Garden Time

Ann Harman
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By: Ann Harman

Garden catalogs are timed to arrive about the first of January. You search the pages (or online) for the vegetables and flowers marked “NEW!” For many people just leafing through a seed and plant catalog is inspirational. January is when the gardening companies present seeds and plants for the most beautiful new flowers and the most delicious new vegetables from their breeding gardens. The seed and plant companies are hoping you will try the new ones and find them just what you wanted.

Those of you in the warm climates have already made your selections and have planted and possibly harvested something. With your long growing season you still have time to order more. Those living in the large temperate band across the U.S. may have started some seeds in frames or under lights and planted some in tunnels and may have already planted some cold-tolerant plants. In the cold North you are just putting in your orders while hoping for a good growing season.

Hybrid vegetables (even sweet corn) and flowers are being bred for growing in containers for decks, patios and even on rooftops. The selection of containers is huge as are the selection of suitable vegetables, fruits, berries and flowers! Apartment dwellers with a balcony can find both vegetables and flowers suitable for growing in shade or partial sun. The catalogs do indicate what the plants prefer. Your deck can have a mini-greenhouse. Various styles of supports, trellises and raised beds can make growing plants very easy in small spaces.

If you have lots of space for a garden you can indulge in some of the heirloom vegetables. These are ones that have been favorites for many, many years. Some of them need plenty of room to grow and are not bred for growing in containers.

What is a “double-duty” plant? It is one that you can enjoy visually or is edible, and also benefits pollinators of all kinds. Some catalogs indicate those double-duty plants with a tiny butterfly; other catalogs mention bees, butterflies and humming birds in the plant description. Sometimes pollinators are not mentioned but you can discover for yourself what pollinators come to visit. However one difficulty with that project is the time of day pollen and/or nectar are produced by a particular flower. It is amazing how many plants can be classed as double-duty ones.

Before you get carried away with the photos in seed catalogs you need to become familiar with the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map of the U.S. This map is important for growing perennials that need to live through the Winter. With vegetables, the growing days, from planting seed to harvest, are important. Remember that everyone lives in a microclimate that can be a bit different from other nearby areas. If you have lived in your home for several years you know what the usual weather is like.  However Mother Nature sometimes likes to surprise you.

I think the number one plant anyone wants to grow is the tomato. I once saw a rose bed in a formal garden with several lovely tomato plants in it. There is nothing better to eat than a ripe tomato just plucked from your garden. You can admire the color and shape and size – but it is the flavor that you appreciate the most. When a large commercial tomato farmer was asked why the tomatoes lacked flavor, the reply was “they don’t pay me for flavor.” Since a ripe or almost ripe tomato is soft and can be squished easily, the ability to be picked and transported is the most important quality. However it seems that tomato breeders are trying to put flavor back into the supermarket tomato.

Well, are tomatoes double-duty? Actually yes, in spite of their listing as wind-pollinated. Tomatoes, along with peppers (sweet and hot), potatoes and eggplant, all belong to the Family Solanaceae. Although considered wind-pollinated, bumble bees visit the blossoms and do their buzz-pollination routine. They hold on to the blossom with their mandibles and vibrate their muscles letting the pollen fall onto their hairs. When these vegetables are raised in greenhouses bumble bee colonies are rented for pollination.

Although you may prefer honey bees, bumble bees are fascinating. Various species are found all over the United States and Canada, some living in quite cold climates. Bumblebees come in different sizes (small, medium and large) and with a variety of color patterns. Take some time to see if bumble bees are visiting your tomato and pepper plants.

Here is how you can identify the ones you see. You will need a copy of An Identification Guide, Bumble Bees of North America, by Paul Williams, Robbin Thorp, Leif Richardson & Sheila Colla. Princeton University Press. This book shows the color patterns of each species and gives its size.

In addition to a map and a detailed species description, the section labeled “Occurrence” is valuable. Here you will find a description of its habitat and also its status – abundant or threatened. You will also find if the species prefers underground or aboveground nests. That information can help you provide shelter for their nests – and possibly prevent you from being stung if you disturb a nest in a corner of your land. Perhaps the most valuable part of this section is the one labeled “Example Food Plants.” Here you will find the flowering plants that particular species likes to visit. You will see those are also honey bee plants!  And they are also plants for other pollinators! Make use of the flowering plants named with each bumble bee since they would be ones that would grow well in the area inhabited by the particular species. 

