This spring, inspired by Jessica Walliser’s Attracting Beneficial Bugs to Your Garden, I’m planting an insectary bed, and it’s turning out to be a blast.
The idea is to devote an area of the garden to plants that provide forage, nectar, or reproductive quarters for native insects, which in turn will help me out by pollinating my flowers and vegetables and keeping leaf-eating competitors in balance. Working from Walliser’s list and the plants recommended by George Adams in Gardening for the Birds, I’ve so far planted native perennials yarrow (Achillea millefolium), swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), bluebell (Campanula rotundifolia), purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), oxeye sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides), garden phlox (Phlox paniculata 'David'), and two New England asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae). For annuals I chose cosmos and sweet alyssum, with sunflowers and zinnias to come. Under lights in my kitchen I grew a bunch of black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) from seed and popped those in around the edges of the bed. I also started monkey flower (Mimulus ‘Magic Blotch’) for the first time and was amazed to see the seedlings flowering about three weeks after I’d planted the seed. I hope they’ll keep it up through the summer.
|Newly planted monkey flower|
We were all sold a bill of goods during my childhood in the fifties and sixties by the makers of garden chemicals. When I started gardening, I had the idea that just about all insects were bad. I liked butterflies and ladybugs, which got good press and didn’t seem scary. My basic paradigm, though, was Gardeners Good, Insects Bad, Plants Defenseless. Now I learn from Doug Tallamy and others that this was all wrong, as well as a vast over-simplification. It turns out that the insect component of a garden ecosystem involves a complicated system of checks and balances, and plants are active players, sending out signals all the time that influence the insects and microbes around them.
Reading Tallamy’s Bringing Nature Home woke me up. He argues convincingly that we humans have taken over almost all the land in the United States and covered it with nonnative vegetation, as well as pavement and buildings. That means there’s little forage or habitat left for the native insects we depend on at the base of the food web that allows us all to eat. I’m not ready to pull out all the nonnative plants in my garden, but I’ve resolved to choose natives whenever a space opens up. My insectary garden is part of this effort. Walliser and others point out that native insects benefit from some nonnative plants, especially as sources for nectar. That’s why I feel OK including zinnias, which originate in Mexico, and an edging of sweet alyssum, which came to us from southern Europe.
The space I'm planting with these insect snacks is part of my designated vegetable-growing area. The half that gets the most sun will still be for edible-podded peas, salad greens, tomatoes, cucumbers and green beans. The other half I’d half-heartedly used as a nursery bed, sinking pots of self-seeded bleeding heart and columbines and divided Siberian irises that I was saving for the PTO plant sale. I have to admit that it got infrequent weeding and looked like quite a mess by the end of last summer (Walliser actually recommends keeping certain weeds for the bugs—I can claim that’s what I was doing).
I’m finding it surprisingly liberating to choose plants for the insectary bed without worrying about a color scheme. This time it’s not about good taste, it’s about tasting good. When I see the garish flower combination that ensues, I’ll probably change my mind and want to revise. Watch this space.