Planning a Pollinator Garden

By Jordan Charbonneau, photos by Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Great Spangled Fritillary Butterfly on Bergamot (Bee Balm)

Thankfully it seems people are coming around to the idea that our pollinators are in trouble. Wildflower packets and seeds bombs are “in” right now. While they may provide some relief, saving our precious bees, butterflies, moths, and other insects is going to take a little more than tossing a seed bomb into an empty garden bed.

Pollinators need food sources all season long from very early in the spring to late in the fall. In many areas native wildflower and meadow species have been replaced by monoculture lawns and select ornamental flowers. While this isn’t the only reason our pollinators are dying it certainly is a contributing factor. If you truly want to help pollinators it’s important to learn to plan a garden that offers an abundance of food sources all summer.

Timing

Figuring out how to have a garden that’s always in bloom can be a bit tricky. You’ll need to plan your plantings to maximize your garden’s potential.

Start Plants Early

Butterfly Weed

For many hobby gardeners flowers get planted when all danger of frost is past. Unfortunately many pollinators are active early and need flowers as soon as it’s warm enough to move around. If you don’t start flowers ahead of time there won’t be any flowers when they need them most.

The easiest way to start flowers early is to start them indoors. The Southern Exposure Beginner’s Growing Guide is a great resource and can help you get a jump on the season.

Another great way to have early blooms is to plant perennial flower varieties like Butterfly Weed or self-seeding varieties. These are often sooner to bloom than the annuals.

Succession Planting

Some families may already practice succession planting in their home vegetable garden. Just like it’s better for families to have summer squash spread throughout the season than a ton all at once pollinators do better if you’re plants’ bloom times are staggered too.

To help pollinators with this problem it’s simple to start flowers in small batches, every two-four weeks depending on the variety so that they’re not all blooming at the same time. This can be done indoors in seedling trays or direct sowing in the garden.

For example single stem sunflowers generally only have pollen for about two weeks. To extend your harvest you can sow batches every two weeks. Just take into account your chosen variety’s “days to harvest” to ensure all of your plantings will bloom before fall frosts.

Selecting Varieties

Everyone has trouble picking out seeds. There’s so many varieties and so little time and space! For your pollinator garden there’s a few special considerations to help you narrow down your list.

Bloom Period

Typically flowers are selected for their looks and smell but for your pollinator garden you’ll want to consider when varieties flower, what time of day they flower, and how long they flower.

Some plant varieties offer much longer blooming periods than others. Often these varieties are favorites for cut flower growers but they can also be helpful for pollinators. Some great long blooming flowers include Cosmos, Zinnias, Bergamot, and Poppies.

Sadly moths are often forgotten in the pollinator conversation. Moths are beautiful and absolutely play a necessary part in the ecosystem. To give them a helping hand plant varieties like Four O’Clocks or Evening Scented Primrose which bloom in the evening.

Native Wildflowers

Another consideration when planting for pollinators is to be sure and include native species. Those free promotional wildflower seed packets are great but they may not include varieties that are essential to the survival of your local pollinators.

Native wildflowers are also well adapted to your local climate meaning that they can do well with much less watering and maintenance. They’re great for pollinators, the environment, and you! What’s not to love?

Some of my favorite native wildflowers from Southern Exposure include the Appalachian native Lemon Bergamot, the aptly named Butterfly Weed, and Texas native Red Drummond Phlox.

Dual Purpose Flowers

Echinacea

If you’re like me your garden is all about practically. While helping pollinators is obviously important to having a successful farm I still like to squeeze extra productivity where possible. I often pick varieties of flowers that are edible, medicinal, or can be used for dye. If you’re all about making the most of your garden space check out these varieties.

Edible Medicinal Dye
Bachelor’s Button Anise-Hyssop Coreopsis
Bread Seed Poppy Bergamot (Bee Balm) Hopi Dye Sunflower
Grain Amaranth Calendula
Johnny-Jump-Up Chamomile
Mexican Mint Marigold Echinacea
Nasturtium Feverfew
Red Clover Hyssop
Sunflowers Lavender

Other Ideas

Aside from a carefully planned flower garden there are several ways to incorporate more blooms into your property.

Save Seed

You may think that plants like lettuce and radishes offer little benefits to pollinators because they’re harvested before they flower. However if you choose to save seed they’ll flower before you harvest your seeds.

Cover Crop

Never leave soil bare! Not only does it contribute to nutrient depletion and erosion it’s also a waste of valuable space. If you’re letting a section of garden rest for the season consider a cover crop like alfalfa or clover which fix nitrogen in your soil and flower for long periods. When you finish with an early crop like radishes, arugula, or peas consider quick to flower, cover crops like Buckwheat.

Leave Un-mowed Areas

If you have a larger property than you use for gardens a great way to help pollinators and many other native species is simply to leave areas natural. Without constant mowing many native species will flourish.

