Planning (or not) for Pollinators

Karen Gotter, Killbuck Creek Watershed Coordinator

Like many of our Holmes County farmers, weather and a busy spring schedule have delayed planting at my community garden plot in Wooster.  However, that turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as I have discovered that my cover crop (which appears at first to be Audrey 2’s long lost cousin) has had more time to do the awesome things that cover crops do.

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A stop by the 12 x 12 box that I’ve neglected for far too long really lifted my spirits this morning.  Although I missed the spectacle of the crimson clover at its peak, the vetch and winter peas are in full bloom, and were playing host to a bumblebee with the largest pollen “baskets” I’ve ever seen.  In the few minutes I was there, I also saw a number of other little friends moving around. What I didn’t see were grasses or any variety of weed in great numbers- There was no way the weeds could compete with the height and density of that cover crop!  The few plants I did pull came out exceptionally easily, as the soil is loose and forgiving, despite not having been tilled.  I am experimenting with a no-till/”lasagna” garden system this year, and I hope that the enormous quantity of roots and residues will aid in quality soil development and an increase in organic matter—Which, as we know, aids moisture retention and nutrient availability.

But back to the pollinators: There’s been lots of reminders out there about planning and planting for our beneficial insects.  I recently saw this sign at one of our local greenhouses, featured prominently before you could get to the rows of hanging baskets and bedding plants:

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Beautiful as they are to our eyes, many of our hybridized annuals have lost features that are attractive to insects, or don’t provide adequate nutrition to those that feed on them.  But that doesn’t mean you need to make big changes to your gardens, or sacrifice some of your favorites.  If you’re also still planting your gardens, here are a few suggestions for small adaptations that go a long way to striking a balance between people and pollinators.

Perennials: Like the sign pointed out, perennials can be friendlier for pollinators, as they can be both food and host to insects throughout their lifespan.  Many perennials either are natives, or closely related cultivars. You can start perennials inexpensively from bulbs or seeds or by splitting clumps and rhizomes, with the added benefit that they will be far less likely to contain some of the chemicals used in greenhouse cultivation. (Include Ascelpias—Milkweeds, Heuchera—Coral bells, Gaillardia—Blanket Flower, Echinachea – Purple Coneflower, and Monarda—Bee Balm.)

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Flowering vegetables:  Did you know that okra is a member of the hibiscus family? Flowers on vegetables can be quite attractive to people and pollinators, and will feed both. (Think burgundy bush beans, okras, red and white kale, and the allium family.)

Herbs: Like veggies, herbs can be beautiful in their own right, and provide immeasurable pleasure to the gardener.  However, these are fantastic pollinator plants as well, when allowed to flower.  We call it “bolting” and though it’s disappointing to see our basil crop diminish, sowing successive seedings throughout the summer will provide us with a fresher supply, and the insects can enjoy the old plants.  Herbs are also one of the most cited examples of companion plants that simultaneously attract beneficials and repel certain pests. (Include Dill, Borage, Basil, Lavender, Rosemary, Mints…The list is long!)

Adopt the wild look: Planting and maintaining beds can be expensive and exhausting. Managing an area where native grasses and wildflowers can thrive won’t be without labor, but it will be less in the long run.  Is there an area you might be willing to exchange precision for the serendipity of watching wildflowers come in and out of season, or the chance to see different birds and bugs come check out your wild site? Remember, one of our pollinator habitat mottos is “All you can, where you can!”, but that doesn’t mean you have to let your cover crops go wild or have native fields dominate your landscape.  Every little bit helps. 

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Another favorite axiom around here is “You get what you manage for”.  Creating a mutually enjoyable and beneficial landscape does require more than good intentions.  Planting is far less important than planning, which needs to cover the big picture:  Insects require more than flowers to survive.  Home-use herbicides are incredibly detrimental to pollinator populations, and habitat loss is the number one reason for species extinction across the board.  I would recommend employing the “best fertilizer is your shadow” method: Get out there and look to see what is attractive to the critters you’d like to see around, do a little research and see what you can make work for your wants and their needs.

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Karen Gotter, Killbuck Creek Watershed Coordinator

Karen joined the Holmes SWCD in January 2016.  A current resident of Wooster, Karen splits her time between Holmes and Wayne counties, and the “home farm” near Bellville, Ohio. Since joining the staff, she has been involved with a variety of tasks within the office, including soil testing and nutrient recommendations, water sampling, conservation planning, field days and educational programming.  She is on the state committee for the Ohio Envirothon, and is working with the multi-county water quality stewardship program, Credits 4 Conservation.  She spends Tuesday mornings at the Farmerstown sale barn to increase SWCD’s presence in southern Holmes County, and she has taken charge of the MWCD cover crop cost-share program.  The wide range of conservation projects, outreach, and technical assistance that the Soil and Water office provides is the main reason she looked for an opening in this field, and Karen considers herself extremely lucky to have found the perfect position in Holmes County.  She can be reached at 330-600-3107 or