Sex In The Garden
Plant a garden that attracts birds, bees and bugs and you'll add a whole new dimension to your yard.
Thursday, April 19, 2001
Over time, though, I began to notice something. The visitors that fluttered, flew, crawled or slithered into my garden were every bit as interesting as the garden itself. In fact, at the height of summer, the flowers and vegetables became a mere backdrop for the insect, bird, and butterfly drama that played itself out in the garden.
Bees worked their way around the dark center of a sunflower, pacing in a meticulous circle, stuffing pollen onto their hind legs. Bright green and black striped caterpillars--future butterflies--munched their way up one side of a stalk of dill and down the other. (And I let them.) A pair of mockingbirds built a nest in the lemon tree. Hummingbirds swarmed in and drank from the sprawling Mexican sage in the front yard. And in every shovelful of soil, a worm wriggled to get away from the light.
On warm afternoons in late summer, the garden was so full of life that it made a sound all its own. It was a lazy drone and a faint rustle, punctuated by the chirping of birds and the occasional buzz of a hummingbird zooming in for dinner. The longer I sat in the garden, the louder, and more melodious, the sound became. It was a lovely place to be. Clearly, I''d done something right.
I had to move away from that garden last year, leaving all my hard work--and the glorious insect population--for the next set of tenants. I''ve moved on to a new garden, a bare expanse of land that hasn''t been touched in years. It''s just waiting for me to come along and make my mark. Planting a wide, sweeping pollinator garden is my first priority.
The first step I took in planning my new pollinator garden was to go back to my botany books and remind myself how the whole thing works. Pollinators, including bees, butterflies, hummingbirds, ants, moths, wasps, and even bats, spend most of their time foraging for food in the flower garden. The unwitting creature wanders towards the blossom of its choice: long, red trumpet-shaped flowers for hummingbirds, bright yellow sunflowers for bees, and so forth, seeking nutrition in the form of nectar or pollen. They twist and turn and wiggle their way into the flower, brushing against the flower''s male anatomy (the stamen), and getting lightly dusted with pollen in the process. They sip their fill of nectar, or munch a few high-protein pollen grains, before moving on to another flower. Any pollen grains still clinging to their bodies are deposited at the next awaiting flower.
At this point they are still intent on the buffet in front of them and are completely ignorant of the role they play in this very intimate liaison between two neighboring plants. Often, the stigma, or female part of the flower, lunges toward the insect, opens into several parts, or releases a sticky fluid to catch the pollen. The pollen travels to the plant''s ovaries (is this beginning to sound familiar?), where the eggs are fertilized and a potential new plant develops. Plants that are well-pollinated grow larger and more vigorously, produce more flowers and fruit, and release more seed at the end of the season.
But a pollinator garden does more than attract creatures that assist in plant reproduction. It also attracts beneficial insects, insects whose job it is to keep garden pests--aphids, whitefly, scale, and other unwelcome visitors--in check. Plants like yarrow and alyssum attract ladybugs to the garden, and they''ll stay around to lay eggs among the aphids setting up camp in the rosebushes. A ladybug larvae will eat hundreds of aphids during its development. Soldier beetles, lacewings, and aphid midges will turn up in a pollinator garden as well, keeping the bad bugs away and contributing to the general hum and movement of an abundant garden.
To create a pollinator garden that will attract a diverse crowd of winged creatures, consider the following:
Bees: As the most indiscriminate and universal pollinator, most gardeners try to attract bees and ensure the pollination of home-grown vegetables such as tomatoes, squash, and peppers. Honeybees gather pollen grains and store them among the tiny branched hairs along their back legs until they have a load equivalent to their own weight, which they deliver back to the hive. Any nectar they drink along the way is regurgitated and stored in honey combs, and they head out for more foraging. Bees prefer purple, blue and yellow flowers, so plant poppies, sunflowers, bachelor buttons, and salvia.
