It can be challenging to grow an urban vegetable garden for a variety of reasons. Small outdoor spaces, deer pressure, and inadequate sun exposure are all factors that can affect the success of what we plant. But perhaps the biggest challenge is finding enough insects to pollinate our crops.
I’ve come face to face with this problem in my own garden, and have worked to ensure good pollination activity by planting more pollinator plants. I try to boost pollination to my edibles by planting sunflowers and zinnias directly in my vegetable garden. Every year I also try to add more perennial plants to my landscape that will attract beneficial pollinators.
Honey bees are usually the first thing that come to mind when we think about pollinators, probably because we link them with plant pollen and honey. Pollinators come in many shapes and forms, though, including solitary bees, wasps, beetles, hummingbird moths, butterflies, moths, flies, birds and bats. Even some small mammals can have a hand in pollination. Without these creatures transferring pollen between male and female flower parts, plants wouldn’t be able to produce fruit.
Local beekeeper David Link owns and operates Hidden Meadows, a honey company he started with a simple desire for better yield in his own backyard.
“I’m a gardener, and I’ve always had a vegetable garden,” Link said. “When I tried to have one here in Winston, there weren’t enough pollinators to produce a whole lot. So as I was taking classes at Forsyth Tech, one of the guys there was a beekeeper. I got to talking to him, had him bring some bees out, and it made a world of difference.”
Link’s bees — which he lovingly refers to as “his girls” — are a Russian breed, which are very calm, non-aggressive honey bees. Russian bees are also better adapted to mites, a tiny pest that can plaque and decimate whole hives. Link’s queens and worker bees are healthy and busy, and actively contribute to the local ecosystems and backyard gardeners. Link has over 100 hives spread out over several counties.
“I’ve got bees in several locations,” Link said. “So I’m able to harvest at different times of the year because of elevations. Because of the different elevations, you have different plants that are blooming at different times.”
Because pollinator habitat is shrinking on a local and global level, there are fewer and fewer native pollinators accessible to our home gardens. The use of pesticides also contributes to a decline in the population. Which is why beekeepers play such an important roll in our local ecosystems. Not only are they introducing hundreds of thousands of pollinators into communities — but they’re reaping the benefits of the honey flow.
Link pays close attention to what is blooming May through early July (which is the peak time for harvesting honey). He has a few hives that are close to strawberry fields, which his bees are busy pollinating mid-spring. The strawberry plant blooms aren’t rich with nectar, but the bees are helping produce a healthy harvest of fruit, as well as adding subtle strawberry flavor to their honey.
Link sends samples of all his honey to Texas A&M, where they test for pollen concentrations. This is how beekeepers determine what kind of honey they have from certain hives. In addition to the ever-popular sourwood honey, Link harvests blueberry, elderberry, blackberry, tulip poplar and canola honey. He sometimes even gets a specialized honey, like the button bush batch he harvested one year near Wake Forest University.
“Behind Graylyn there’s a large stand of button bush,” Link said. I harvested an early, early harvest of button bush honey that had a citrus flavor to it. Without pollinators, you don’t get these unique flavors, you don’t get the benefit in nature.”
“A lot of our plants are no longer self-pollinating, and they need the help of that honeybee to transfer pollen from one flower to another. The more of these creatures that we can have out here helping us, the better off we’re gonna be.”
We can all benefit from learning more about the crucial importance of pollinators and how to best contribute to the sustainability of our local ecosystems. The Guilford County Extension Master Gardeners are hosting a perfect event to illustrate and educate gardeners and the public about pollinators.
Bee Friendly to Pollinators Day is happening tomorrow, Saturday, August 17 from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. at the Guilford Cooperative Extension office’s demonstration garden. One of the main goals of the event is to bring an awareness to the crucial role pollinators play in food production. There will be all kinds of activities and information booths for both adults and children.
Beekeepers will be on hand with live hives, and will be able to offer help on managing your own hive. There will be educational opportunities about the responsible use of pesticides. If your goal is to plant more pollen-rich plants for insects, master gardeners will be on hand to advise on plant choices.
And because the event is at the Cooperative Extension’s demonstration garden, there will be ample opportunity to see how colorful and attractive a working pollinator garden can be. Karen Williams, a Guilford Master Gardener Volunteer, offered many suggestions for pollinator plants.
“Home gardeners can grow all kinds of beautiful pollinator plants in our area,” Williams said. “It is best to plant them in clumps, so the pollinators don’t have to work as hard and can be more efficient.”
“When you select plants, consider bloom time so you have something blooming all season for the pollinators. A few native plants for pollinators are black-eyed susans, asters, baptisia, milkweed, goldenrod, coreopsis, bee balm, spiderwort, phlox — we have great choices.”
The North Carolina Department of Transportation will also be on hand at the event to discuss roadside plantings. North Carolina has a fantastic wildflower program, one that is growing and getting more specialized.
“NCDOT plants wildflowers statewide, thereby creating a broader range of foraging areas to promote and enhance the many pollinator species that our communities rely on,” said Kevin Clemmer, NCDOT Vegetation Management Engineer.
“We have been planting wildflowers along the roadsides for 34 years. Our program is the largest planted wildflower program in the nation. We maintain approximately 1,500 acres of wildflowers along interstate and primary routes.”
Busy wasps and buzzing bumbles are a welcomed sight in my home garden. I long for the day when I can start managing a small hive on my property. I’m inspired everyday by the efforts of fellow gardeners and roadside fields of poppies, zinnias, sunflowers and milkweed. I love these daily reminders of how I can do better.
“There’s lots of things that folks could do to help the pollinators,” Link said. “If everyone does a little, it adds up.”