A flowering border alive and buzzing with beneficial insects can be absolutely breathtaking. Doug Tallamy’s talk "Bringing Nature Home" has reminded us how crucial flowering plants, in particular native plants, are to supporting beneficial insects in our gardens. Dr. Tallamy’s message was loud and clear: gardeners can make choices that impact the diversity of life in our yards, our towns, and our worlds.
Beneficial insects help in the garden as pollinators, as food for other beneficial insects, and by eating insect pests. Many of the predatory insects we’re familiar with in the Southeast, the hundreds of hoverflies and parasitic wasps, also serve a double role as pollinators during part of their lifecycle.
An easy place for vegetable gardeners to start is to put out the welcome mat for beneficial insects. First, stop spraying pesticides, even organic ones. Next, work to include year round food shelter for beneficial insects in or near your garden. Leave some leaf and plant litter on the ground over winter to improve habitat. Build insectary borders that include a variety of native plants: trees, shrubs, grasses, flowering perennials, and annuals.
Your border can work at any scale, from a small strip of plants in a city garden to a vast hedgerow between rural properties. Having the right kinds of plants in the border is what’s important. Many beneficial insects don’t have specialized mouth parts like bees, butterflies, and moths, so they need plants that have a lot of small flowers with exposed nectaries. Choose plants that are “user friendly” with blooms in clusters of small flowers rather than one large bloom, for easy access to pollen and nectar.
The three main “user friendly” types of flower to keep in mind are umbels (flat-topped flower clusters), loose spikes of small flowers (like thyme, mint, and lavender), and daisy type flowers (each “flower” is really a tight cluster of many small flowers.) Dill, fennel, parsley, and cilantro all have insect-friendly umbels, so plant these herbs where you can let them make flowers. The daisy-types include many perennials, like daisies, coreopsis, and asters, as well as annuals like sunflowers, zinnias, and cosmos.
Many plants that support beneficial insects are attractive and provide interest in multiple seasons. Anise hyssop, echinacea, potentillas, lavender, and pussy willows attract loads of insects and are easy to fit in most gardens. Insects need blooms all season, so try to arrange for successive waves of flowers throughout the year. Native plants support many more insect herbivores than non-natives, so select native plants whenever possible.
Early spring can be hard times for insects that feed on flowers and early emerging predators like minute pirate bugs. Choose plants that flower in early spring, like cilantro and willow, and let some early chickweed or wild mustard flowers linger in your garden.
To learn more about how you can invite native pollinators and other beneficial insects into your garden visit the Xerces Society. Dr. Tallamy is Chair of the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology and Director of the Center for Managed Ecosystems at the University of Delaware. His award winning book is Bringing Nature Home: How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in Our Gardens,
Thanks for stopping by and we hope you’ll come back often to see what we’ve got growing and cooking.
Ira Wallace was lives and gardens at Acorn Community Farm home of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange where she coordinates variety selection and seed growers. Southern Exposure offers 700+ varieties of non-GMO, open pollinated and organic seeds. Ira is also a co-organizer of the Heritage Harvest Festival at Monticello . She serves on the board of the Organic Seed Alliance and is a frequent presenter at the MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIRS and many other events throughout the Southeast.