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Ways to help pollinators do their best work

Take an active role in celebrating Pollinator Week

Honeybee on basil plant
A honeybee lingers on a pollinator's flowering favorite: African blue basil. (Photo:
Kathy Morrison)

I never get tired of watching pollinators in action. The carpenter bees bending the branches of the "Hot Lips" salvia as they dig into the blossoms, the Anna's hummingbirds swooping into backyard to sample the hyssop, the fiery skipper butterflies landing delicately on matching orange zinnias.

And of course all those hard-working honeybees wiggling around in the squash flowers, producing more zucchini than I can eat. It's a busy world, the pollinator world, and we owe it thanks and assistance.

The Pollinator Partnership notes that about 75% of all flowering plants rely on animal pollinators and over 200,000 species of animals act as pollinators. Of those, about 1,000 are hummingbirds, bats, and small mammals. The rest are insects such as beetles, flies, bees, ants, wasps, butterflies, and moths.

Pollinator Week is an annual celebration in support of pollinator health that was initiated and is managed by Pollinator Partnership. Here is the PP's list of suggestions for gardeners who wish to have a pollinator-friendly garden (and who wouldn't?):

• Design your garden so that there is a continuous succession of plants flowering from spring through fall. Check for the species or cultivars best suited to your area and gradually replace lawn grass with flower beds.

• Plant native to your region using plants that provide nectar for adults plus food for insect larvae, such as milkweed for monarchs. If you do use non-native plants, choose ones that don't spread easily, since these could become invasive.

• Select old-fashioned varieties of flowers whenever possible because breeding has caused some modern blooms to lose their fragrance and/or the nectar/pollen needed to attract and feed pollinators.

• Install "houses" for bats and native bees. For example, use wood blocks with holes or small open patches of mud. As little as 12 inches across is sufficient for some bees.

• Avoid pesticides, even so-called "natural" ones such as Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). If you must use them, use the most selective and least toxic ones and apply them at night when most pollinators aren't active. (Kathy's note: Remember that systemic insecticides, such as for roses, move through the plant and can get into the pollen or nectar, harming pollinators drawn to the flowers.)

• Supply water for all wildlife. A suspended milk carton with a pinhole in the bottom is sufficient for some insects. Other wildlife need a small container of water.

• Provide water for butterflies without letting it become a mosquito breeding area. Refill containers daily or bury a shallow plant saucer to its rim in a sunny area, fill it with coarse pine bark or stones and fill to overflowing with water. (Kathy's note: Wine corks work, too, and they don't get as hot as stones.)

Some side notes from me on pollinators:

-- Remember that pollinators such as bees avoid extreme heat, too. During a heat spike, that means vine crops such as squash or melons are not getting pollinated. Take on a pollinator role yourself: Grab a watercolor brush or even a cotton swab and move pollen from the male flower (skinny stalk) to the female flower (tiny squash visible under the flower).

-- Don't deadhead every plant in your garden. Let some of them, especially the herbs, flower for the pollinators to enjoy. Chamomile, basil, parsley and cilantro flowers are some pollinator favorites.

-- Support the UC Davis Bee Haven . This wonderful outdoor museum and educational resource exists entirely on donations and volunteer work.


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Dig In: Garden Checklist

For week of March 19:

Spring will start a bit soggy, but there’s still plenty to do between showers:

* Fertilize roses, annual flowers and berries as spring growth begins to appear.

* Watch out for aphids. Wash off plants with strong blast from the hose.

* Pull weeds now! Don’t let them get started. Take a hoe and whack them as soon as they sprout.

* Prepare summer vegetable beds. Spade in compost and other amendments.

* Prune and fertilize spring-flowering shrubs after bloom.

* Feed camellias at the end of their bloom cycle. Pick up browned and fallen flowers to fight blossom blight.

* Feed citrus trees as they start to blossom.

* Cut back and fertilize perennial herbs to encourage new growth.

* Seed and renovate the lawn (if you still have one). Feed cool-season grasses such as bent, blue, rye and fescue with a slow-release fertilizer. Check the irrigation system and perform maintenance. Make sure sprinkler heads are turned toward the lawn, not the sidewalk.

* In the vegetable garden, transplant lettuce and kale.

* Seed chard and beets directly into the ground.

* Plant summer bulbs, including gladiolus, tuberous begonias and callas. Also plant dahlia tubers.

* Shop for perennials. Many varieties are available in local nurseries and at plant events. They can be transplanted now while the weather remains relatively cool.

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