Sometimes all the world’s problems can be a bit overwhelming but small actions can really make a big difference. Following these tips can help you create a beautiful garden that will give pollinators a helping hand. With a little extra effort you’ll be helping moths, bees, butterflies, and other pollinators and beneficial insects.

What’s your favorite flower variety?

7 Benefits of Companion Planting

By Jordan Charbonneau, photos by Ira Wallace

At first companion planting may seem like an odd idea. However if you consider how plants grow in nature, there’s never sections of just one species. There’s always a mix of species with different niches and ecological functions. While scientists have really just skimmed the surface studying the interactions between plants we do know that many plants have beneficial relationships and that applies to garden plants too! That’s why when we plant monoculture sections of crops we’re setting ourselves up for less healthy and productive gardens.

Companion planting is one of the easiest ways to mimic a natural ecosystem more closely. There are many benefits you’ll see in your garden if you use companion planting this year.

The list below contains some of those benefits and easy ways to achieve them in your home garden.

Companion planting saves space.

It’s perfect for people trying to make the most of their small gardens. A common way to use companion planting to save space is by planting a vining plant under a taller one. It uses space that would otherwise stay empty or fill up with weeds. Another method is to plant quick growing crops in between rows of slower growing crops. My favorite two plants to tuck in around our garden are radishes and green onions. They can be stuck in just about anywhere and harvested before the other crops start to fill up that space.

It keeps soil moist and helps prevent erosion.

Not having large spaces of open soil not only allows you to grow more plants but helps hold the soil and keep it moist. Vining plants like squash and cucumbers are especially useful for shading the soil. In a time where droughts have become a real problem in much of the United States this is perhaps one of the most important aspects of companion planting.

It keeps weeds out.

The same way that having soil covered in plants hold water it also blocks weed growth. In the well known Native American method, the three sisters garden, vining squash is grown beneath corn and beans to shade the soil and prevent weeds from growing.

Companion planting can decrease pest issues.

When you ditch the conventional monoculture garden layout it will be harder for pests to destroy your crops. They won’t find a solid patch of their favorite food. Some plants even deter certain pests. For example, wormwood can be planted among cabbage and other brassicas to help deter cabbage moths and marigold can be planted with beans to deter Mexican bean beetles.

Companion planting can help with disease issues.

Just like with dense gatherings of people disease is spread more quickly through your garden when plants of the same type are all in one big group. Adding different species to a planting can help break up your garden and slow the spread of disease. As previously mentioned plant interactions aren’t fully understood but certain plants have been shown to make other plants healthier therefore lowering their susceptibility to disease. Good examples of this are beans in the three sisters garden method providing nitrogen for the corn and squash and growing basil with tomatoes which many people believe makes for healthier tomatoes plants.

Companion planting can be used to attract pollinators and beneficial insects.

Beneficial insects of all sort will be more likely to spend time in and travel throughout your garden if there’s plenty of habitat and food available. Throughout our garden we include patches of of flowers and flowering cover crops like clover, vetch, and buckwheat. It’s good to choose varieties that have extended bloom periods.

Companion planting can eliminate the need for trellises.

The most common living trellis is probably the corn which pole beans grow up in a three sisters garden. However there’s many other tall plants that are suitable for lightweight climbing plants including sunflowers, sorghum, Jerusalem artichokes, amaranth, and fruit and nut trees.

Companion Planting Examples

Asparagus, Parsley, & Tomatoes: plant together for better harvests.

Beans & Marigold: the marigold deters Mexican bean beetles.

Cabbage & Buckwheat: the buckwheat attracts parasitic wasps that will kill cabbage worms.

Carrots & Rosemary: the rosemary deter carrot flies.

Lettuce & Chives: the chives can help deter aphids.

Melon & Radishes: You’ll get two crops out of one bed as the radishes can be harvested before the melon plant spreads.

Tomatoes & Basil: intercropping basil makes for healthier tomato plants.

Radishes & Spinach: radishes attract leaf miners which don’t harm the radish bulbs but will destroy a spinach crop.

Beets & Garlic: intercropping garlic improves the health of the beets.

Peas & Fruit Trees: Peas can use the tree as a trellis and are so early they’ll be done before the tree shades them fully.

Squash & Borage: the borage deters harmful worms and improves the squash plant’s health.

Nasturtiums and Cucumbers: nasturtiums add another edible to the same space and attracts beneficial insects.

Corn, Pole Beans, & Squash: the corn provides a trellis for the beans which provide nitrogen for the corn and squash. The squash shades the ground beneath the beans and corn keeping soil moist, blocking weeds, and utilizing space. Check out the Three Sisters Garden Package!

Using these examples and other plant relationships to your advantage can help you to achieve a productive and beautiful garden without resorting to conventional agricultural methods. Companion planting is one of the easiest ways to deter pests and present plant diseases organically. It’s abundance of benefits make it great choice for anyone looking to make the most of a small and/or sustainably focused garden.

