Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Pollinators in a seasonal wet meadow

In high school, or perhaps even further back, I had to memorize a bunch of causes of the First World War. They were something like: Entangling Alliances, Growth of Nationalism, Militarization, and  the Assassination of Archduke Ferdinand. I wrote this out from memory so I might have missed one or two.

When I read about the plight of the honeybee now, I feel a similar sense of overwhelming circumstance. Friends send me every article citing some virus, pesticide, fungicide or herbicide, some genetic weakness or substandard feeding practice, with the comment 'now we know the real cause', as if everything were hunky -dory until BLAM - that one thing upset the apple cart. In reality, it's more like blam blam blam blam blam for honeybees, and in fact for many of their pollinator comrades.

I think we are reaching for a single cause because the number of practices that contribute are vast. Changing all of them would alter much that we take for granted. If we changed just one, would it help? Is it even conceivable to change them all? I don't have the answers and actually that's not what today's story is about.

I'm taking a break from farming for people, and thinking about growing some crops for many other creatures who visit Several Gardens Farm.

We are enjoying a long and productive blueberry season. Someone who owned the property before us loved their blueberries, and left us the wonderful gift of sixteen large bushes, all ripening at different times. 

Every year we prune them hard, and every year they come back more productive than ever. Pies, smoothies, frozen berries with cream, muffins - there's no end to what we will do. The berries are pollinated by a variety of early spring bees. The weeks when they are in bloom, any time it's not raining the whole back corner buzzes, and the air is bright with the delicate fragrance.

In a perfect permaculture world, the berries would be near the house. We would step outside every morning and pick them into our bowls of grape nuts and Greek yogurt. Unfortunately, the berries are at the very back end of the lot, with two fences and a lot of wistful looking animals in between.

The bushes were probably situated there because it is a seasonal wetland, and they seem to tolerate six months of wet roots better than most other plants.

In fact they seem to thrive all summer without needing water till late August if at all. The berry bushes and the ducks love it.

Because it endures a winter covered in six or eight inches of cold, sticky mud, the remnant of a lawn that lived there was seriously troubled with buttercups a problem weed that spread fast, takes over good ground, and that goats can't eat. 

A seasonal wet meadow sounds enchanting, doesn't it? A place for plants to send down deep roots that could tap the hidden moisture all summer. A place for informal flowers to grow, attracting pollinators that desperately need a bit of encouragement.  Sounds much nicer than a duck poopy lawn that's underwater half the year. Once I changed my point of view, I was ready to start encouraging the garden I wanted.

Before I could plant my dream meadow, I needed to get rid of the tired, mucky lawn that fought its way back every spring after a winter spent under mud.Since it is so far from the house, I don't want to be weeding or fussing with it every day.

The grass was too ragged to remove as rolled sod.

So last summer I carried back all the waste organic material I could - cardboard, apple pomace from cider making, bales of waste hay, barn waste  - and covered all the grass and weeds with a layer of mulch.

The house in the background it not ours but our neighbor behind. Our house is nowhere near that close to this remote part of our yard.

In the spring I seeded it with cover crops - radish and buckwheat, mixed with seeds of as many flowers as I could get my hands on from my own yard, the neighborhood, and a few purchase.

Every time I deadheaded something pretty, I tossed the spent flowers onto a pile in the meadow. Enough of the seeds germinate to help add to the diversity.

Here it is. As you can see, some areas started to take off, others are still bare.

In some places the grass has pushed through the mulch layer. I pulled out some grass and left others to hold the soil together with its roots.

My goal here is to turn the garden into the kind of place pollinators would like to hang out, and possibly raise a family.

I have a place in my heart for all the pollinators. I work with butterflies in my job, and of course, I think they're gorgeous. But I love all kinds of bees, wasps, beetles and flies that eat nectar and spread pollen around.

Here is a western tiger swallowtail who nectars in the flowery part of the meadow and who can lay her eggs on the willows I've planted around the edges. If you want butterflies to visit and to stay, it's imperative to learn what kinds live in your area and plant host plants for their caterpillars. Baby butterflies have very particular food needs, and if you don't provide them the butterfly will have to move on when it's time to lay her eggs.

The baby robin crouching in the background here, half hidden by leaves and shadow, is not a pollinator, but when baby birds started hiding in the meadow I knew it was gaining the wild, tangled character that will invite shy animals in.

