May 6, 2014

How To Garden: Companion Planting & Pollinators

Welcome back to our Gardening Like Grandma series. Yesterday we covered Soil and Style of Garden. This week we’re looking at how to start and maintain a successful garden. When done properly from the ground up, gardening doesn’t take much extra time out of your schedule. Plus, it puts fresh food on your table year-round, saves you money, and nourishes your body with real food!

And my favorite reason to garden is found in Psalm 24:1, “The earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it. The world and all its people belong to him.” Being a responsible steward of God’s creation honors Him. 

SEvilsizer Vintage Week

Today we’re talking about two of the coolest aspects of gardening: Companion Plants and Pollinators. Let’s jump in!

What is Companion Planting (CP)? CP is planting a diverse mix of plants in close proximity to each other that are beneficial to one another and ‘get along.’ Plants actually have friends and foes. Planting two ‘foes’ next to each other can cause one or both of them to wither and even die. Amazing, huh? How?

11aa Nasturtium lure aphids away from tomatoes

You may have heard of the “Three Sisters” as the most famous CP: corn, beans, and squash are planted together on a small soil mound. Why plant these crops next to each other? Great question!

~ The beans use the tall corn as a trellis.
~ Squash is a dense ground cover which deters weeds from growing, soaking up nutrition that the beans/corn needs.
~ Beans provide their own nitrogen so the corn isn’t depleted.  

a2 A bed of Marigold, Carrots, Basil, Onions and Strawberries.
The basil and marigolds are 2-3 feet tall!

What are the benefits of CP? 

  • Growth Aid: Short plants deter weeds from growing that could harm tall plants. Tall plants offer shade and support to shorter plants.
  • Natural Pest Deterrents: Pests will often find our veggies (a.k.a. their dinner) by smell. Potent smelling flowers and herbs repel insects, and even some animals, by confusing them. They aren’t sure which plant to eat!
  • Natural Pest/Insect Attractors: Some CPs attract harmful pests to themselves and away from veggies.
    ~Other CPs attract beneficial insects (like spiders, praying mantis, and ladybugs) that eat harmful pests.
  • Space Savers: Interspersing fast growing, tall plants in with shorter, viney plants gives you the freedom to triple or quadruple the amount of crops you harvest. Some will grow up, while others grow out.
  • Avoid Monoculture: Having one crop in an area is like hosting a buffet for pests, but several rows of plants of different colors, aromas, and times they ripen doesn’t give pests who like one particular type of veggie much to munch on.

What are common CPs?

That’s a great question. One day I may come up with my own list, but honestly, there are so many great ones already out there that it’d be crazy right now to reinvent the wheel. Below is a very useful chart that has proven successful for us. However, if you don’t see a plant on here that you want to grow then a quick internet search should provide you with its ‘friends’ and ‘foes.’

Screen Shot 2013-08-26 at 9.22.01 PM

Pollinators and Pollenizers:

Odds are you’ve heard of pollinators such as honey bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. But did you know YOU can be a pollinator too? How? Easy!

That old saying about the birds and the bees is spot on. Pollinators move pollen from the male anthers of the flower to the female stigma of the flower to accomplish fertilization. There’s a whole lot of other scientific facts we won’t get in to, but needless to say, many veggies and fruits have female/male parts and the female flowers need the male’s pollen in order for it’s fruit to mature.

12 A bumblebee pollinating a female flower on a squash plant

Bees and butterflies, birds and bats are all wonderful pollinators. They collect the nectar from the flowering part of the plant, and while doing so, get pollen on their bodies. Flitting from flower to flower, these pollinators take pollen from male flowers and deposit it on the female flower, hopefully causing fertilization.

Sadly, natural pollinators, especially bees, are on a rapid decline. And if you live in a neighborhood, they’re even less likely to be buzzing around your garden. Did you know that bees perform 80% of all pollination? Without bees, the fresh fruits and veggies we eat would cease to grow. “Seventy out of the top 100 human food crops, which supply about 90 percent of the world’s nutrition, are pollinated by bees.” {source}

67810_10151535079728391_1191444726_n A butterfly enjoying a butterfly bush

You have two options if natural pollinators are low:
1. YOU be the pollinator! This is an easy, yet tedious task. Research your plant to find out which flower is the male and which is the female. Open the male flower and either pull out the inside or swab it with a cotton swab or paint brush (the point is to collect pollen). Very gently open the female flower and lightly swab the male flower parts, paint brush, or cotton swab around the inside of the female flower.

