Edible Gardens: a Win-Win for People and Pollinators

By Mary Phillips | June 13, 2018
by Mary Phillips
June 13, 2018

By Mary Phillips

Senior Director, Garden for Wildlifeâ„¢, the National Wildlife Federation

Late spring finds thousands of gardeners planting vegetables and fruit in kitchen gardens, community gardens and in small spaces using containers.  These efforts can thrive with a little extra help from nature.

Consider planting for bees, hummingbirds and other pollinators to enjoy a greater bounty while also replenishing habitat for critical wildlife species.  Pollinators, which we rely on for one-third of our food supply are facing many challenges, such as habitat decline, disease, and harmful pesticides.

Now in its 45th year, the National Wildlife Federation’s Garden for Wildlifeâ„¢ initiative helps anyone, anywhere transform their outdoors spaces with native plants to support pollinators and other wildlife, and to create a sustainable landscape. Native plants are those that have co- evolved and have an interdependence with specific local wildlife. In food gardening, these natives can be combined with flowering food plants that provide nectar and pollen to also help wildlife. Planting edibles that rely on pollination, supplemented with native pollinator friendly plants contributes to a bountiful food garden.  Bees, butterflies, hummingbirds, bats and other animal pollinators fertilize the blossoms of wild plants, allowing them to produce the seeds, berries, nuts and other natural foods that form the foundation of a food web relied on by all wildlife.

Following are a few Garden for Wildlife tips to help your garden crops thrive and support local wildlife pollinators!

More Bees, More Berries

Studies have shown that when native wildflowers were planted around high-bush blueberry fields to attract native pollinators, they saw the wild bee population double within two years and blueberry yields increase up to 20 percent. (University of Michigan 2016).  Native bees such as bumble bees and other species of wild bees are the most effective pollinators of blueberry. Use the National Wildlife Federation’s “Plant Finder“ to get a list of the plants native to your area that support wildlife.

Toss a Colorful Salad with Edible Flowers and Herbs

Beautiful edible flowers and herbs are a great way to supplement your selection of native plants to provide extra sources of nectar for pollinators and that add a pop to your salad.  Consider adding some of these common beauties to your garden.

  • Nasturtiums – Bright yellow, deep orange red and jeweled blend of varieties -mild peppery taste. Bonus: these flowers can trap aphids from doing damage to your other plants. Lady bugs very beneficial insects will visit to eat the aphids!
  • Calendula (Marigolds) – These cheerful flowers are bright yellow and edible. Select varieties with a single layer of petals which are easier for bees and other pollinators to access than double layered flowers.
  • Borage – Featuring bright blue, or soft pink flowers, this kitchen garden staple has a slight cucumber taste.
  • Spring Onions or Chives – These useful plants add great finishing touches to many dishes and sport white and purple flowers that are irresistible to bees and other pollinators.

Create a Buzz for Bigger Tomatoes

While tomatoes are able to self-pollinate, studies conducted by UC-Berkley found that plantings of native pollinator habitat allowed for consistent visits from bees to the tomatoes flowers.  Bumble bees produce strong vibrations to expel the pollen which accelerates the self-pollination process. This “buzz pollination” resulted in up to a 50% increase in the amount of tomatoes that were also twice as big in size.

Tip:  Plant nectar providing, pollinator friendly flowering plants in and around your food garden area.  Native flowers, along with annuals like zinnias, cosmos, and some herbs can be a great companion planting and be a win-win for your garden yield and the pollinators. Find native plants for your zip code at NWF’s Native Plant Finder.

Symbiotic Squash bees 

The squash bee (Peponapis pruinosa) is native to North America and has co-evolved with plants (feeds exclusively) that are members of the cucurbit family (summer squash, winter squash, pumpkins, melons, cucumbers).  These bees are called specialist bees as they are shaped to engage effectively with the structure of the squash flower, are extremely efficient, starting early in the morning and moving rapidly between many flowers, never leaving to “check out” other plant species.  Don’t be alarmed if these solitary bees make their home in nearby soil patches as they are interested in only one the plants and will not bother people unless attacked.

Tip: Plant a selection of squash, cucumbers, pumpkins and melons that support this bee and provide a diverse selection of summer foods. Leave some bare soil under these plants and as they are known to build their homes under the leaves of these plants.

Keep it Natural

One of the most important things you can do in your garden to help pollinators and other wildlife is to eliminate or at a minimum significantly reduce the use of chemical fertilizers, herbicides and other pesticides. Going chemical-free ensures that your garden is a healthy, safe place for wildlife as well as your pets and family.

Once you incorporate the tips above in creating a pollinator friendly food garden, you will provide food, cover and places for wildlife to raise their young.  Add a water source like a bird bath or butterfly puddling dish and your garden can qualify to become a Certified Wildlife Habitat with The National Wildlife Federation, and be counted in the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge. Anyone, at any age, anywhere can participate with almost immediate results – potentially doubling the numbers of diverse local wildlife.

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