What’s buzzing in your garden these days? Even this late in the season, mine is absolutely teeming with life, and I’m not just talking about the flowers. We have bugs, and lots of them.
And that’s a good thing!
You’ve probably seen this quote, but it’s one of my favorites: “If something isn’t eating your garden, then it’s not part of the ecosystem.”
If you’re not a fan of insects, I’m about to tell you something you may not love: your garden and your yard should not be free of bugs, spiders, snakes, frogs … or weeds. I know. You might not like some of those things, and I get it — I’ve been battling destructive and invasive Japanese Beetles all season. Pests are a whole other post!
But a big part of gardening is working in partnership with nature. This means accepting that your garden is part of the ecosystem, and discovering a new way of gardening — a way to embrace and support beneficial wildlife instead of always driving it away.
Save the pollinators!
Our pollinator friends are in trouble. Populations of wild and domestic pollinators have been on the decline for the last few decades.
This summer, the International Union for Conservation of Nature put Monarch Butterflies on the endangered species list. Their population has been up and down over the years, but overall it has dropped dramatically since the 1980s.
There are also several bee species who are listed as endangered or threatened, which is even scarier. These pollinators are so important to how our planet functions, their loss would be pretty devastating — not only would we lose a significant amount of fruits and veggies but we’d also lose many crops we use to feed livestock.
So, what’s happening?
Why are our pollinator friends having such a rough time lately? Well, it’s a complex problem with no easy solution, but in the interest of time I’ll sum it up in the most basic of ways … it’s because of us — the way humans are affecting the planet.
So what can YOU do? This is one of those situations where once you begin to research, you realize the problem is so big and complex it can be hard to feel like you can do anything about it. But there’s one thing you can control, and it’s right in your own backyard.
Become Part of the Ecosystem
Here on the flower farm, I have two goals. The main goal is producing beautiful flowers. The second goal is to produce flowers in a way that supports pollinators and other beneficial creatures — and this extends far beyond the flowers and onto the whole property. There are a lot of flowers I need to cut before they’re pollinated, or flowers that happen to be varieties that don’t produce pollen, so to make up for this I’ve created spaces that are dedicated just to pollinator support. I have a big patch of sunflowers and a larger area that is just for milkweed and other native plants.
Even if you don’t live on acreage, you can perform this same balancing act in your landscaping. The first step is to accepting the fact that it’s a bug’s world, and we just live in it. Then finding the joy in supporting these little guys. I know you might have an HOA that says you can’t grow a carpet of dandelions (total bummer, because they’re pretty awesome), but there are other ways you can dedicate space to pollinators and beneficial insects without going full-on jungle.
Native Plants to the Rescue!
Of all the problems pollinators are facing, loss of habitat is the easiest one that you and I can help fix. The perfect American lawn has been a status symbol since the end of WWII, and over the years it became trendy to bring exotic plants into our landscapes. This is great if you want to live out your Brady Bunch dreams, not so great if you want to help pollinators thrive.
The first, easiest thing you can do is add pollinator-friendly native plants to your landscaping. There are so many to choose from, and because they’re well-adapted to our climate and environment they’re generally low maintenance. This means you spend less time begging them to grow, and their deep roots mean you don’t need to water them as much either. They also usually reseed themselves, meaning free plant babies every year. And on top of all that, you’ll bring in flocks of butterflies, bees and other little pollinator buddies.
I’m looking for a downside here and I just don’t see one, people!
Need a list of plants native to our region? Take a look at this handy list on the MSU Extension page to see native flowers, shrubs, trees, grasses and more.
Garden in Partnership with Pollinators
All that said, while native plants are awesome, non-native, non-invasive plants can still support your pollinator-friendly ecosystem. I grow a variety of flowers for arrangements that are not native, but still bring in tons of pollinators and beneficial insects.
My Celosia (native to Africa) is home to its own little city of soldier beetles, a beneficial insect who eats tons of aphids. Zinnias (native to Mexico and Central America) are a favorite of butterflies — I’ve had tons of Monarchs and Swallowtails, and so many bees. I always leave a section of my zinnias uncut and let the bees and butterflies go to town all season long.
My neighbors keep a hive of western honey bees, and they’re frequent flyers around these parts. A single bee only produces about 1/12 teaspoon of honey in its lifetime, and to produce a pound of honey, thousands of bees have to visit TWO MILLION flowers — I’m glad to do my part for these little bees, and I feel like we have a pretty good working relationship — they even land on me, and I’ve never been stung (hope I didn’t jinx myself).
But I’m also visited by all kinds of species of native Michigan bees. Some even sleep in the flowers at night — the garden is a pretty magical place to be early in the morning. I love cutting flowers as the bees and insects wake up around me and the whole flower field comes to life.
Finding Native Plants
So where do we find pollinator-friendly plants? There are some great options nearby — at time of publishing many places have already had their fall plant sales. Winter is a great time for research and learning, though — I usually spend the cold months reading up on plants and planning what I’d like to include for the next season so when spring arrives, I can hit the ground running. Here are three great options to get you started:
Artemis Growers in Saranac offers many native plants that you can still put into your garden this fall! They’re open Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday from 5-7:30pm or by appointment. There are also occasional weekend sales — check their Facebook page for more information. Artemis Growers will also be at the Kent Conservation District tree and shrub sale on October 22.
Kent Conservation District holds a native plant sale in the spring and the fall, and you can even preorder your choices online. While the flower sale has passed for this year, their bare root seedlings event on October 22 will have plenty of native trees and shrubs to choose from. Visit their website for more information.
Michigan Wildflower Farm is located in Portland, and offers a wealth of information on incorporating native plants into your landscaping, as well as wildflower seeds.
Beware of mass produced “wildflower” seed packets. These don’t always include flowers native to your specific area, so there’s a chance you might not get anything to grow, or you may plant something invasive.
Also use caution if you’re buying plants from larger nurseries and greenhouses. Some of them may have already been treated with pesticides or chemicals that will actually harm the pollinators you’re trying the help. Check labels before you buy.
Plant Milkweed, Save the Monarchs
One more great local resource to mention — Amigos for Monarchs. Liam the Lepidopterist is a 7-year-old Lowell kid who is doing some amazing things to protect pollinators. He’s landed on the cover of Scholastic News and plenty of other news outlets as well. Liam has sent out thousands of free seed kits all over the country to encourage people to plant milkweed.
Like always, I could go on and on about this — but I hope this gives you an idea of why it’s so important to garden with nature rather than against it. The closer you become with the little creatures who call your yard and your garden home, the more you’ll enjoy the act of gardening.
Have a gardening question you want answered or a topic you’d like to hear me ramble on about? Don’t be shy — reach out any time!
Nicole Crocker is a specialty cut flower farmer and owner of Buddy and Bean Flower Farm in Lowell. You can find her flower arrangements on her roadside stand when they’re in season. Connect with her on Facebook or Instagram, or at www.buddyandbeanflowers.com.