What Do Pollinators Need?

One of my favorite past times during the fall season is watching pollinators work on the many wildflowers in bloom.   This morning there were dozens of different pollinators crawling all over the white flowers of Tall Boneset (Eupatorium altissimum).  It had everything from small flies to larger wasps to different bees and even a few butterflies.  They were all living harmoniously together atop this one plant.  It was fun to watch and listen.

That was one plant. Imagine how many plants are needed to sustain these pollinator populations.  With documented losses of habitat nation wide and documented losses of milkweeds (host plants of the migrating monarchs), what should our strategy be to help the plight of pollinators? 

It’s important to realize that we all need to participate and understand that the choices we make in our landscapes can make a difference. Yes, our landscapes can help pollinators no matter the size.  This one boneset plant was found by dozens of pollinators.  Sure – we will never replace the pristine prairies that once were here, but our smaller green spaces can still help support an abundance of wildlife.     

Here are six ways you can help increase declining populations of pollinators, including bees and monarchs:

1. Plant Pollinator-Friendly Plants

It goes without saying that pollinators need blooming plants and the plants need the pollinators. Having a diverse set of native plants in your landscape will be a good start to attracting pollinators to your yard.

Certainly, milkweeds are the best wildflowers for attracting monarchs to your yard.  We have seen several already migrating through on their way south, and some have been depositing eggs on our common milkweed plants. The wildflowers are the buffet these pollinators need for their survival. (Peruse our native plant list and sample landscape designs for some inspiration.)

Monarch butterfly on Asclepias incarnata, or swamp milkweed – photo by Brad Guhr

2. Plant with a Succession of Blooms

I recommend planting wildflowers that bloom at different times of the year.  A mixture of wildflowers coming into bloom and going out of bloom throughout the year provides a ready food source.  This approach mimics the natural prairie and the changing seasons.

Skipper butterfly on Tall Boneset Eupatorium altissimum

3. Create Habitat in your Yard

Layer trees and shrubs along with wildflowers and grasses.  These plants provide shelter from the wind as well as nesting sites and food for birds, butterflies, and bees. I like to leave old logs and small brush piles so these pollinators can overwinter in my yard. Remember, even a small garden can have a tremendous impact.

Bumblebee on Echinacea purpurea, or purple coneflower – photo by Janelle Flory Schrock

4. Provide Water

We all need water for survival.  Pollinators need it too.  A clean source of water such as a birdbath, basin, or hollow stone is enough water for pollinators.  These features also provide landing spots so that pollinators have a perch. Here are some great plants to complement your water feature.

Pearl crescent butterflies meet at the watering hole – Photo by Dave Osborne

5. Reduce Chemicals

There is growing research on the detrimental effects chemicals have on pollinators.  Any time we can reduce or eliminate the use of chemicals in the landscape, we are impacting wildlife in a positive way.  Allow insects to control unwanted pests.  Be willing to accept a few damaged plants, knowing that by not spraying you are saving much more in the long run.

Hummingbird moth on Liatris pycnostachya, or Kansas gayfeather – photo by Janelle Flory Schrock

6. Learn About the Plight of Endangered Pollinators

There is so much to learn about each type of pollinator.  When are they out in the garden?  What do they need to complete their life cycle?  Where do they migrate or how do they overwinter?  We have so much to learn about these important insects. (One good resource for this is this book, by Heather Holm, which we often carry in our gift shop. And, of course, MonarchWatch.org is a great resource.)

When it comes to supporting the life cycle of pollinators, you can be part of the solution.  Native wildflowers are the best option to help them prosper.  You will be amazed when you introduce just a handful of wildflowers to your landscape.  If you plant them, pollinators will come.