Have you tried companion planting? Comment and let us know!

Vertical Gardening: The Beginners Guide to Trellising Plants

by Jordan Charbonneau, photos by Ira Wallace

Traditional wooden vegetable garden trellising at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello

In my dreams of a picturesque garden there are always trellises. They may bring to mind quaint little fairy tale cottages, but trellises aren’t just for their good looks. There are so many plants that can be grown on a trellis and so many reasons to grow them that way.

Why trellis?

Trellising saves resources.

Want to grow more vegetables in little spaces? Grow up! One of the easiest ways to make the best use of small garden spaces is by growing plants on trellises. Plants like pole beans are extremely productive and can be grown in narrow rows if trellised.

Trellised plants also use less water. Instead of watering an entire sprawling plant you can just water the base where the plants roots are located.

Trellises add structure.

Adding structure and height to a garden is often done to make gardens more beautiful. but there are other benefits too. Song birds will appreciate having places to land in your garden and they can help control insect populations.

Having the plants up off the ground also increases air flow and can help minimize plant diseases.

Trellises add shade.

Trellising plants can also help you add much needed summertime shade. A vining vegetable crop like cucumbers can be grown on a slanted trellis above a bed of a cool weather vegetable like lettuce, thereby helping you to grow a late season crop. Deciduous perennials (those that drop their leaves in the fall) can be grown on trellises on the southern side of houses to shade the home in the heat of summer and let the sun through in the winter. Some plants, like pole beans, gourds, and flowers like morning glories, have such long vines they can easily cover small structures (like teepees) making excellent summer forts for kids.

Trellised plants are easier to harvest.

Vegetables on trellises also tend to be easier to harvest. Instead of searching through a sprawling jungle of squash plants, you can easily spot them hanging from a trellis. Plus there’s little or no bending over. The fruits also tend to be cleaner and more uniform, perfect for market growers.

What can be trellised?

Decorative wrought iron trellis at Atlanta Botanical Garden

 

Many plants do well on a trellis and some require one. Below are some of the vegetables, flowers, and perennials that make ideal candidates for trellising.

Vegetables Flowers Perennials
Cucumbers Sweet Pea Hops
Pole Beans Morning Glory Hardy Kiwi
Peas Clematis Grapes
Melons Nasturtium
Gourds
Squash
Pumpkin
Indeterminate Tomatoes 

 

 

How do I make a trellis?

There are tons of trellis designs and it can be hard to choose. The major deciding factors will be your garden’s style, your budget, the materials you have on hand, and which plants you plan to trellis. Trellises can be whimsical, practical, or a mix of both. They can be shaped as arches, forts for children, or simple fences.

Use natural materials.

Many people choose to make simple teepees like these which can be made from bamboo, straight saplings, or branches, and held together with twine or wire. There are also many different shaped designs using the same materials.

Use fencing.

Cattle panel arch trellis at Heritage Farm

Hog panels or sections of wire fencing are another popular choice. Hog panels and sturdier fencing can be used two ways: as a fence or bent over as an arch.

Purchase or build trellises from lumber.

If you have money to purchase trellises or a knack for woodworking, there are designs for folding trellises that can be stored each season as well as more creative designs. You can also install large trellises in front houses or over patios.

Repurpose junk.

Some people also repurpose old junk into awesome trellises. Things like iron bed frames and gates, old umbrella frames, and old antennas are great for climbing plants.

When designing any trellis it’s important to think about what you’re growing. Is it a permanent trellis for a perennial that will be in the same spot for years or something you’ll want to rotate next year? You’ll also need to decide on the size. Obviously pea plants require smaller trellises than grape vines. Some plants, like pumpkins, melons, and larger squash varieties, will need sturdy trellises to support the immense weight of their fruit.

How do I trellis plants?

Some plants (including morning glories, beans, and cucumbers) are easy to trellis. Simply sew seeds next to a trellis and they’ll do the work. Some plants, like tomatoes, need a little help: they need to be manually trellised. You can use tomato-specific trellis methods like the “Florida Weave” which surrounds the plants with twine. Or use traditional trellises and attach plants with tomato clips or even old scraps of fabric. Just be sure that your method does not cut into the plant as it grows.

Tomato trellis of string weaving at Twin Oaks Community Farm

For some large-fruited plants like pumpkins, melons, and large squash varieties, you may need extra support. You can create small “hammocks” for each fruit from an old shirt or other stretchy material that can be tied off to the trellis as the vine cannot support the fruit’s mature weight.

If you’re ready for a super productive and beautiful garden this year it’s time to get some trellises ready! The best time to add trellises is before planting, not after, so don’t delay! It’s finally spring and setting up trellises is a great way to get out in the garden.

Want to know more about trellises? Check out these posts:

Ridge Gourds on Cattle Panel Trellising

Trellising with Bamboo

Easy Bamboo Bean Teepees

What plants have you grown on a trellis?

Saving the Past for the Future