A couple years ago I planted a new section of my garden in plants especially chosen for what they offer pollinators and butterflies. I had just designed and helped install several demonstration gardens at the local fairgrounds, so I suppose I had “demonstration gardens” on the brain! I say that because I have plants scattered throughout my gardens and orchard that I planted just for bees and butterflies and other pollinators over the years. I actually think this is a more useful method than putting them all in one area, but then I wouldn’t be able to say to visitors “And THIS is my Pollinator Garden!”.
I would love to say I have always consciously gardened with all of nature in mind – but I haven’t. It’s been a gradual awakening over time – much of it coming about through accidental observations. And reading. I’m an avid reader of anything related to gardens so some of my knowledge came from other peoples observations. Bits like how useful yellow jackets can be to a garden. I had always seen them as sort of a mean-spirited pain in the neck! Then I read about the insects and larva and grubs they eat – and feed their young – and discovered through living in close quarters with them the last 10 years – and sharing my garden with them – that the only time they are mean-spirited is when you disturb their nest in the ground! I spend summers gently flicking them off berries I want to pick and have never had one get aggressive there! In the past I hung jugs of water and rotting fruit in the berry patch to cut down on their numbers, but now that I know that they are an important part of the balance in my garden I quit doing this. Of course if they build their ground nest in a place you are coming and going all the time it can be a serious problem, but if it is somewhere away from human activity you can likely find a way to co-exist with them as I have for many years.
This is the sort of realization that makes me less and less inclined to kill things – I have come to recognize more and more how incredibly ignorant I am of how a balanced system actually works and what roles various creatures play in it. What if I killed off all the cabbage worms and it turned out that some bird was counting on them to feed her young! I feed a few to my chickens every morning because they are such a good source of protein and the girls love them so – but try not to be a fanatic about it and stop minding a few holes in the kale so much.
There are a number of plants I now grow year after year – not because I am fond of them but because I discovered they are a favorite of some bumblebee or group of tiny pollinators or a particular butterfly or bird. I grew an east coast native called Mountain Mint from seed years ago and discovered that it is truly loved by one of our native bumblebees! It turned out to be a floppy unkempt sort of plant and the flowers weren’t the least bit showy. But I couldn’t get rid of the plant when I knew it was so loved by our resident bumblebees! So I moved it into the orchard along the fence to a place where its unkemptness wouldn’t matter! The bees enjoy it there just as well.
I have a rose campion that seeds itself here and there around the garden. I decided one day that I just didn’t care for the hot magenta color of the flowers and would just weed it all out of the garden. The day I decided this I was having tea by the pond and a swallowtail butterfly soared through the garden. I watched it with great interest to see what flowers would attract it. After floating gracefully from one batch of flowers to another it landed finally on the rose campion! I watched it for several days and that was always its flower of choice! Dang!! I have now given this mildly gaudy butterfly favorite a permanent welcome in my garden and am learning to tolerate magenta!
Several years ago I seeded a couple Angelica plants in the garden. They grew into rather astonishingly large plants and the next summer after they put on their dinner plate sized flower blossoms I happened to look at them one afternoon with the sun on them and realized they were simply alive with insects of many kinds – many rather tiny and bee-like. I had previously decided that – as nice a plant as it was – it was far too big for the garden! Seeing the mass of little pollinators enjoying the nectar of these huge flowers (they are like a giant Queen Anne’s Lace flower!) made me realize I needed to find a permanent place for them – and I did. The big bed in the orchard surrounding my young English walnut turned out to be a place where this big plant had room to spread.
If you haven’t seen this wonderful little video or read about the astounding changes that came about through the simple return of wolves to Yellowstone National Park – here is a link to it. It’s called How Wolves Change Rivers – and it shows the cascade of effects that happen with one change in nature.
It’s not a simple thing, as a gardener, to know exactly what to do with all this information. I know I am a long way from any sort of truly sustainable, balanced way of working with my land and my gardens – but my desire always is to work my way toward this. Not to grow the most or the biggest, but to grow what I DO grow in a way that adds to the bit of land I steward in a way that is useful and helpful to all those living things I share it with or could be sharing it with.
I would love to hear what sorts of things you are doing in this direction. I’m sure there are general sorts of things that can be done (or not done) wherever we live and garden in the world that would be similar. It seems like a conversation worth having. What do you think?