Buzzers, Bees and Birds

Buzzers, Bees and Birds

“Our nearly universal animosity toward insects is understandable, but seriously misplaced. Of the 4 million or so insect species on earth (to put things in perspective, there are only about 9500 species of birds), a mere 1 percent interact with humans in negative ways. The other 99 percent of the insect species pollinate plants, return the nutrients tied up in dead plants and animals to the soil, keep populations of insect herbivores in check, aerate and enrich the soil, and as I keep stressing, provide food either directly or indirectly for most other animals. John Losey and Mace Vaughan (2006) have valued the ecosystem services provided by insects at $57 billion each year. As E.O. Wilson (1987) has pointed out, insects have done a fine job on this earth without humans and would continue to do so in our absence. If insects were to disappear, however, our own extinction would not be far behind. It may be hard to admit, but we need healthy insect populations to ensure our own survival.” from Bringing Nature Home: How you can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants by Douglas Tallamy.

So let’s show them some love! I am excited to report that this week I saw an assassin beetle (feed on mostly insect larvae) and a ground beetle (feed on a variety of pest caterpillars) helping me out. It’s better than a sic-fi movie, the garden drama, right? There was also a damsel fly perched in a delightful way atop the curve of the bird feeder. So awesome.

Why does a garden designer care about this? Because part of what I do is educate my clients–and hopefully many of you–on how to have the healthiest garden, as well as the most beautiful garden, for yourselves and for your community close and far. A not so distant newsletter discussed how indiscriminate spraying can be very harmful; this newsletter is about some of my favorite buzzing guests (two above) and why they feel welcome in my garden because of what I have planted to attract and feed them. So before you spray anything, even anything classified as organic, give nature a chance to do the work. If your plants are strong and healthy, they have a good chance of standing up to an attack and you will be surprised at how quickly and efficiently predatory insects will do the job. A few years back in a different garden I had an invasion of Oriental beetles. They were eating nearly everything. A day or so later, in came the Praying mantis and they made extremely short work of things. Thank you very much.

Birds are a help too, as they feed on aphids, grasshoppers, insect eggs and other pests. If you provide nesting boxes, shrubs to shelter them, will express their gratitude with some insect management.

1. Butterfly weed. The name really says it all, but in addition to it’s true and fabulous orange color, this is the only food for the Monarch butterfly. The plant is sometimes short lived, but I have seen it grow with vigor for a long time in the border of the Haddon Heights community garden. Note: while Butterfly Bush will attract butterflies to feed, no butterfly will lay eggs on it as the plant does not provide food for butterfly caterpillars. This is important to know because insects feed on different plants and different life stages which is why you should not freak-out when you see some nibbles on a few leaves of your plants.

2. Buttonbush. If you have room in a larger planting bed, this native shrub is a magnet for a huge variety of insects, including bees and butterflies. in addition, I like this shrub for the glossy green leaf with a tint of red, so it works in the design. Plus its “Sputnik” like flowers are a real curiosity. There is actually a variety of this plant called “Sputnik,” hence the name; I have the “garden variety” in my mixed border.

3. Black-eyed Susans. Not only are these a high summer favorite, they are food for butterflies. And they are just one of the cheeriest flowers going.

4. Echinacea. I love to watch a butterfly step with its long, delicate legs across the thistly tops of this plant.

5. Summer sweet. There is a gal at one of the wholesale nurseries I patron who told me she has a customer who calls her “Summer Sweet.” Now I would call THAT a compliment. I use this plant a lot in my design work as there is much to love about it. It is turning it on big-time right now with a delicious honey fragrance and the bees have been all over it. Autumn color is butterscotch yellow.

Feeding the birds. Aside the insects in a garden, berries provide important food for our bird friends. Many of these plants are garden all-stars as well.

1. Viburnums. Robins (even though generally worm and bug eaters will eat this, too), thrushes, bluebirds, cat birds and cardinals will eat Viburnum berries. I like many varieties of viburnums but one favorite is arrow wood viburnum with a deep, purple berry. I also like Witherod, a cultivar called “Winterthur” is a bit more compact for the suburban garden; it has pink and purple berries.

2. Deciduous holly. Mine always come into berry just at the precise time the birds start their migration so the plants are picked clean in a matter of days. That’s ok; I like that I’m giving them fuel for the road.

3. Flowering dogwood. This has to be one of our most beautiful native trees and the berries are food for birds and squirrels. The berries on mine are forming now and will be ripe in about another month or so, marking the end of the summer season. Sigh.

4. Chokeberry. Terrible name for a really fantastic plant. Great foliage with bright orange fall color and deep purple berries.  I would like to see more folks utilize this shrub in the garden. This is part of the community garden native plant border as well and it looks amazing right now. L-O-V-E it.

Can you safely plant any of these now? You bet! Just because it’s hot, doesn’t mean you can’t–you just need to be extra mindful about watering schedule.

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