Garden Trends in 2019

Over the past five years, we have seen some interesting things happen regarding native plants.  People are learning about native plants and matching plants up with their local conditions.  More and more people are seeking them out to include in their landscapes.  Here are a few of the emerging garden trends regarding native plants:

Wildlife-friendly plants

I keep coming back to this idea of beautiful AND good.  Aesthetics are important and we all want attractive landscapes, but of equal importance is this feeling that what we are doing is good for everyone and everything.  It can be intimidating to change the way you garden or landscape.  Choosing plants just because they are visually appealing simply isn’t a good enough reason anymore.  Creating a habitat using plants that are adapted to your site is a far better approach to landscaping.  Designs that have attractive combinations of wildflowers, grasses, shrubs and trees may initially capture our imaginations, but more and more people are wanting these plants and landscapes to provide additional benefits. Our gardens must now not only look good, but also do double duty to provide for pollinators, attract birds and other wildlife, develop habitat and positively impact the environment.

New England Aster with Monarch

Pollinator gardens

It has taken a while, but native plants are finally getting the attention they deserve.  They are viable alternatives to many of the overused plants you see in so many landscapes.  There are literally hundreds of plants that will fit into your landscape design.  Whether it is a true native species or “nativar” (a hybrid or new selection of a native plant), these plants offer qualities that will beautify the landscape and attract pollinators, too.  For people who live in prairie country, it may be easy to take our native plants for granted. Yet these plants, with their simple form and subtle beauty, can make attractive additions to the home landscape.

Pale Coneflower

Water-wise plants

We don’t think often enough about the water we use. It is a precious commodity. Remember the 2011 and 2012 drought in Kansas? We were using tremendous quantities of water to keep our landscapes alive. It made us evaluate each plant according to its response to these extreme conditions.  Obviously, some plants did better than others and we lost some plants those years. It made us think critically about our plant choices and irrigation practices. A beautiful and resilient landscape that uses little, if any, supplemental water is an achievable result.  A few changes like adding some native plants can make a big difference.

Kansas gayfeather with tiger swallowtail butterfly
Photo by Janelle Flory Schrock

It seems to me that these trends for 2019 have something obviously in common – native plants.  Native plants are not the “be all” and “end all” solution, but they provide a good starting point to solving some problems you encounter in the landscape.  With so much to consider when designing or redesigning your landscapes, don’t overlook native plants.  You will be rewarded time and again by their unique beauty and deep roots. 

How to Beautify Your Home Habitat Garden This Fall

I have said over the years that fall is a great time to plant just about anything.  I will not go into why fall is an ideal time to plant because you can read it here.  Whether you are creating a “new front yard” without turf grass or just supplementing your existing landscape, you will be rewarded in spring with healthier, heartier and well rooted plants that jump out of the ground.  The new fledgling plants you get from our fall FloraKansas Native Plant Festival will create a habitat garden that will be beneficial and attractive to wildlife as early as next spring.

The “New Front Lawn”

People are increasingly aware that the traditional front lawn is only marginally beneficial to wildlife compared to a habitat planting with wildflowers, grasses and shrubs.  This is an important paradigm shift as we think critically about how our landscapes can improve habitat loss.  By replacing small sections of turf with deep rooted plants, you reduce the need for water, create islands that wildlife, including pollinators, can use while increasing the overall aesthetics of your home.  This alternative to the traditional lawn starts with a thoughtful design followed by the removal of the turf you want to transition to native plants.  The area needs to be free of vegetation and problematic weeds.  Think about how you will be viewing your new landscape (from the kitchen window or from the street or both).  This process will help you lay out and stage your plants.

 

 

This gentleman is defining the new garden with a garden hose. Over the next year, he will dig up the grass and plant potatoes in the area while continuing to dig up any sprouting bermuda grass. It is a slow process, but he is able to develop a new garden without spraying. He gets nice potatoes too. A year later the area is ready for native plants.

Just a few additions

Fall is a great time to fill in some holes that have developed this summer.  Here at the Arboretum, the landscape is constantly changing.  As the landscape evolves and matures, new plants are added that complement the existing landscape.  I like to ask the question, “What is missing?” Do I need some structure plants, or wildflowers that bloom at a specific time? Do I need plants that can withstand a certain environmental condition unique to the site?  Asking these questions now provides you an exciting opportunity to add just the right plant(s) to round out your yard and help develop habitat.