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2. Plant flowers that attract natural pollinators. We have sunflowers, several butterfly bushes, plenty of bulbs (lilies/irises), and a whole lot of other flowers spaced strategically to invite pollinators. We placed flowers in a diamond pattern around our yard to direct natural pollinators flight over our veggies. When our yard was just grass, we saw a few bees here and there, and never any butterflies. Now that our backyard is a garden, the bee, bird, and butterfly populations are much improved.

One reader wrote that her husband doesn’t like to spend money on flowers, especially annuals, and asked my thoughts on that. I totally agree. My husband and I are very frugal and don’t like to spend money on needless things. However, in the case of companion plants and pollinators, we do buy annuals and perennials. Particularly when they double up as edibles, such as sunflowers, nasturtiums, chives & basil (once they go to flower). Click here to read about more edible flowers and how to use them in cooking. {p.s. not all flowers are edible, so please do research before taste-testing!}

Also, a great idea is to swap bulbs and flowering bush clippings with others. Last year we were walking around our neighborhood and stopped to check out an older woman’s flower garden. She popped out of her house to say hello and it turns out she was looking to thin out her flowers. Guess who became the delighted recipient of what had to be 100 or more bulbs?! (that’d be me) Also, our black eyed Susan & lemon balm are both gifts from a friend re-landscaping her yard. Ask around for who has what to give … and share what you have!

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Back to pollination: between the two options above, I would recommend inviting natural pollinators in to your yard. You’ll have beautiful flowers (many which can be edible if you plan for it) and a lot less work! One of my favorite rules of thumb: let the garden work for you, not the other way around! With proper and wise planning, you can limit much of the excess grunt work that deters many from gardening.

What If I’m Afraid of or Allergic to Bees? That’s a very valid question. I once raked under a row of azalea bushes and uncovered more than old leaves. A large underground nest of bees swarmed and liberally stung me. More than 30 times. Ouch! But I want to reassure you that neither Josh nor I have been stung in our yard. We haven’t even been chased by a bee. In fact, we often work side-by-side with our pollinators. Sure, they get a little flustered when we have to shake up their feeding time by picking veggies next to flowers, but they always go straight back to their flowers … not us!

However, it’s a good idea to wear long sleeves, pants, and a hat, and have an EpiPen or other form of allergy medicine with you. And while I know swatting at bees or running from them can be a knee-jerk reaction, that tends to aggravate bees. Stay calm. Remember, we’re working in tandem with them! Give them their space and they’ll give you yours. (side note: this should go without saying, but if you find a nest that is in a place where you, your kids, or pets frequent, it might be best to have it re-located).

One last note: many bees aren’t active during early morning or after dusk. Observe your yard for flight times and patterns of your bees and if you can, work around the times they are least active.

15 Bees and the most beautiful birds covered our sunflowers .
If you have space, these are some of the easiest and most prolific pollinating flowers.

Last, but Not Least: Pollenizers:

I had a blueberry bush last year that budded with fruit, but the small, hard, bitter balls weren’t edible. Lesson learned: fruit trees and bushes come in two types- self-fruitful and cross-pollinated. If you are growing fruit, you’ll need to take into account their special pollination needs.

1. Self-Fruitful trees/bushes only need pollen from the same kind of tree/bush as it is. This means you don’t necessarily need a different variety for your fruit to set.

2. Cross-Pollinated trees/bushes need pollen from a different variety of the same type of tree for it’s fruit to set. For instance, we have three different varieties of blueberry bushes planted near each other so their pollen can mix it up!

What needs Cross-Pollination? Apple, Pear, Blueberry, Japanese Plums, sweet Cherries.

Other fruit trees/bushes can benefit from cross-pollination, but it’s not necessary. Before buying a tree/bush, research the pollination needs of the specific variety you are choosing.
That’s all for now folks!
Tune in tomorrow for Pest and Animal Control. 
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xoxo,
Sam

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