Butterflies: Blessed with good vision, butterflies like flowers all along the color spectrum. Their long, hollow tongues remain rolled up until they reach a suitable flower, upon which time their tongues unroll to reach deep inside and sip the nectar. Butterflies like the secure landing places offered by sunflowers or zinnias, and also prefer tiny, bunched flowers such as butterfly bush, bee balm, and verbena.
Hummingbirds: The sentimental favorite among pollinators, a visit from a hummingbird can bring a reverent hush across the most raucous garden party. Hummers are easy to please, preferring bright red, trumpet-shaped flowers such as fuchsia, trumpet honeysuckle, nasturtium, trumpet vine, cardinal climber, and red penstemon.
A pollinator garden is a wild place, overgrown and abundant, a place that requires minimal fuss and generally takes care of itself. Let the poppies and the cosmos run to seed. Let the salvia get overgrown. Remember, this is a habitat; it doesn''t need much human interference to thrive on its own. Here is my recipe for a pollinator garden that mixes annuals with perennials, natives with drought-tolerant non-natives, and includes treats for the birds, the bees, butterflies, and the ladybugs.
Start with a generous scattering of blooming annuals. Remember that many pollinators are attracted to small flowers like those of yarrow, tansy, and feverfew. California natives like poppy and clarkia are a good addition. This year, Johnny''s Seeds has teamed up with Organic Gardening magazine to sell a special seed mix called Beneficial Borders Flower Seed Collection. It''s designed to attract good bugs with flowers such as cosmos, blue lace flower, anise hyssop, and borage. Look for it in nurseries this year, and consider planting a row of these blooming annuals down the middle of your vegetable garden to bring beneficial insects where they''re needed most.
Next, consider a few treats for the hummingbirds. Red-flowering currant is a deciduous shrub that produces small red flowers in spring. The fruit that follows in the fall is dark blue, although there are red, pink, and white fruit varieties, too. (All will attract berry-eating birds.) California fuchsia sports red trumpet-shaped flowers on lovely gray-green foliage. If you''ve got the space, allow a little native honeysuckle to wind its way up a fence.
Plant more herbs than you need; the flowers of most herbs attract pollinators. Oregano, thyme, rosemary, parsley, cilantro and dill will all attract good bugs if allowed to go to seed. Common sage, the culinary sage grown in most herb gardens, also puts out beautiful blooms. Chamomile, catmint, and mints of any kind will also attract good bugs when they bloom.
No pollinator garden would be complete without salvias. Cleveland sage holds a special place in my heart. It''s a true California native that thrives in our long, dry summers and produces spires of lavender flowers spring through fall. Pineapple sage is another winning salvia, sporting fruit-scented leaves and bright red spikes of flowers that hummingbirds love. Clary sage, commonly used in herbal remedies, puts out impressive three-foot spikes of pink flowers all summer. And Mexican bush sage, a local favorite, grows about 4 feet tall and at least as wide, with long purple and white velvet spikes. This salvia loves to be pruned, so cut all the flowers you want for arrangements, then prune the bush down to the ground in the winter. Finally, Canary Island Sage is a gorgeous salvia with tall spikes of lilac flowers. While it is typically described as growing to only three feet, I have seen them grow to 5-6 feet, so make sure you give it some room.
My new pollinator garden is in its infancy. I greet the opening of each new flower and the arrival of each new insect with great fanfare. A calendula bloomed yesterday and I hovered over it, looking for the first bee. I have counted half a dozen ladybugs making their way around a clump of daisies. And although there''s not much for the hummingbirds to eat yet, I''ve seen them swoop down through the yard, looking for dinner. Come back in a few months, I want to tell them. By late summer, the salvia will be in bloom, the trumpet vine will ramble up the fence, and this formerly bare patch of land will be a feast for hundreds of birds, bees, and butterflies. I''ll be there to greet them.
Amy Stewart is the author of From the Ground Up: The Story of a First Garden (Algonquin Books, 2001).