Flowers serve a much greater purpose than just decorating your landscape. Did you realize that planting flowers in your yard can help support local agriculture, ensure the availability of fruits and vegetables, and protect thousands of plant and animal species? All of this is true if you plant flowers that sustain pollinators, and the added bonus is they also make your yard more attractive.
Why flowers are needed
Pollinators, which include bees, butterflies, moths, wasps, hummingbirds, and bats, make reproduction possible for more than three fourths of the flowering plants on earth, including many of the fruits and vegetables we eat every day. Without pollinators, local farmers would struggle to grow blueberry, strawberries, tomatoes, squash, and many other vegetables. In addition, pollinators play a critical role in preserving diverse native communities by assisting the reproduction of wild plants that a myriad of insects, birds, mammals, and other animals rely upon for food and shelter.
Bees are the most prolific, efficient and productive pollinators in the world. While European honeybees are the most well known pollinators, North American also hosts an amazing variety of native bees, including bumble bees, sweat bees, miner bees, and mason bees. Populations of both honeybees and native bees have been declining over the last 50 years.
Reasons for bee decline include disease and parasite infection, habitat loss, and stress caused by pesticide exposure and poor nutrition. Bees gather nectar and pollen from flowers, to feed themselves and their offspring. To stay strong and maintain healthy colonies, bees need a season long supply of flowers that have not been contaminated with pesticides. As gardeners, we can play a critical role in reversing this alarming trend by planting pollinator friendly flowers.
While honey bees are adapted to feed on a wide range of flowers, many of our native bees specialize in feeding on native plants. Including native plants in your landscape will support the widest range of pollinators. When selecting plants to support pollinators, look for varieties with single rather than double flowers, since the extra petals on double flowers can make it more difficult for bees to access their pollen and nectar.
When designing plantings to support pollinators, aim to have at least three different types of flowers in bloom during each season, from early spring through late fall. Plant flowers in groups of at least 3 to 5 plants; this allows bees to forage more efficiently since they do not have far to move from one plant to the next. Using these principles to guide planting design also makes your yard an enticing habitat for beneficial insects and birds.
Flowering perennials are among the best nectar sources for bees. Recommended perennials native to the southeast that you are likely to find available at local garden centers include the following:
Spring bloomers: ‘Homestead Purple’ verbena, spiderwort (Tradescantia varieties), Coreopsis species and varieties, wild indigo (Baptisia species), beardtongue (Penstemon species), bluestar (Amsonia species)
Summer bloomers: purple and yellow coneflowers (Rudbeckia and Echinacea species), Phlox, butterflyweed and milkweed (Asclepias species), Stoke’s aster (Stokesia laevis), Gaillardia, Liatris, bee balm and horse mint (Monarda species).
Fall bloomers: Aromatic and other native asters (Symphyotrichum species), ‘Fireworks’ goldenrod, coastal joe pye weed (Eutrochium dubium), ironweeds (Vernonia species), and perennial sunflowers (Helianthus species).
Classes, plant sales,and websites
Learn more about native plants, vegetable gardening, the plight of bees and planting a pollinator garden during the Herb and Garden Fair, March 29 and 30 at Poplar Grove Plantation. Admission is free. Visitpoplargrove.org for full details. In addition, mark your calendar for the Pender Extension Master Gardener plant sale, April 11 and 12 at the Pender Extension office in Burgaw. The theme for this year’s sale is pollinator friendly perennials, herbs and vegetables. Visit pender.ces.ncsu.edu to learn more. Extension Master Gardener volunteers will be available at both events to answer your gardening questions.
To see images of hundreds of pollinator friendly plants, go toprotectpollinators.org and click on the Pollinator Paradise Garden link. Check with your local Extension center or visitncsu.edu/goingnative/ for more plant recommendations suited to your area.
Visit ces.ncsu.edu where you can submit questions via the ‘Ask an Expert’ link, or contact your local Cooperative Extension center by phone: If you live in Pender County, call 910-259-1238; in New Hanover County, call 910-798-7660; in Brunswick County call 910-253-2610.
Charlotte D. Glen is the horticulture agent with the Pender County Cooperative Extension of NC State University, College of Agriculture & Life Sciences. She can be reached via e-mail at Charlotte_Glen@ncsu.edu.