Thinking Holistically

One of those little woodland wonders I enjoy in winter…

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.

Heath Aster – a bee favorite

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.

Garlic Chives in PawPaw patch… another pollinator favorite!

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?


  1. I know that yellow jackets and wasps are great pollinators, but those yellow jackets sure know how to ruin my lunch on the patio! Talk about uninvited guests… I’m a long way from really doing all I can for pollinators, but it is interesting to let the vegetable garden go to bloom and see all the pollinators that come. Each plant seems to have a different pollinator and some are so TINY! I was at the nursery and noticed an aster just covered with butterflies and other pollinators, so even though I didn’t like the plant much, I bought it. Obviously the insects thought I was wrong for not liking the plant. Obviously, spraying pesticides is the #1 bad thing to do. I think the #1 good thing to do is to observe, as you have done. Really look closely at every plant and every blossom. By letting my cilantro bolt and blossom, I learned to support some very tiny little black insects that just loved that plant. Having been a honey bee keeper for a while, I learned that honey bees are not native, though I do love them and honey is so wonderful. I appreciate that people care so much about honey bees and since they are Big Business in the pollination of crops, losses of honeybees bring awareness to the issue of pollinator deaths and pesticide use. But, all the native species can benefit from all the publicity of the honey bee plight because they are suffering silently at the same time, though few people notice and nobody does a headcount of most of them. Do no harm, is probably the most important thing. If we have a diverse number of plants in our gardens, emphasize native species, and don’t spray pesticides or kill off things that we find annoying, I think most of the ecosystem in the garden can tend to itself pretty well.


  2. Thanks Tamara! I agree with all you have said – and more than once have purchased a plant at a nursery – that I hadn’t planned on getting – simply because it was covered in bumblebees or some other sorts of bee! My garden really had to rely on native pollinators this year, because the large number of wild honeybees that normally come must have been killed off by all the snow we had last January. I couldn’t get out of my driveway for three weeks! There were not very many bumblebees either – so I was really appreciating all the other – often tiny – pollinators that came and kept my garden going!


  3. Gardening in a small area of a big forest makes it easier to kill things. I know that the insects and other wildlife have plenty to eat out in their natural environments, and that feeding them exotic (non native) plants only distracts them from the work they should be doing for the native plants. I know that some environmentalists want to protect exotic eucalyptus trees because the Monarch butterflies like them so much. I can not help but wonder what flowers are missing the Monarch butterflies! I really like blue gum eucalyptus because I grew up with them. However, I would have no problem cutting one down if it was in the way of something else. In my own neighborhood, I cut down a blue gum because I did not want it to naturalize here like it has done in some many other areas. We do the same if we see pampas grass on the side of a road somewhere. We really do not want that getting established here!


  4. The whole native plant thing is a quandary I have been dealing with for many years. For a long time I was a bit of a fanatic about natives. But I have come across information the last ten years or so that makes me question my rather black and white thinking. Nature has been mixing things up for much longer than we have. And humans have been moving plants around for a very very long time as well – in fact nearly all the “invasives” were introduced by humans – because we thought they were wonderful!

    When we moved here there was an area about the size of a tennis court that was essentially dead dirt. Nothing grew there. I don’t know why. But one year I noticed a common weed (originally from Europe I thnk) had begun to grow there – one you see in vacant lots all over the PNW – that looks like a tall dandelion. It spread all over that “dead place” for a few years – and then I noticed other non-native weeds moving in – as though the first one had done something to make the place more livable. And before long all sorts of things would grow there and the original “weeds” were gone.

    The same with Scotch Broom – which is thought of as a terrible invasive here. The bees love it in early spring and it’s a legume that grows in openings in the forest – a ‘pioneer plant’, adding nitrogen to the soil for the native trees that move in behind it. I know it’s a terrible flammable pest…. but….

    Our attitude toward ‘invasives’ is much like the strong feelings some people have about immigrants. It’s a really complicated issue.

    For now I’m going to try to have an open mind toward them and not decide what is right or wrong… Things are just so much more complex than we ever can see.

    That said – I tend to feel the same way about Blue gum and pampas grass… I lived in the south where kudzu vines ate houses and 50 foot trees!


    • Thanks Jan… I even love magenta in certain situations! I have mostly soft peachy pinks in the garden and the two just colors don’t blend in a way I would like… I doubt that matters to bees and butterflies! 🙂


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