During the darkest, gloomiest days of midwinter, they arrive: seed catalogs! These colorful publications have been around for more than a century, delivering hope every year to housebound, frustrated gardeners and would-be gardeners. For rich and poor alike, in the city or the country, poring over seed and plant catalogs is a cherished winter tradition.
Those who are more inclined toward online shopping will – after one or two searches for information about flowers, bulbs or plant plugs – activate a flood of emails and social-media posts featuring stunning images of flowers in every color and shape imaginable. One click and an email address will also get you on a nursery mailing list.
By forgetting the frightful weather outside, gazing at the beautiful floral images and reading the lavish descriptions, a home gardener can visualize swarms of fluttering butterflies and almost hear the gentle hum of contented bees. But what is the best way to plan and grow a garden if attracting pollinators is your admirable ambition?
Native-plant advocate Neil Diboll is well known in Door County as a presenter at Crossroads at Big Creek and The Ridges and for his help designing the Peterson Park prairie garden at the YMCA. In the catalog of Prairie Nursery – of which he’s president – Diboll wrote, “Amazingly, suburban and even urban landscapes can be home to a stunning variety of pollinators, birds and other desirable and beneficial organisms.” He adds that “Plant it, and they will come” is true even in larger population areas.
But when Diboll advises readers to “plant it,” it’s not as simple as purchasing and planting the prettiest flowers you can find, and then concluding that you’ve done your bit to help nature. Ordering only the prettiest flowers in the catalog often is not helpful at all for attracting pollinators.
Butterflies feed on nectar, and bees require nectar and pollen throughout the growing season, from early spring to late fall. By planting an appropriate variety of flowers, a gardener can provide a reliable food source for pollinators.
Understand that honeybees and wild native bees do not see the same colors that humans do. They’re attracted to flowers that are yellow, purple and ultraviolet – a color beyond our visible spectrum that we see as white.
Butterflies and hummingbirds can see red and orange, and because they can hover, they can visit trumpet-shaped flowers. Being unable to hover, most bees can visit only those blossoms that have a flat surface, which acts as a “landing pad.” Simple symmetrical flowers with horizontal petals or a bottom lip are most attractive to bees.
Cultivars and hybrids have been bred to produce more “showy” flowers, but often they’ve been altered just enough that bees fail to recognize the scents, shapes or colors that they’re used to. Double blooms – while admittedly stunning – are not bee-friendly because their thick petals make it difficult to access nectar. And in far too many hybrids, the lovely scents, nectar and pollen may be missing altogether.
If selecting appropriate plants seems too complicated, there’s a simple solution: Plant natives.
Native plants have survived over the ages because they provide the pollen, nectar and floral oils that pollinators crave. Native plants are almost always some shade or combination of yellow, purple or white, and their blossoms tend to have the perfect shapes to accommodate insect pollinators. Often the flowers even have special stripes or spots – aptly named “bee guides” – to make food collection more efficient for the pollinators.
Many plant catalogs and, thankfully, most local nurseries now feature native flowers, shrubs and trees. The Door County Master Gardeners’ annual plant sale, for instance, will have many native plants available – when it’s safe again to hold the event.
In the words of Neil Diboll, “It is incumbent upon us, as stewards of the earth, to take action to preserve our natural heritage, not only for the sake of biodiversity and the future of the world, but because we depend upon diverse and stable ecosystems for our own survival. Planting natives encompasses far more than just doing a good deed for nature. Our very existence depends on it.”
Free Wildflower Seeds, Catalogs at Crossroads
Interested in starting a native wildflower garden? The Door County Seed Library – in partnership with Wild Ones of the Door Peninsula and Crossroads at Big Creek – will be giving away free native wildflower seeds, informational material and seed catalogs on Jan. 23, 10 am – 12 pm and 2-4 pm. Tables will be set up on the porch of the Collins Learning Center at Crossroads at Big Creek in Sturgeon Bay. The program is free and open to all; masks and social distancing will be required.
Coggin Heeringa is the program director/naturalist at Crossroads at Big Creek and president of Wild Ones of the Door Peninsula.