Just as in past times of stress and uncertainty, people are turning to gardening. For most, this means starting a vegetable garden, as this is commonly viewed as both an easy entry into gardening and a money saver. Neither is necessarily true, but with well-directed effort the average non-gardening homeowner can soon enjoy all the positive attributes of gardening—good outdoors exercise, connection to the earth and its fascinating and affirming life processes, stress relief, and, of course, delicious, nutritious vegetables fresh from the garden.
So, yes, times of crisis are a fine time to transform that forlorn patch of turf into the fertile and productive mini-farm it has always wanted to become, but I’ll also argue that even in the best of times people should grow more of their own food. We have strayed too far from the simultaneously humbling and uplifting awareness that we depend on the planet, all of its plants and animals, and its miraculously beautiful cycles to provide us food, water, all the other necessities of life, and then some! The minute you start digging in soil and coaxing seeds to germinate and plants to grow, you are firmly, yet gently, reminded of this.
But vegetables can be hard to grow. Over many years, most food-producing plants have been selected away from the original wild plants they once were and molded into plants that better meet the needs and desires of people, but there is a trade-off for this. As people, we have gained greater production, better flavor, longer storage, and some other things. But the plants themselves have lost some of their natural defenses against pests and disease. This is why most of our modern vegetables sometimes require the use of pesticides.
Although there are some cheap, easily obtained, and reasonably safe home pesticides on the market, it is probably fair to say that most homeowners would rather not devote the time, expense, and effort to using them if they don’t absolutely have to, and often use them unnecessarily and unsafely when they do. Fortunately, through good execution of gardening basics, most home gardeners can grow plenty of crops without pesticides and still achieve fresh, healthy, and bountiful harvests.
These gardening basics are pretty simple: improve soil by the addition of organic matter, choose vegetables that perform well in your region, select among those the most highly rated varieties for disease and pest resistance, maintain garden hygiene, fertilize when/if needed, and water when necessary. Oh, and one other thing. Something important that will really amp up your odds of success—include within your vegetable patch (or grow somewhere nearby) a variety of nectar and pollen producing flowers that will consistently bloom from May to October that will attract pollinators.
Apart from pollinating your vegetable plants and ensuring a better harvest, certain types of pollinators will also perform another function that is just as important—pest control. Although you’ll still enjoy them, butterflies and bees are of no use here. Nope. For pest control, you need flies and wasps.
I know exactly what you’re thinking. Ack! Flies? They like garbage, they visit poop, and then land on your deviled eggs at picnics. And wasps? They sting. You are, of course, free to think and say these things, and you wouldn’t be completely wrong if you do, but you also wouldn’t be exactly right. And you definitely wouldn’t be seeing the bigger picture.
First, flies. The Order of flies (Diptera) is massive. Annoying and disgusting household flies are just a tiny few of maybe a million species, and all those many others, some of whom pollinate flowers in our gardens, have absolutely no interest in poop or picnics. Mostly, they just go about doing their good work completely unnoticed because they’re often very small, mistaken for bees which they mimic, or both. But no matter what, we need to appreciate that these “flies” are our allies in the garden!
As adults, they fly flower to flower, sip nectar, transfer pollen, and mate. It is here where the pest control begins, and things get gruesome. After mating, the females lay their eggs on aphids, caterpillars, and other soft-bodied insects, many of whom they find on our vegetable plants, happily helping themselves to foliage and sap. In no time, the eggs hatch, pupae emerge, and immediately proceed to devour their host from the inside out. Warned you. Gruesome!
Some wasps, like flies, feed on pollen and nectar and then lay their eggs in other insects, but some prefer a varied diet and will also feed outright on them. Most “garden-variety” wasps are very small, and, unless you’re looking for them, go virtually unseen. They won’t sting you. You shouldn’t fear them. Nor should you fear the larger wasps in the garden. Many are not even capable of stinging, and even those that can, simply won’t while they are feeding. That is their focus. They cannot be bothered with bothering you. Stings almost always happen when an unlucky person strays too near a nest or steps barefoot on a bee or wasp.
Some other classes of insects, like beetles and true bugs, will also help you keep pest insects in check. Fortunately, the plant diversity you create by planting a variety of flowers (and other plants) favors them similarly, as does eliminating or greatly reducing the use of pesticides.
Here are ten steps to a beautiful and productive Vegetable/Pollinator Garden
- Choose a sunny, reasonably flat site (or make a flat site by terracing a slope).
- Good soil preparation. The only difference? For a vegetable garden, you’ll want more fertility, so work in some extra compost, mushroom compost, or composted manure.
- Select the vegetables that grow well in our region, and, among those, the most highly rated varieties. Your local garden center is a good source for this information, as are your county extension agent, regional vegetable trial gardens often associated with universities, and All American Selections.
- Select a mix of pollinator plants that will provide a continuous bloom from April or May to frost. Often, this is most easily achieved using annuals. You can buy these as plants or seeds. Here are lists of our Zoo’s Best Plants for Pollinators, which you can buy at several garden centers in the Cincinnati region. Here is a list of other good pollinator plants which would be good to include in or near the vegetable garden. Here is information on how to grow pollinator plants from seed.
- Keep the garden weeded by pulling or using a hoe. Mulching lightly with clean straw or pine straw can reduce the need to weed.
- Water when the soil is drying out. Mulching can reduce the need to water.
- Refrain from using pesticides unless absolutely necessary. We suggest consulting with your extension agent when you suspect a pest or disease. If spraying a pesticide is deemed necessary, choose the pesticide that causes the least damage to the environment and beneficial insects. Many times, your beneficial insect populations take a few days to catch up to your pests, but once they do, they quickly clear up the problem.
- Protect your vegetable garden from deer using fencing, and consider raised beds.
- Raised beds make it easier to improve your soil, ensure better soil drainage, allows soil to warm up faster in the spring, and they make it a little easier on the gardener to plant, weed, and harvest.
- Acquire other useful references. We recommend publications by your state’s university extension office, some nonprofits, garden centers, and nearby longtime gardeners. There are also many great books on vegetable gardening.
Most importantly, don’t forget to register your new or expanded veggie/pollinator garden at our Plant For Pollinators Challenge website! And be sure to send us photos of your beautiful and productive veggie/pollinator garden.