4/23/12

Planting for pollinators

LA Backwards Beekeeper Roxana writes:

On a recent Saturday morning, several Backwards Beekeepers made the trek out to The Theodore Payne Foundation in Sun Valley for a special class titled Planting for Pollinators. The two hour seminar was tailored for us thanks to fellow member Mark with the educational director of the foundation, Lisa Novich.

In this class Lisa shared the importance of pollinators, plants suited to the differing micro climates and soil conditions, how to maintain bee forage bloom all year-round, and gave us a tour of the nursery so that we could see examples of bee-friendly plants, both potted and full-grown on site.

We delved into the importance of all pollinators, not just the European honey bee. Ninety percent of all insects can only eat plants native to their location. This is true worldwide, not just in California. So, that beautiful butterfly, the Anise Swallowtail pictured above, can only survive by eating California native plants.

If we were to look at this idea more holistically consider our birds, they survive on a diet rich in seeds, berries, worms and caterpillars. The native plants provide food for the butterflies who lay eggs that turn into caterpillar, some of which will become food for the birds. The birds in turn provide important to our ecosystem. We are currently facing a huge decline of our bird populations, partly due to lack of insects for them to eat.

See more photos of native pollinators and the plants that they like at this link to the Theodore Payne Foundation website. Introducing fauna to your garden will add beauty as well as ensure continuity. In my garden which we have been transitioning to native plants since 2008 we have started to notice that natives are now sprouting up on their own due to the use of oak leaf litter as natural mulch (no more blowers!) and lots of birds and beneficial insects.

All we have to do is look at basic biology to see the importance of pollinators and birds. There is a perfect harmony. The perfect co-evolution designed by Mother Nature between us and the pollinators is now in jeopardy mainly due to the ignorance of man and large conglomerates like Dow and Monsanto.

The plants of California have evolved in nitrogen poor soil. This is the reason why the water thirsty sub-tropicals don't tend to do well here unless they are given soil amendments, fertilizers, pesticides and large amounts of water.

The beauty of the California natives is that they require no soil amendments (unless your soil is fill), no pesticides, fungicides, or fertilizers and after the first year little to no water! Lisa explained a simple system to evaluate your yard so that you can find the perfect plants. She calls this the three S system.

1. SUNLIGHT: What kind of sunlight do you have in the area you plan to plant?

a. Full sun all day = FULL SUN

b. Morning sun with afternoon shade = PART SUN

c. Morning shade with afternoon sun = PART SUN/FULL SUN

d. Shade all day = SHADE

2. SOIL: What kind of soil do you have? You can check the drainage of your soil by digging a whole, filling it with water and timing how long it takes to drain. Decomposed granite drains quickly. If it takes more than one hour it is heavy soil, like clay.

3. SIZE: evaluate the size of your planting area so that you can select plants that will work well.

Once you have gathered all this information you can go to this link on the Theodore Payne Foundation site to select which plants are perfect for your location and how to get started. The nursury at the foundation is divided into different areas so that your search for plants is made easier.

There are also very helpful signs for each plant which show the plants ideal soil and sun requirements as well as how large the plant will get.

When planting for honey bees the ideal is to select plants that will bloom in different seasons throughout the year. For example Coyote Bush, Barberry and specific types of Manzanita. Some of the other native plants mentioned in the lecture for honey bees are Ceonothus, Fairy Duster and Lilac Verbena (both of which bloom nearly all year long), Toyon, Buckwheat, Sage and Matilija Poppies.

Pictured above is a honey bee on a beautiful Ceonothus that was in full bloom with the most delicious botanical perfume! I can just imagine how fantastic Ceonothus honey would taste.

If you don't have a yard, no worries, you can grow the natives in glazed pots or oak half barrels available at local nurseries like GreenArrow and Osh. Since these plants will be in a confined space Lisa suggested getting an organic planting mix with bat guano and sea kelp for extra nutrition. Water only when the soil is dry. Lisa explained that a very simple test is sticking your index finger one inch into the soil. If the soil is warm and dry its time to water, if it is cool and moist, no water. This simple method also applies to new plants placed in the ground.

It was a really fantastic morning. Many thanks to Mark and Lisa Novak whose passion and commitment is contagious.

—Roxana

Read a more detailed version of this post at Roxana's Journal.

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