Bees have become a high-profile cause in recent years, with lots of talk about their decline and the role of pesticides. But bees are just one piece of the pollinator puzzle, and helping them thrive requires a multipronged approach that begins in our backyards. That’s the topic of “Pollinator Friendly Gardening” ($21.99, Voyageur Press), a new book by master gardener Rhonda Fleming Hayes.
Hayes has been gardening “since I was in diapers,” she said, but lately she’s been gardening with a mission: to help pollinators. “Over the past 15 years, I’ve been working to enhance habitat value in our gardens,” she said. “I wanted to share what I’ve learned.”
You may think your garden is too small to have much impact on the big picture of pollinator health, but Hayes begs to differ. “Collectively, gardeners have a lot of land under their control,” she said.
Her book covers everything the average gardener needs to know to create a garden that attracts and sustains bees, butterflies and other pollinators – including plant selection, hardscape choices and growing practices. We caught up with the author to talk about natives vs. “alien” plants, why you should think twice before planting one particular bee magnet and how to create a pro-pollinator garden that won’t annoy your neighbors.
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Q: Tell us about the “Aha” moment that inspired your interest in pollinators.
A: I had an ambitious kitchen garden in Kansas, with heirloom vegetables started from seed. It was the epicenter of my horticultural and maternal urges. But my kids were leaving for college, and I thought, “Who am I going to cook for? Who am I going to feed?” Then I saw butterflies in my kitchen garden, and that became my mission statement when I gardened: to feed these little critters. I started asking for every plant, “What’s the habitat value?”
Q: What prompted you to write the book?
A: For a long time, any advice to gardeners about insects was how to kill them. On the topic of pollinators, there were dense entomological texts and native-plant manifestos, with a judgmental aspect that can be intimidating. I wanted to give everyday gardeners things to work with. Publishers told me it was a niche topic. Then there was an explosion of interest in pollinators.
Q: Are you surprised by the recent surge of interest?
A: It’s kind of a seismic shift. I felt like I was racing time to get my book published – like, “Oh, my gosh, am I going to miss the boat? Wait for me!” It’s a hot topic, but I don’t want it to be a popular trend that fades away. A lot of people already have bee fatigue. But I think the everyday person is still interested. If I’m needing garden inspiration, I walk around the garden center and eavesdrop – and hear someone saying, “What’s causing colony collapse?”
Q: You take a dim view of the current trend toward all-foliage gardens.
A: Foliage is fashionable – considered more sophisticated than flower gardens. Landscapers really push foliage. But it’s a static look. It doesn’t change. Change is more interesting. As I started planning for pollinators, my garden got more interesting.
Q: There’s been a lot of talk about the importance of native plants in supporting pollinators, but you also make a case for non-natives. Why?
A: You need blooms all season long. For the average gardener to coordinate that, it would be difficult using only natives. I advocate a mix of natives and introduced species.
Some of the top nonnative plants are already there, and people shouldn’t feel so guilty about having them. Like hosta. They do have blooms. (Don’t remove them.) Old-fashioned plants like lilacs and peonies are food for honeybees. I want to take some of the guilt out of the process. I don’t want people to feel they have to rip up their garden, so they give up. Gardens are about joy. You don’t want to go out there and feel guilty.
Q: If you could leave a reader with one takeaway, what would it be?
A: Plant more flowers. Avoid pesticides. Before you spray, identify the bug you’re spraying for. Don’t spray willy-nilly. Ask yourself, “Is this bug really going to affect my life?” This, too, shall pass. You can’t grab a spider spray and think it’s killing only spiders. There’s collateral damage.
Q: Besides providing food, what can we provide for pollinators?
A: Allow some areas for nesting spaces for native bees. Leave some bare soil, unmulched – not by doors or entries to your home but in a little out-of-the-way area. They like east-facing slopes with gentle sun in the morning. Cavity nesters like hollow stems and holes in stumps, so leave some artistic deadfall in your yard.
Q: What’s the biggest misconception about pollinators?
A: People are fearful of bees. They see a wasp and call it a bee. Take time to learn the difference between bees and wasps. There are definite situations where you don’t want wasps or bees, when someone is allergic. But for most people, bees are harmless. My garden is full of bees. You can hear it. It buzzes. The little girls who are my neighbors have learned that if you don’t bother them, they won’t bother you. I’m growing little gardeners.
Q: Some gardeners shy away from native-plant gardens because they’re afraid they’ll look shaggy and weedy and their neighbors will think the yard looks unkempt. What are some suggestions for keeping neighbors happy with a pollinator-friendly garden?
A: If you use a lot of native plants, you can have wispy texture and smaller blooms. If there’s one of everything, it tends to get chaotic looking, so plant natives in groups.
I’m not a big fan of lawns, but visually, they give the eye someplace to rest. Create crisp lines for beds and maintain the edges. If you’ve got the edges under control, you can get away with a lot.
Keep plants trimmed off the sidewalk. Put one decorative object into a bed of native plants – it shows there’s a human taking care of it. And add a cue to care, like a little sign. I rotate my “Bee Safe Lawn” sign with my “Certified Monarch Habitat” sign. It lets people know there’s a goal here, a purpose. I do a lot of sidewalk evangelizing.