It is nice to have some cucumbers and a sweet delicious watermelon to eat on a Summer day. These two, along with other melons, squash and pumpkins belong to the Family Cucurbitacea and require pollination. In this group the plants have separate male and female flowers on the same plant so it is essential that the pollen is transferred from the male to the female. Honey bees and bumble bees do visit the flowers and do pollination. However the most important pollinator is the squash bee. Two genera carry out the pollination, Peponapis (the most common one) and Xenoglossa.

You could have seen Peponapis and thought it was one of your honey bees since they appear similar in color and size but this squash bee has lots of hair and no pollen basket. Mating takes place in the flower. Furthermore since the flowers open early, honey bees are not awake and foraging yet. The flower is closed by noon with the sleeping squash bees inside. They will be released when the flower wilts. If you are careful you can gently open a closed blossom to see if any squash bees are inside. They will not sting. They are solitary bees and make their nest in the ground, frequently under the plants they just pollinated. Tilling the soil after harvest could ruin the nest with the prepupae inside. Look for holes about the size of a pencil in the ground near where the plant grew. Each hole would indicate a nest.

If you planted some sweet corn you will have honey bees visiting the plants when the tassels appear. Our bees do appreciate corn pollen even though the plant does not need their help. Corn is in the same family, Family Poaceae, as other grasses, including the grasses in your lawn or pasture. Wind takes care of the pollination of grasses. Since our bees collect and use the pollen we can consider corn as a double-duty plant.

We do eat a number of other vegetables that do not need pollination to produce the edible part. On the other hand, commercial growers of these vegetables for the seeds that you plant in your garden do need pollinators. Carrots, beets and lettuce are just a few of those. However honey bees really do enjoy collecting pollen and possibly nectar from broccoli, one of the brassicas. All you need to do is just leave one plant, perhaps at the end of a row, that is allowed to bloom. We normally cut those flower buds and eat them before the flowers actually open. You will have a group of small yellow flowers eagerly visited by your honey bees. You are really providing forage for them but you will not be eating the blooming broccoli.

Various fruits and berries need pollination. Some of then need a large garden area but some have been bred as dwarf for small spaces and others are suitable for containers. Some, such as apples and pears and even peaches can be espaliered on a wall or fence in small spaces. A crabapple tree that you planted as a pollinator for an apple tree you have is definitely a double-duty plant. Crabapples make delicious jelly and relishes as well as other foods. Honey bees do not find pear blossoms very interesting. The sugar content is low but other bees will help with pollination. Osmia bees, small solitary bees, are common visitors to apple and blueberry. The blueberries are another of those plants with “upsidedown” blossoms and benefit also from bumble bee buzz pollination. Sweet cherries must have bee pollination but the sour cherry trees really do not need insect help.

To have beautiful, well-shaped (and totally delicious) strawberries, pollination is essential. Fortunately strawberries can be grown in beds or in a wide variety of raised beds and containers. Citrus fruits, plums, currants and gooseberries all benefit from pollinators. Honey bees and bumble bees will be hard at work to provide large, well-shaped fruit and berries. Throughout the growing season you may have noticed some of the small pollen bees visiting vegetable, fruit and flower gardens. Identification of these tiny bees can be difficult. However if you wish to use an identification key for these, open up and click on the bee to open that section of the key.

Many gardeners also plant herbs to accompany the various vegetables and fruits from their gardens. Some herbs are annuals and some are perennials. Although gardeners, and cooks, may pluck some leaves to use, those plants allowed to bloom will be eagerly visited by bees. The gardeners who wish to harvest dill seeds will want blossoms even if they are not a rich source of pollen and nectar. Lavender is eagerly visited by bees and the dried flowers can be used in many ways. If you have a cat, you need to grow some catnip. Although you may be cutting stems with leaves for drying, allow some plants to bloom since the blossoms are rich in nectar for our bees – making catnip definitely a double-duty plant.

Can we consider plants that just bloom but do not produce food for us as double-duty plants? Yes, I think so. We appreciate the colors, the shapes, the aromas of such plants. They cheer us up.

Life would be a little dull without them.

Ann Harman is getting ready for her garden in Flint Hill, Virginia.