February Garden Notes

December, January, February—The Dead of Winter, loosely defined as the darkest, coldest part of the calendar year, characterized by the inactivity of plants and animals.

Since we have time to look at the seed catalogs and plant lists, let’s take a look at what makes our gardens produce the food we eat and the beautiful flowers we enjoy throughout the growing season.

I have been researching pollinators and pollination and now have a greater respect for the honeybees, bumblebees, flies, and other insects that pollinate our landscape. There are some bees that live in colonies, like honeybees; there are ground nesting bees such as digger bees and polyester bees; and

there are solitary bees like mason bees that prefer tube- like structures for their broods. Butterflies, moths, beetles, and birds are the pollinators that we can entice into our yards by providing plants and seeds which provide a food source all growing season through pollen and nectar.

Do you know what qualities to look for when buying plants and seeds for the garden? Let’s look at criteria you might consider which will make a difference for the pollinators:

  • Select flowers with big landing pads for the bumblebees, since they are the largest of the native bees.

  • Snapdragons, monkshood, lupines, and blossoms of the pea and bean family have these large landing pads

  • Use bright colored clusters of small flowers such as coreopsis , oregano, daisies, and black-eyed Susans that provide shallow nectar cups for short-tongued bees

  • Provide hollow-stemmed plants that are needed for the solitary bees to overwinter their broods. Plants like raspberry canes, coneflowers, ironweed, mountain mint, and ornamental grasses are great plants to consider. Cutting these stemmed plants back to 15 inches at the end of the growing season will provide an attractive habitat for the tube-nesting solitary bees

“Diversity is the name of the game.” There is a real need to have plants that vary in size, shape, color, and location. This would include trees, shrubs, and plants that bloom from early spring (March) until late fall (November, December.) Early bloomers would be spring flowering bulbs, shrub dogwood, serviceberry, and nepeta (catnip, catmint.) Late bloomers are asters, sedums, and goldenrod to name a few. Select plants that range from ground huggers to plants that are 3-4 feet tall. When selecting the plants and seeds, carefully look at the information provided on the packets or stake identifiers.

Say “NO” to doubles. While they are very attractive flowers, the petals are so thick that the bees cannot get to the nectar sources deep inside, and some of these flowers do not produce any nectar at all. They are a waste of time for the bees in hurry to feed their young.

Try to reduce the use of chemicals in the sensitive areas of the yard and garden. Pollinators are very sensitive to the changing environment. Try using Integrated Pest Management to control weeds and insects. Control early weeds by hand-pulling, and be patient with aphids-they will go away on their own, and the ants love to feed on them.

This research has also provided information on mulching the gardens. The solitary ground nesting bees need exposed ground to produce a brood. They tunnel into the ground to make a habitat for their young. So I would suggest clearing and making a nesting area in a corner of the yard or garden for these important pollinators. Newspapers can be used instead of shredded bark mulch because it breaks down quicker than bark mulch allowing the soil surface to be exposed.

Here are a few interesting facts that come to light:

  • There are 4000 species of native ground and twig nesting bees in the U.S.

  • About 200,000 animal species serve as pollinators

  • Male bees do not sting

  • Pollination by bees and other insects produce nearly $20 billion worth of agricultural products annually.

Suggestion: in 2019, make plans to have family or friends over for dinner and educate them about the pollinator who produced the food on the table. Make little cards with symbols of bees, hummingbirds, or other pollinators that made the food served possible. It will be an interesting evening!!!!

Now, after sharing some of the research with you, your seed and plant selections might look a little different. Using some of this information, we all can help make a difference for the pollinators that visit our yards and gardens this year, as we continue to provide quality food along with a healthy habitat for the pollinating visitors.

Article by Dawne Howard, Master Gardener and FCFCDB member

Nature Note for February 2019