We want to attract pollinators like this bumblebee to our gardens. (Mary Lowther photo)

We want to attract pollinators like this bumblebee to our gardens. (Mary Lowther photo)

Mary Lowther column: Flowers are pluses for pollinators

Organizers required us all to grow flowers in the first foot alongside the main path

By Mary Lowther

Before I had land of my own I rented a plot at an allotment garden.

My 1,500 square feet hardly provided enough room for the food I wanted to grow, yet the organizers required us all to grow flowers in the first foot alongside the main path. At the time I bitterly resented losing that potentially bountiful space so the gardens could look more attractive, but I soon learned there was a very practical reason. To actually produce food, most crops require pollination by insects or birds, attracted to our particular space by the scent and colour of the blooms planted for that very purpose. Perhaps the custom of using flowers in human courtship began as a symbolic reminder of the young man’s actual intent, or most likely a warning.

In retrospect, I doubt my raspberries or squash would have been nearly as bountiful without the industrious little pollinators those blossoms attracted. Even though my plot had been worked for many years before I turned my first clod, it still produced abundantly. I naively assumed this was because I was such a good gardener, but soon learned that, to quote Isaac Newton, I had succeeded “by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Those giants knew the value of the tiny insects that filled the air as I gardened, demonstrating by example what my Granny had been hinting at in her roundabout explanation of basic biology. I began to understand that so far I had only heard the basics.

Once I investigated, I learned that some flowers attract certain pollinators more than others. For example, pale coloured flowers like lilac tend to attract butterflies and moths with their scent, while the bright colours on flowers, and markings like on foxgloves attract bees. Beetles, those lovely, adorable slug-eating insects, pollinate fruity scented flowers like pineapple chamomile, apple mint and geraniums, all of which are easy to grow.

Now I have my own land I find myself growing flowers all along the edges of my plot, realizing that the space they take up is more than compensated by the increased production of food from plants pollinated by the insects they attract. Crops I allow to go to seed all attract pollinators when they flower and there’s something cheery about the welcoming sight and aromas from flowers when I enter a garden.

A third of our Mason bees have hatched and I’m a bit worried they won’t have enough flowers to gather nectar and pollen from until our fruit trees blossom, so I bought a few posies at the Country Grocer and planted them near the bee house. They can fly up to three hundred feet to forage and tiny flowers are beginning to emerge in the forest near them so I’m hoping they can gather enough nourishment to keep them alive till our orchard flowers.

This year I will plant early blooming flowers near the fruit trees and bee house to help sustain them next year. Heather, daffodils, crocuses, snowdrops and chionadoxa come to mind. When I told David that bees love dandelions and that I intend to plant a bed of them, he was aghast. I don’t think he believed me when I told him I’ll cut them down before they go to seed, or understood that the leaves will likely end up in his salad. What he doesn’t know won’t hurt him, and explains why men married to gardeners live longer.

Please contact mary_lowther@yahoo.ca with questions and suggestions since I need all the help I can get.