AMES, Iowa – One activity that can bring a smile to your face while staying at home amid the COVID-19 pandemic, is starting seeds for your upcoming garden. As part of the “Gardening While Isolated” series, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach invites the public to watch the “Promoting Pollinators” video April 20 at noon during a Facebook watch party.
The video will be shown on the ISU Extension and Outreach Facebook page. It was produced with Aaron Steil, assistant director of Reiman Gardens at Iowa State University, and the Iowa State University Department of Horticulture.
In this video, viewers will learn about the importance of pollinators, such as native bees, honey bees, bumble bees, flower beetles, hover flies, hummingbirds and butterflies. Pollinators are essential in keeping our food supply going in the U.S., as 35% of our grain, fruit, nut and vegetable crop plants rely on pollinators to carry pollen from male to female flower parts to enable reproduction and fruit/grain set.
Starting a pollinator garden
You can start your own pollinator garden at home, ordering seeds from one of the many seed houses in the Midwest. Secure your potting mix and seedling trays (or pots, if only growing a few plants) from open garden stores in your area.
Place your seedling trays in a sunny location in your home, and take outside on warm days, when the temperature is above 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Remember to bring in at night until night-time temperatures reach 60 F. You can also order and set up grow-lights, to provide a more even light, if you have room in your house or basement.
Taking time to design your pollinator garden is recommended. With some colored pencils, you can draw a basic structure with native pollinator trees and shrubs in the perimeter, followed by a variety of perennial and annual flowering plants that pollinators prefer for nectar and pollen (see plant lists in references below).
Plant a mixture of colors and flower shapes to meet the needs of different pollinators (for example, lipped flowers, like sage, are preferred by bumblebees and solitary bees). Pollinators prefer sunny areas, and connected habitats, so design your garden with groups of pollinator plants together, to provide pollinators a concentrated host area rather than requiring them to search for the next suitable plant.
You can plant both native and exotic flowering plants, like zinnias, but natives provide an advantage in times of drought or low soil fertility, as they are adapted to Iowa’s climate and soils. Some of our favorites include the following native species, which are best seeded in the fall to ensure a cold period: Cream wild indigo (Baptisia bracteate), pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnate) and smooth blue aster (Symphyotrichum leave).
Milkweeds are especially important, both as a flowering nectar source for the adult Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus), and for their leaves, which serve as a host plant for their hungry caterpillars. Spring planting can include annuals, like dill, for black swallowtail butterflies. Jana Erickson, of Wit’s End Gardens, of Prole, Iowa, says: “Plant double the amount; half for you, half for the caterpillars!”
Using organic growing practices is best for pollinators, since any insecticides can harm or kill pollinators. Plan on compost for fertilization for any edible crop plants near your pollinator plants (natives rarely require fertilization) and hand-picking any harmful insects, which should be rare on native plants.
Participate in survey
If you are interested in helping determine if pollinators are increasing or decreasing in your area, join the “citizen scientist” movement by participating in the Iowa Butterfly Survey Network, located at Reiman Gardens, with the goal of educating Iowans about butterflies, while at the same time encouraging people to take an active role in pollinator conservation.
Of the 122 species of butterflies believed to live in Iowa, more than one fourth are listed as “endangered, threatened or of special concern” making their long-term survival is questionable in the state. The IBSN uses both citizen scientists and conservation professionals to monitor and survey habitat areas for butterfly populations to give an annual snapshot of the health of all butterfly populations in Iowa.
Garden supplies and seed/plant sources
https://www.witsendgardens.com (pollinator plants)