Monday, September 19, 2016

Plant Sale Preview: Attracting Pollinators to Our Gardens

Bee on a Formosa lily (Lilium formosanum) in the 
Page-Rollins White Garden. Photo by Robert Ayers.
By Jason Holmes

While visiting Mount Mitchell State Park in western North Carolina over the Labor Day weekend, I witnessed a native bee pressing open the lipped petals of the pink turtlehead (Chelone lyonii).  It made me think of the importance of that moment and yet how that bee had already visited hundreds of flowers that day in order to collect pollen on the side of her legs.  I quickly yelled to my son to come get an up-close view. This was a perfect opportunity to show him the importance of that little creature.

Insect pollinators may seem like a small part of our daily lives, but they have an enormous impact on us. Fortunately, gardeners’ interest in pollinators appears to be growing, as Duke Gardens saw when we offered pre-orders of a 6-plant “Pollinator Garden in a Box” preceding our Fall Plant Sale coming up on Saturday, Sept. 24. Within less than a week, we had reserved all 50 of the Pollinator Garden boxes we had prepared. We’ll have plenty of other pollinator plants at the sale, and the excitement over them is heartening for horticulturists like me, who are devoted to attracting pollinators to Duke Gardens and teaching visitors about these species’ roles in our lives.

Most people don’t realize that honeybees are not native to North America and that thousands of other insect species were responsible for pollinating many plant species before their introduction. Bees and wasps, flies, butterflies and moths, and beetles are among the thousands of plant pollinators across North America. These beneficial insects are responsible for all insect-pollinated fruits and vegetables that provide us with most of the nutritious vitamins and minerals that we need daily, and they also broaden our diets beyond just meat and wind-pollinated grain foods.

This act of pollination allows many types of plants to produce fruits and seeds, helping to create vigorous plants over many generations.

Approximately 75 percent of all plants in the world require animals for pollination. These animals are part of many humans’ daily diets, something worth keeping in mind as we seek ways to help the plants around us thrive.

A pollinator house in the
Charlotte Brody Discovery Garden.
Photo by Nick Schwab
At Duke Gardens, we celebrate and promote all types of pollinators.  In the Charlotte Brody Discovery Garden, a sustainable organic food garden, we donate over a ton of fruits and vegetables every year to local food relief organizations.  This is an amazing total, considering that we only garden on 2/10 of an acre.  We could never produce this incredible amount without assistance from the thousands of pollinators we see daily buzzing around the garden. In the Brody Garden, and in the Blomquist Garden of Native Plants, we have gardens designed specifically to attract these fascinating little pollinators.  We have nine honeybee hives in the Brody Garden. And with the help of dedicated volunteers, we have been building pollinator houses that we’re pleased to see attract many different beneficial species.

If you’re excited about helping pollinators, try planting species that will bring them to your garden. “Attracting Native Pollinators,” by The Xerces Society, is a great resource to learn more. If you already have these plants, consider leaving perennials longer through the fall and winter for habitat. Many of these species will create nests within the dead stems of perennial species.  Get creative and build pollinator houses or insect hotels.  They’re similar to bird houses, but you leave off the front wall and pack it with small stems of bamboo so that solitary insect species can build nests inside.  Remember, if you build it, they will come!

Jason Holmes is curator of the Doris Duke Center Gardens at Duke Gardens.

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