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 In a neighborhood like ours, there are plenty of empty lots, older trees, unmanaged road margins and neglected ravines - great spots for pollinators to live.

Over-managing yards breaks up the nests of ground dwelling bees, like bumblebees. It cuts down the weedy plants that caterpillars like to eat.

It knocks tree dwelling bugs out of trees and disrupts the mating of beetles. A robust and diverse population of pollinators needs a little chaos. All I had to do was keep that diversity going, and pollinators from wild spots would find my yard, and hopefully choose to stay.

Even if all you want is to have pollinators when and where you need them - to help your fruit trees in spring, perhaps, or to spread pollen from male to female cucumber blossoms in summer, they need habitat all year.

In order to fly when we need them, pollinators need somewhere to lay eggs, a safe place to overwinter, and in some cases a food source for the months when you aren't growing those choice people foods.

Most pollinators are flying insects.  Some like to flit from flower to flower, others can fly but don't like to, and prefer crawling around on one big, open faced group of flowers for extended periods of time.

The bumblebee on this full blown artichoke was there for at least ten minutes, wallowing inbetween the petals in her search for pollen. Flying is hard for such a big insect. Walking, or just hanging out, is preferred.

Bumblebees live in holes in the ground - empty nests left behind by larger, burrowing animals like mice. All summer they build their population, store food, care for babies. In the fall, all the worker bees die. Only the young queens and the male bees live - the males only surviving long enough to mate. The mated queens then hide all winter, and start new homes in the spring. The big, clumsy spring bumble bees are queens, working all day in the field, then going home to tend their babies. Hardly the luxurious life we associate with a queen bee!

Other kinds of bees live in holes higher up, in trees or artificial holes made just for them. One day I saw an orchard mason bee crawling into a hole in a piece of salvaged mable we had propped up on the side of the house. This was a female, preparing the hollow for her babies. She fills the far end of the tunnel with nectar and pollen, then lays an egg. She will provide for a number of eggs in each tube, all in Spring before most bugs are even active. Then she dies, and the babies spend the next ten months growing inside the tube. It's not till next year that she comes out!


Flower beetles don't plan ahead. They walk around on plants, sometimes eating aphids, other times sipping nectar and spreading pollen around.

Or mating as these ones are, in twos or threes (!). Their personal lives are right out there for all to see.

While wasps and soldier beetles aren't always listed as pollinators, I often find them on flowers, in some cases as the primary visitor.

If I provide good habitat and the pollinators do a good job, lots of the meadow flowers should form seeds. Their seeds will push up out of the wetness next spring, and the garden will be bigger and more floral than ever.

Here is a partial list of the flowers and host plants we are growing this year. They were chosen for popularity with insects, and for ability to do OK in seasonal wet ground but not need much summer watering:

  • Milkweed
  • Echinacea
  • Black eyed Susan
  • Shasta daisy
  • Borage
  • Teasel
  • Willow
  • Violet
  • Fried egg flower
  • Phacilia
  • Nasturtium
  • Queen Anne's lace (make sure you can tell this from hemlock)
  • Pumpkin
  • Creeping knotweed
  • Mallows of several kinds
  • Fireweed - grew there whether I wanted it to or not
  • Clovers of several kinds
  • Joe Pye weed (a butterfly magnet)
  • Goldenrod
  • Cammas lily
  • Dandelion (I didn't actually plant them, nor the dock and plantain, but I don't try hard to remove them either)
  • Lots of cover crops - especially buckwheat and daikon radish. I just let them bloom instead of cutting them down.
Right now the plants don't form any kind of coherent whole. The colors don't harmonize, the glorious tapestry effect hasn't happened just yet.

But though they may not attract us, they don't have to. Wildlife is already moving in. Not rare, exotic stuff, but not just bugs, either.It is a nesting place for baby birds, a path for chipmunks, and some evidence suggests a coyote has been here.

I hope some of the perennial plants take hold and start forming clumps. When one big patch of black eyed Susan is all in bloom, or all the purple clover wafts its fragrance, it will be a thing of joy. Right now they are pretty skinny little things, with a lot of rank, weedy grass growing between.

But compared to the mucky, smelly duck wasteland it was 12 months ago, this garden is pretty sweet.

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