A garden of beautiful flowers is an asset to any home, but with a little planning you can make that garden do double-duty by attracting insects and birds that not only are interesting to watch but also pollinate plants, including food crops, throughout the area.
According to the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation (i.e. insects), pollinators are essential for the reproduction of more than 85 percent of the flowering plants in the world, including two-thirds of agricultural crops, and provide food for about 25 percent of all birds as well as mammals.
"Without pollinators, it really limits our food supply," says Anna Timmerman, an assistant extension agent for the LSU AgCenter in Jefferson Parish. "A lot of pollinators are in danger (from insecticides and a lack of plants that produce nectar and pollen). Inviting them into your landscape is a way of protecting those pollinators."
Bees, of which there are 200 species in Louisiana, are major pollinators, but other insects, butterflies, moths and hummingbirds also do their part to move pollen from one plant to another, allowing plants to reproduce. Another benefit of flowering plants is that they attract insects such as ladybugs, spiders and some wasps that help control garden pests without using insecticides.
"Bees get a bad rap [because of] some of the more aggressive species," Timmerman says. Many, however, don't sting and "can coexist peacefully with kids and animals." People who are uneasy about a bee colony, she says, can contact the LSU AgCenter or a certified beekeeper who will gently vacuum them out of their nest and relocate them to a man-made hive or a location off the property. She recommends that approach rather than using poison to kill them.
Don't worry if the bees seem to disappear during the winter. "A lot of colonies will go dormant or have a period of inactivity during the winter," she says. "We don't get the cold weather like in the North (where bees may actually hibernate). They will forage if the days are warm enough, but they collect pollen (to store in the nest) and the honey they produce sustains them through winter or rainy days." It's best to leave some patches of unmulched dirt in the garden for the 70 percent of Louisiana bee species that nest in the ground, she adds.
Butterflies are attracted to flowers that produce nectar and pollen, but they also need places where they can bask in the sun, since they are cold-blooded and need the heat to survive and to develop the color in their wings. They also need water, and since they attach to plants, they need some protection from predators such as birds, lizards and certain wasps that lay their eggs on the caterpillars that morph into butterflies.
Timmerman suggests supplying water in a shallow birdbath or plate layered with pebbles that provide places for butterflies to rest and drink. They also need a safe place to lay their eggs and to hide from predators. This can be accomplished by arranging the garden with plants of different heights or adding shrubs to the flowering plants.
There are dozens of plants, including herbs, that produce the nectar and pollen that attract hummingbirds, bees, butterflies and other beneficial insects. Here are Timmerman's top 10 choices for pollinator plants that cover most of the growing season from spring through fall and offer a range of colors and shapes to accommodate insects as well as the long drinking snouts of hummingbirds.
Can plants repel insects?
Is it possible to use plants such as marigolds, nasturtiums and certain herbs to rid your garden beds of pests? Orleans Parish horticulture agent Joe Willis of the LSU AgCenter say it's a popular concept but doesn't hold up under controlled lab and field tests. Another popular theory is that some plants containing oils that repel insects like mosquitos can be placed near areas where people gather or near entryways to keep bugs from swarming or biting.
"We actually debunked that last year," says LSU AgCenter horticulture agent Anna Timmerman. "I keep seeing it circulate on the internet, but it has been scientifically disproven. There are repellant properties in some plants, but it's the oil within the plant itself (that is the repellant), so you have to crush them and rub them all over the skin to protect yourself." She suggests buying a product that contains those extracted natural oils to keep mosquitos and other pests from biting. — Kandace Power Graves