid soap (like Dr. Bronner’s) and adding water. Be careful not to spray the good guys—lady bugs, for instance, that eat those aphids. Nature does provide checks and balances.
This is infinitely cheaper and safer than purchasing poisons and eating toxic plants. For more information about pest control, I recommend the Minnesota Extension Services website: www.extension.umn.edu.
Our wellbeing depends upon the wellbeing of our partners—in this case, the birds, bees, butterflies, and even bats with whom we share this space. Our relationships with pollinators provide us with health as well as a sense of wonder and magic!