By Christina Verderosa, Newport News Master Gardener
Can’t start your day off without your morning coffee? Is your favorite pick-me-up a piece of chocolate?
Then you need pollinators.
Pollinators—those bees, bugs, birds and bats without which countless plants would be unable to reproduce—play a vital role not only in making your favorite morning beverage possible, but also in countless other agricultural products that humans and animals consume. But pollinator populations are declining, mostly because of human intervention. A little human intervention can help reverse that trend. All you need to do is plant a pollinator garden.
It’s not hard. The best plants to support pollinators are native perennials that require little maintenance. In fact, some of those plants are endangered because humans consider them weeds.
Take the common milkweed. It’s not the prettiest plant and it does have a tendency to spread to places you may not want it. But it is the host plant to one of our most beloved pollinators: the monarch butterfly. The monarchs will feed off it and lay their eggs on it. Even if monarchs don’t find your milkweed, plenty of bees, wasps and other insects will.
The much reviled dandelion is also a great pollinator plant, especially earlier in the year when not much else is blooming. So if you have dandelions, try and keep at least some of them.
There are plenty of other plants that will provide you with a beautiful garden and support pollinators. Bee balm has abundant, feathery red or purple flowers. Coneflowers are another good choice. Bright orange butterfly weed is a native that will add color and bring in the pollinators.
Each pollinator has its preferences, so the experts recommend planting a wide variety of plants with different colors and textures. Plant in clumps and plant to have flowers blooming for as much of the year as possible.
Many of us have birdbaths, but bees and butterflies also need water, so it is important to include a water feature. Fill a shallow pie tin with pebbles or marbles and then add water. Google “bee bath,” and you’ll find hundreds of sites describing how to make one.
Once you have your pollinator garden going, you may get a bit unnerved by all these insects that show up. Remember that pollinators go way beyond bees; beetles, wasps and flies are also excellent pollinators. If you see an unfamiliar bug in your garden, find out what it is before you succumb to the urge to get rid of it.
It has been estimated that one in three bites of food we eat depends on pollinators. If everyone just plants a few pollinator plants or even stops taking out plants they consider “weeds’ we will give these vital creatures a big boost.
For more information, call your nearest Virginia Cooperative Extension Office, check out the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service publication “Attracting Pollinators to Your Garden” or search for gardening and educational websites on line.
Christina Verderosa is a VCE/Newport News Master Gardener and Tree Steward. She retired from the U.S. Navy in 1994 and is the former co-owner of the DeWitt Era-Enterprise, a weekly newspaper in southeast Arkansas. She lives in Newport News with her husband, two dogs and a cat.