My husband is not a gardener. He provides assistance when asked and has certain vegetables that he requests be included but otherwise the garden is my thing. That being said, he’s a good man who pretends to be interested as I ramble on about my plants’ progress whilst walking him by the hand through my garden to look at improvements that I am certain he doesn’t sincerely see. (a lot of smiling and nodding with the occasional “mmhmm, they look great”) During our most recent stroll he surprised me by asking why I included marigolds in my raised bed. It hadn’t occurred to me that people may unknowingly see flowers as a waste of precious vegetable gardening space, so I thought now may be a good time to discuss the importance of attracting pollinators.
The term “pollinators” includes anything that facilitates the necessary transfer of pollen from one blossom to another, enabling the reproductive cycle and generation of the fruiting body. This may include inanimate objects such as a Q-tip or paint brush, if you’re manually pollinating, or abiotic environmental factors like the wind. More commonly, the average gardener relies on wildlife for pollination. Birds, butterflies, bees and other insects are responsible for the majority of the reproductive success you see in your garden each year. The knowledge that your plants, and thus your yields, are dependent upon other creatures should make you ponder one thought — “how do I get more of them?” More pollinators equals more pollen exchange and, most likely, more thriving productive plants. In other words, the more the merrier!! This, my friends, is where flowers come into play.
Pollinators that actually feed on pollen have preferences. Some like cone shaped flowers, (like foxglove) others prefer flat flowers (such as cosmos and sunflowers) and some love clusters of small flowers. (i.e. alyssum) Planting some of these in/near your garden will attract pollinators to the scene. Once they’ve been drawn in by the abundance of blossoms they’ll continue to forage and explore other options, AKA your vegetable plants. Then, after the first tier has made itself at home, the secondary pollinators come in. This is the “circle of life” bit. Small insects attract predators (larger insects, birds, etc.) which, in their attempt to eat the small pollinators, will also help to spread pollen from plant to plant.
A few tips:
1- A big, highly visible flower that the bees just can’t seem to resist — sunflowers. I mean, bees LOVE sunflowers.
2 – There are dwarf varieties of many insect attracting flowers available to support container gardening efforts. Some of these include cosmos, asters, sunflowers and zinnias.
3 – Lady bugs are dually beneficial insects. They feed on pollen from flat flowers, facilitating pollination, AND they eat small pests such as aphids. You can encourage these natural defenders to visit your garden by planting cosmos, dill, fennel, coreopsis and calendula.
4 – If you’re worried about a bee allergy, marigolds and geraniums are two options that will attract other small pollinators but not bees.
5 – A good indicator of multilevel pollination status is the presence of dragonflies.
If you had previously considered flowers a waste of space I hope this post helped you to realize their importance and the beneficial role they play in your gardening success. If you have any questions please do not hesitate to reach out. Cheers, friends!