Bring pollinators back home to the vegetable garden

Remember when before coming to the New World we had little cottage gardens full of our vegetables, herbs and flowers?

You probably don’t remember. We had other things to worry about in the New World, so cottage gardening went by the wayside in lieu of survival and building new places to live.

Well, we’ve succeeded at building new places to live and conquering the New World, but we haven’t done such a great job of managing our home vegetable gardens like our ancestors did.

Little did we remember when we arrived the reasons why we grew herbs and flowers among our vegetables in our cottage gardens.

The flowers and herbs attracted beneficial organisms that answered the call of the vegetables when under attack from predators. I can hear my garden now in a Shakespearian-Monty Python rendition, “Help!” gasped the tomato plant in its chemical language. “Don’t worry, I’ll save you, but after I get done nectaring on these delicious basil flowers,” declared the parasitoid wasp. Wasps don’t have those skinny waistlines from eating meat and potatoes all day long.

“Where are you, little tomato hornworm? You’re mine now. Death awaits you. I’ll find you and I’ll cast my eggs into you for my babes may feast upon your loins.” I can hear the wasp’s villainous laugh right now. “Ah, my hero,” sighed the tomato plant. The End.

Yes, these types of plays are performed throughout the vegetable garden if you allow it. Meaning, plant some annual flowers and herbs alongside some rows of your vegetables, and you, too, can sit back and enjoy the show.

It’s actually quite simple. Plant cool-season annual flowers alongside your cool-season vegetable plants. Plant warm-season annual flowers alongside your warm-season vegetable plants.

When a vegetable crop has finished producing for the year, replace it with some annual flowers (if not double-cropping vegetables) to keep the beneficial organisms coming. Cut some of the flowers to keep more flowers coming and working for you (give someone a flower arrangement). Allow some of your plants to bolt and flower to attract beneficials. Allow some of your herbs to flower, as well.

Manage your garden cleanup as you normally would since you planted annual flowers. You could absolutely plant some perennials nearby, but don’t plant perennials in your annual vegetable garden. It’s too much work.

Over time, you will have created the best pest management show while maintaining a pesticide-free garden. And since the beneficials may call your vegetable garden “home,” they’ll lay eggs that will keep the cycle going year after year.

Want some added beneficials? Pound some posts in your garden for birds to perch upon as they peer out at the vastness of your vegetables looking for prey of their own. Add a birdbath for the birds or a shallow bath for the pollinators. Put up some birdhouses around the garden. Hopefully, you will attract some songbirds who delight upon eating the “bugs” in your garden.

I have to admit, I do all of the above with some added perennial beds around my vegetable garden, and I am pest-free — no tomato hornworms for me. I have to ask my neighbors for some if I need them for an activity. Now, if I could just get someone to do my weeding for me. That’s the story of my life.

Kirsten Carolson is a biologist and educator who teaches at Ivy Tech Community College in Madison.