Birds, butterflies, and bees have all been in the news lately for the sad reason that they are in serious decline. As gardeners, we have the ability to help them by growing more of the plants they depend on, and growing them over a longer period of time. Many of us are already growing native plants in our landscapes to support birds and pollinators. Here are some ideas for helping even more in your vegetable garden.
In early spring, while it’s still cold, grow salad greens under row cover. We recommend our misticanza packs of mixed lettuces, arugula, and chicory. Harvest them with scissors but leave the plants in the ground to regrow. As the weather warms, many of those little plants will send up flower stalks. Let them go on to flower for a few more weeks for the bees to enjoy. Don’t pull dandelions from your lawn, either — they are one of the earliest sources of food for pollinators.
Before the frost-free date, direct seed some “cool flowers,” the hardy annuals that are the first to bloom. In the southern half of the U.S., hardy annuals can even be sown in fall and left to overwinter in the garden. Some examples of easy-to-grow cool flowers are alyssum, forget-me-not, larkspur, nigella, poppies, and snapdragons.
At the same time, you can start other annuals inside so they have a head start when the weather settles. Flowers that do well transplanted as soon as frost is past include calendula, helichrysum, marigolds, and rudbeckia. All are magnets for bees and butterflies.
If you want the thrill of having swallowtail butterflies in the garden, plant lots of parsley, fennel, and dill. All do well in cool spring weather, and that’s the best time to harvest them for the kitchen. As summer heat arrives, you are likely to see the tiny caterpillars munching on the plants. Let them feast, turn into butterflies, and fly away. You may get a second flush of growth for yourself as the weather cools.
Direct seed zinnias and sunflowers after the frost-free date. They will begin to bloom around the solstice and continue for the rest of your warm weather season, especially if you plant several times in succession. It’s really nice of you to make sure you have something blooming when hummingbirds and Monarch butterflies are passing through your area on their long journeys south — they need all the nectar they can find. Speaking of hummingbirds, they will feed on mint, basil and sage if you allow them to flower.
In fall, leave flowers to mature their seeds, which will eventually provide food for many songbirds. You may have heard the slogan “Leave the leaves.” The idea is to forget about raking your property totally clean and instead leave piles of leaves in garden beds to provide winter cover for many of our most important and beautiful pollinators.
These small steps in the vegetable garden combined with other pollinator-friendly practices in your landscape will make a real difference. In a nutshell, every flowering plant helps pollinators. In return, pollinators make our vegetable gardens more productive.