Blank slate

I have done several designs this year and most are starting with new gardens. By starting from scratch, you have so many options available to you.  Homeowners want to make the switch and establish an alternative landscape.  Plan your garden, choose plants that fit your site, and get them established properly.  If you are not ready to plant the entire area this fall, I recommend getting the bones of the garden established.  Plant a cluster of grasses along the foundation of your home, a few shrubs in the center of the design, or a grouping of wildflowers along the perimeter. This will make it easier to fill in the holes and visualize the mature landscape next spring.

Photo by Brad Guhr

New garden ready for planting

Selecting plants with wildlife value and natural beauty will transform your landscape from dull and drab to dynamic and beneficial.  To see dragonflies, monarchs, other pollinators and birds being supported by your landscape is an inspiring experience.  Offering an attractive mix of drought tolerant plants will create the habitat these creatures seek to inhabit and use it.  Diversity of plants attracts a diversity of wildlife. Your garden can be part of the solution as we work to find balance in the world around us.

Habitat creation – the ultimate goal of any home landscape!






Plant Profile: Mountain Mint

Mountain mint plants are underused in the landscape. With dainty white blooms, a clumping habit and tons of genera to choose from, mountain mints (Pycnanthemum sp.) can fit in any style of garden. P. tenuifolium, P. virginiana, P. flexuosum, and P. muticum are the species most often available for purchase at FloraKansas. I always wonder why they don’t fly off the greenhouse bench at our sales – it must be because people don’t know enough about them!

Virginia mountain mint is an attractive species, in the garden or out in the prairie!

Piqued for Pycnanthemum

All species in the Pycnanthemum (pick-nan-the-mum) genus are native to North America. They are in the mint family, so the leaves have that delicious, refreshing mint aroma when crushed. They spread via rhizomes and left unchecked can cover ground fast, though not quite as aggressively as other members of mint family. The blooms attract a wide array of pollinators. It is a special favorite among bees, flies and wasps, though swallowtails, grey hairstreaks, buckeyes and skippers often visit them as well. Ironically, mountain mints most often thrive in meadows and grassy prairies, not in alpine situations.

So Many Mints, So Little Time

There are lots of varieties of mountain mint out there, but the various species can be tricky to tell apart for the layperson. The blooms are all very similar: round and clustered, whitish to light purple, with spots. However, the leaves do have distinct shapes that vary between species. My favorites are the thin leaved species such as P. virginiana and P. tenuifolium. 

P. tenuifolium, narrowleaf mountain mint. Photo credit: Nelson DeBarros, hosted by the USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database

P. muticum is easily recognized by its teardrop-shaped leaves, much wider than the other species. Found from Texas and Missouri all the way to Maine, this native grows in moist meadows and woodland areas. Like all mountain mints, it likes full sun to part sun and average soil moisture.

The short, stout leaves of P. muticum. I, SB Johnny [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], from Wikimedia Commons

P. flexuosum is not native to Kansas, but still grows well here. This plant grows wild in the Carolinas, Florida, and west to  Mississippi and Alabama. Thick, lance-shaped leaves set it apart from the others. As New Moon Nursery describes it, “Pycnanthemum flexuosum is an aromatic perennial wildflower.  This mint relative bears oval toothed leaves on strong square stems.  In summer, plants are topped by dense frizzy ball-like clusters of tiny white to lavender tubular flowers.”

Appalachian mountain mint, P. flexuosum By Photo by David J. Stang [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

P. tenuifolium By Katja Schulz from Washington, D. C., USA (Slender Mountain Mint) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Mountain mints are easy to care for and will spread fast in the garden, filling in the gaps and looking lush all season long. The densely clustered flowers of this pollinator powerhouse will add beauty and wildlife value to your landscape. Be sure to ask for mountain mint at the next FloraKansas!