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Planting for pollinators this spring is easy and beneficial

Sally Bowen is Topsy Farms’ Master Gardener. Submitted photo.

More and more people are becoming aware of the benefits of planting pollinator friendly gardens.

A pollinator is anything that carries pollen from the male part of the flower (anthers) to fertilize the female part of the flower (stigmas) and help it reproduce. In Canada, most pollinators are insects like bees and butterflies or birds like the hummingbird. Cross-pollination between plants of the same species is important to the survival of most fruit and vegetable plants.

Most of the Earth’s ecosystems, including our food supply, are dependent on pollinators. Unfortunately, the numbers of pollinating insects in Canada, especially bees and Monarch butterflies, have declined steeply in the last decade due to the use of pesticides and the destruction of habitat.

As spring planting season begins, you may be wondering the best way to go about planting in a way where the design and plant choices are geared to attract and home pollinators. It doesn’t have to be complicated.

Sally Bowen, Master Gardener at Topsy Farms, was excited to discuss the best way to go about planting for pollinators, “I could witter on for an hour. Gardening for pollinators is a great thing.”

“I’ve been doing this for 40 years,” she said. And she pointed out, “It doesn’t have to be expensive and complex, it does not have to be a terrifying major project. I think people are worried it is going to be too complex, but it is actually really easy to start.”

“It can be as simple as, right now, going to a neighbour who has some pollinator flowers, it’s for sure they will have saved some seeds they’ll share, and throwing a handful on the surface of the earth.”

She went on to point out that, “It doesn’t matter if it’s where the vegetables are coming in, and it doesn’t have to be neat and tidy in disciplined rows. I love putting flowers where my vegetables are. It’s great, it pleases the eye. It pleases the insects, and it sure pleases the vegetables.”

“I tend to save seed ridiculously, just because plants are generous and they want to propagate. It’s a really sexy world out there. They are just plain loving making more of ‘me’ — especially in the fall when everything’s drying down, plants are saying ‘take,’ and ‘spread me’.”

Bowen explained many flowers that are good for pollinators are cheap, or free if you have generous neighbours, “or you could go out with a spade, like a sneak-thief in the night,” she joked.

Topsy Farms pollinators provide one of their sweetest products. Submitted photo.

“Calendula, for instance, is one really generous little plant in the marigold family. And it’s tough and hardy as nails — in a new construction area I was trying to replant and then it got driven over by a tractor. It came right back up. It just has sturdy little viability, and it has all sorts of healing properties, plus it’s edible. And it’s got nectar: the bees and butterflies really like it.”

Different insects are attracted to different flowers, she explained. For example, “All the varieties of bees, many of which are really there on the endangered list, or they’re struggling, they tend to like good landing platforms, I mean they’re not super-duper aerodynamic. So the flatter, more open-face flowers are good for them.”

“Cosmos, that’s another bigger, flatter open-face flower,” Bowen suggested. “It’s very colourful. And it is so easy to grow; I mean you just sort of scrape it into the earth, cover it over and try to keep it damp, but basically just ignore it.”

“I bloody love zinnias; the bees and butterflies are almost competing for each flower when I grow them,” she laughed.

“And the fun thing about them is that, say you’ve got a neighbor who has all sorts of pale pinks and mauves and purples, you can collect from them the brightest deepest purple in there. And then you have another neighbor with yellows, you can just quite literally share seeds to create your color scheme. I’m big on letting the plants give to me — I like to walk with a little envelope in my pocket and when flowers are dying back, you can just collect. For example, one nose of a zinnia will give you a hundred seeds.”

She has also observed that pollinators like flowers that are similar in colour to themselves, “butterflies, the monarchs will land on my orange and yellow flowers first. You know, they’re sort of like calling to like, a little bit.”

Bowen strongly suggests thinking about when different flowers will be blooming.

“If you are at all planning what to plant, you want to try to come at it in different stages; so that something is offering nectar right now when the weather is iffy and the dandelions aren’t yet out, right through to late fall when insects are only coming out for flights when it’s warm in the middle of the day. If possible, it’s important to think not only colors, but also seasonal,” she said.

“Some examples of early flowers are blue squill, snowdrops, crocus… Just in one part of my garden the other day there were seven honey bees within two square feet. It was great.”

For anyone who wants to attract monarch butterflies, she suggested planting Milkweed,

“I had a nice memory of going around with my grandson blowing little milkweed parachutes over the garden,” Bowen recalled fondly.

But be careful, she warned. Milkweed is very aggressive. Bowen suggests planting it away from gardens. However, milkweed has wondrous benefits.

“It is so amazing to have a newly emerged monarch, sitting on a child’s finger, and you get to teach the child how to transfer her to a better flower and then she’ll sit there for about eight hours, drying off her wings. Just miraculous.”

Bowen had lots of other great flowers to suggest.

“Coreopsis is another one that I grow a lot. It’s low and steady, self-feeding. Sunflowers are glorious and easy to share seeds with neighbours,” she said. “And poppies I love — Oh, another one that is magnificent! It’s a nectar siren call for both the butterflies and the bees.”

Bowen’s excitement for the coming season is palpable. It spreads like seeds among neighbours and sneak-thieves.

For more great gardening advice you can follow @TopsyFarms or check out their website for more products, videos and stories.

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