Consider planting pollinator-friendly plants this spring

  • This area of Teixeira Park in Peterborough is being left wild to encourage pollinators. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • A dandelion. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 5/24/2021 3:18:15 PM

“No bees, no food.”

It’s an old saying sums up the importance of pollinators. Scientists estimate that bees are responsible for one out of every three bites of food that is eaten, which means that bees and other pollinators are crucial to sustaining the food chain.

They are Mother Nature’s workers, transferring pollen from a male plant to a female plant to create pollination for things like fruits and vegetables, nuts, fiber and the food that is given to livestock like hay. Pollinating insects also play a critical role in maintaining natural plant communities and ensuring the production of seeds in most flowering plants.

Emma Erler, a field specialist in landscape and greenhouse horticulture with the UNH Extension Hillsborough County office, said a study conducted by UNH a few years ago found that 14 native bee species in New Hampshire is in decline.

“And there’s lots of evidence from around the country and globally that pollinator populations are declining too,” Erler said.

She said one reason is the change in land use, with fields being converted for agriculture use, reforestation and development.

“There just isn’t as much habitat for pollinators,” Erler said. “So converting some of your property to pollinator habitat can certainly help.”

One thing the average person or homeowner can do is to simply add be mindful when deciding what to plant this spring. There are many flowers that are not only beautiful but also provide food resources for bees and other pollinators that can be placed right in your garden. Planting a diverse mix of flowering plants provides a sequence of blooms from early spring to late fall that will have the most impact. But even a small patch of the right flowers can be beneficial, as it creates a larger landscape in which pollinators live and search for food.

Maude Odgers, a garden designer in Peterborough who has worked on the Peterborough town gardens for 25 years including the pollinator garden at Teixeira Park, said it’s really very simple to add some pollinator-friendly plantings to your landscape. And if everyone does something, it will go a long way.

“If we as gardeners put some of those plants in our gardens, we really help the ecosystem,” Odgers said. “It not only helps us here in Peterborough, New Hampshire, but it helps the world. It goes so much beyond beauty.”

Emily Drury, a landscape designer based in West Peterborough, said the blooms that attract pollinators are always exciting and interesting to look at.

“There’s this intersection of wildlife habitat value and aesthetic value,” Drury said. She said it is important to think about year-round interest when it comes to perennial plantings. “I encourage people to consider that a garden doesn’t have to have one season, one moment when it blooms.” In that she means all the different stages can be beneficial.

Some flowers that are great to put in the ground, Odgers said, are false indigo, asters, blazing star, daisys, black-eyed susan, hyssops and the list goes on. Other possible plantings are blueberries, honeysuckle and lilac trees.

“And don’t just buy one, but three or five,” Odgers said. Verbenas are just a butterfly magnet.

Thinking about how to incorporate pollinator plantings into a much larger garden area is the best way to approach it.

“It doesn’t have to be an island,” Drury said. “Imagining your yard space from a pollinator's point of view is an exciting perspective. Pollinators find their way so it’s not necessarily about planting specific plants in a specific area.”

Milkweed is so important for monarch butterflies and “that’s how they survive,” Odgers said, as well as goldenrod.

“A lot of them are already in nature,” Odgers said. And that is why it is so important to think before putting down pesticides and insecticides because so much of what pollinators need is already naturally occurring.

Drury said it is exciting to see how different plants have adapted to attract different pollinators. Thinking about the bigger picture can go a long way.

“Observing different pollinators interact with different flowers across the seasons can be a meaningful way to mark time and feel connected to the natural world, and a way to understand gardens, and ourselves as gardeners, within complex interconnected ecological cycles,” Drury said. “It is exciting to think about a home garden from a pollinator's point of view, and then gradually zoom out from that point of view, and consider their movement, motivations, habits of mind, and the ways that they transcend invented boundaries in the landscape-property lines, town, state and even national borders are entirely arbitrary to them.” 

Drury said a garden that is designed as a pollinator habitat is a great multi-species collaboration – between humans, plants and insects (not to mention the many soil microbes and entities that are vital to plants).

When you see large areas not mowed or the side of highways filled with long grass, those are actually perfect for pollinators.

“Meadows are really, really important for pollinators because they create habitat and food,” Odgers said.

One way a property owner could aid in more areas like that is to keep a small section of lawn unmowed to create a small meadow.

“Just take a part of your lawn and create this great ecosystem,” Odgers said. “It’s important to have some of that natural habitat.”

Drury said the best way to approach it is by experimenting with a small area of lawn.

Erler said keeping an area unmoved can help, but taking it a step further to plant native wildflower seeds specific to pollinators in that area will create an environment where they can really thrive.

Erler said someone doesn’t need to have a big property to do their part and that’s where a pollinator garden comes in. The key is to select native plants that will be a much-needed resource to the native bees and butterflies.

“It’s very important to the pollinators. It’s a food source for them,” Erler said. The mere act of planting more native plants will assist in helping all insects, not just the ones that help with pollination.

And all those dandelions popping up in your yard are some of the first food that bees will get in the spring months, so while they can be a bit of an eyesore, just remember it is the fuel that aids for all those important workers at the start of the busy season.

There are tons of great resources out there to help aid in your planting decisions. The Native Plant Trust is one of them, Odgers said, and is the only conservation organization solely focused on New England’s native plants. Drury said the Xerces Society is another great resource, as is Prarie Moon Nursery. Erler said a good guide to what plants to use and when to plant them is Pollinator Plants for Northern New England Gardens put out by UNH Extention.

So when you go to the local garden center in the coming weeks and months, just remember that the pollinators need you. But in fact, we need them so much more.

“If we don’t have bees, we don’t have food and I think it’s easy to forget that,” Odgers said.


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