Protecting Your Pollinator Sanctuary

Crafting a garden that is catered to supporting local pollinators has become increasingly popular as environmental pressures wreak havoc on native ecosystems. We are always excited to support our native pollinators and in turn, our own gardens and ecosystem. However, managing pest control with our flying friends in mind poses difficulty. Most pesticides are regrettably nonspecific in their action, meaning that the very chemicals sprayed to protect our pollinator sanctuary from unwelcome pests poison any friendly visitors.

In a natural ecosystem we rarely see native insects impacting the resource pool, but it seems like as soon as we place those same plants in a structured environment they are decimated by pests both native and introduced. Why is that? Our answer lies hidden in a myriad of cliches about the circle of life and mother nature’s wisdom. The diversity present in an untouched ecosystem is responsible for keeping all living things within it balanced. The simple answer to having a perfect pollinator garden is to let mother nature have her way with what most would call weeds and bugs that are less friendly and attractive than butterflies and hummingbirds. The untamed garden trend hasn’t quite caught on though… so how can we keep our desirable flowers and pollinators happy in an attractive, structured garden?

Ideally, we will find balance in the garden without the addition of chemical agents. Companion planting and beneficial insects will be crucial to your success. The first approach to buddy planting is to choose plants that are known to deter common garden pests. These include herbs like basil, rosemary, and garlic, but the list of options for insect deterring plants is miles long. A quick google search of “companion planting to deter pests” will reveal a wide range of reliable sources that provide insect specific planting guides. Planting herbs around the garden or even sprinkling them between ornamental plants serves as an excellent first line of defense against unwelcome insects. The second approach to companion planting involves making plant choices that will attract a wide array of insects beyond the desired pollinators. Much like butterflies and hummingbirds, beneficial insects have preferred flower shapes. Very small flowers like those on Queen Anne’s lace (a useful addition to the garden for human foragers too), fennel, and clover are ideal for smaller sized insects. Small parasitic wasps that act as garden defenders thrive in these tiny flowers. Larger composite flowers and mint can be used to attract predatory wasps as well as flies that will eliminate harmful insects.

In rural areas you will find that the ‘if you build it, they will come’ adage holds true, but urban plantings may require a little supplementation to acquire a diverse insect population. Many trustworthy sources online breed and ship beneficial insects to gardeners across the nation. If you find that your garden is lacking insect diversity after their desired plants have become established, it is time to consider purchasing some insects to supplement the population and get a community started.

Establishing a diverse community that includes beneficial insects does not come without heartache. The circle of life can be… well, harsh sometimes. You may find that the insects you have invited to your garden prey upon the very caterpillars you began this venture to house. Butterflies and other pollinators have evolved to thrive in an ecosystem that contains predators. Because of this, a life-cycle free of predation often results in bottom heavy food-chains that suffer from resource deficiency. It is important to recognize when going into this journey that predation is a sign of a healthy ecosystem and is not cause to wage war against your beneficial insects.

Even without extensive companion planting in the garden, you will find that most issues work themselves out with little to no intervention. If you don’t feel the need to always have a pristine garden, letting an infestation run its course is a viable option. As mentioned above regarding resource availability, even garden pests can reach max-capacity. When the population becomes unsustainable due to overpopulation the insects’ numbers will dwindle to a manageable size if not disappearing completely. Once your garden has returned to equilibrium some plants may need to be replaced, but this less involved plan is a great choice for gardeners working with little free time.

Manual pest removal sits on the opposite end of the time spectrum. The option of eliminating the beneficial insect as the middleman and becoming the predator yourself is always open. Removing pests by hand is time consuming, but effective. Cutting back severely impacted limbs and disposing properly can slow the advances of most common small insects. Proper pest disposal is extremely important here; infested foliage and plants should be sealed in plastic and disposed of away from other plants or burned. The last thing we want is to transport removed insects to a new unaffected area. Even if you fail to apprehend every invader, lessening the population is sure to decrease the damage incurred by your plants. If you can catch an infestation in its early stages, there is a chance that you can eliminate all pests by hand before their population becomes out of control.

One of the more extreme, but effective methods of controlling an infestation without chemical intervention is drastic pruning. This one comes back to the basic principles of resource availability and manual removal. By pruning a plant back to just a few leaves, we leave very little food available to pests. The insect population will experience a greatly diminished resource pool and be forced to move on or starve. Removing the most heavily impacted foliage and disposing properly will eliminate a large proportion of the insects.

If you find that an infestation is simply beyond the scope of biologic intervention, there are a few chemical options known for being least harmful to pollinator populations. Aim to use targeted chemical products when managing a specific pest outbreak with the knowledge that these pesticides could have negative impacts on desirable insects. Spraying only the plants or areas with active infestation will reduce pesticide exposure for beneficial insects and pollinators. Soaps (sometimes labeled as surfactants) and botanical oils will be the safest chemical pest control option. Only apply chemicals after safely relocating caterpillars to a safe-haven outside the treatment zone. Caterpillars can be very small and might be difficult to pick up or even venomous; cutting the portion of foliage they rest on to relocate them is the safest choice for both you and the caterpillar. Finally, be sure to treat during the early morning or evening. During these times, our pollinator friends are usually tucked away to rest while pests are less likely to flee from assault.

After all this talk of active infestations, it seems like a good time to talk about what you can do to prevent garden pests in the first place. As mentioned before, beneficial plantings are a great deterrent to many common invaders. It is also worth noting that when and how you water your plants plays a role in their appeal to pests. Damp leaves are more attractive to leaf eating insects as water on the surface increases porosity and makes them easier to bite. Avoid watering at night, when cool temperatures will keep water on the leaves for an extended period and opt instead to water early in the morning when the sun and heat will quickly dry the leaves. It isn’t a viable option for all, but drip irrigation that never wets a plant’s leaves at all is the best way to deter moisture-loving insects.

At the end of the day, the best pollinator garden is one that embodies balance. We are, after all, trying to support and provide sanctuary to a wide range of beautiful creatures.

Happy Growing!


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