By Seth Heder, Horticulturist
As worldwide insect populations continue to decline, it remains ever important to provide shelter and sustenance for butterflies, bees and flies which help our orchards and gardens. Fruits and vegetables such as cucumbers, squash, pumpkins, peppers, zucchini, strawberries, apples and tomatoes all rely on insects to pollinate and help them create viable fruit. Some vegetables and fruits are able to create fruit with pollination from wind, but this is less reliable than insects transporting pollen. Even the humble bumblebee is the star of the show for tomato pollination.
Increasing the number of pollinators in your vegetable patch can be as simple as planting a few perennials or annuals around the garden. If you regularly change vegetable combinations, their orientation or organize them differently in your garden each year, then flowering annuals are likely your best option. Annuals, which die each year from our cold winters, don’t require a permanent spot in the garden; you can redesign and reinvigorate with new varieties each year while catering to the pollinators themselves! Annuals are easily incorporated into an edible landscape because they come in many shapes and sizes, allowing you to personalize your garden space.
Not sure where to start with pollinator plants? Here are a few that can be grown as annuals each year to improve the pollinator presence in and around your garden:
There are several different species of the Celosia genus that will work well, but all are great for pollinators. Celosia spicata has a more spiked flower, Celosia cristata a more veined or wavy flower, and Celosia plumosa a fluffier flower head. My personal favorite is the Celosia plumosa species, whose feathery flowers allow for maximized surface area for pollinators to collect pollen.
These plants are swarmed with bees in the summer, making watering them kind of a hazard on warm, sunny days! A couple of the Garden’s favorites include Arrabona Red and the entire First Flame™ series from PanAmerican Seed.
This genus refers to a number of species, some of which can be perennial, so be sure to know which ones you’re growing for your vegetable garden.
Of the annual salvia species, Salvia greggii has fewer but larger flowers per plant, while Salvia splendens and Salvia coccinea each have a mass of tightly bundled flowers. Which species you prefer depends on color, as these all look similar as opposed to the many forms of celosia mentioned above.
Salvia are great additions to your garden if you want to attract butterflies and hummingbirds. Our favorites include the All-America Selections (AAS) winners in the Summer Jewel™ series which do tend to seed out.
Don’t let the name fool you. These flowers can be a myriad of colors other than just purple. These plants are actually hardy to Wisconsin’s Zone 5 climate but are easily grown as annuals from seed. You can transplant to perennial beds at the end of the season.
These flowers are magnets for butterflies and bees in the summer since they have large sets of flowers with large, inviting petals. The Garden has many different varieties grown as perennials but has grown PowWow Wild Berry or Cheyenne Spirit as annuals.
A classic flower, petunias are attractive to insects since they show off heaps of pollen and nectar per flower. Some varieties grow by spreading over the ground. You can grow these types alongside taller vegetables to help with pollination and weed suppression.
Remember to not accidentally purchase a double-flowered petunia because they replace the pollen and nectar-producing parts with more petals. Double-petaled flowers can be beautiful to look at, but these plants are poor friends to pollinators. A favorite of ours is the Wave® series from PanAmerican Seed.
Zinnia (Zinnia spp.)
This genus refers to several zinnia species, including Zinnia marylandica and Zinnia elegans which are both great for attracting butterflies and bees.
The difference between the two species is that Zinnia elegans has double flowers which limit the pollen and nectar production, and while the Zinnia marylandica species may be not as pretty, they have a larger landing pad of pollen and nectar sources for pollinators. The Garden’s favorites include the Zahara™ and Profusion series.
With these pollinator-friendly plants, you can ramp up vegetable and fruit production in your own gardens while also helping care for pollinators, like bees and butterflies. Be sure to stop by Green Bay Botanical Garden this summer to see how we incorporate flowers alongside vegetable crops in our Partnership Gardens.
You can find out more about pollinators and the plants they love at our upcoming summer exhibit, Butterflies & Blooms! It kicks off on June 1 and is free with Garden admission. Plus, you can learn more about how you can grow your own pollinator paradise and pledge to do it this summer by signing up for the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge! The Garden is one of more than a million gardens already listed.
You can also become a pollinator protector by shopping plant sales at Garden Fair on Friday, May 31 or Saturday, June 1. Admission into the plant sale is FREE and we’ll have a number of garden experts on hand to answer all your questions.
I wish you all luck in your journey of inviting pollinators to your own gardens!