Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Southwestern Deserts
July, 2010
Regional Report

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A hummingbird fuels up at native firecracker penstemon.

Planting for Pollinators

Pollinators are essential for life as we know it on Planet Earth. Bats, birds, bees, butterflies, moths and a host of insect species transfer pollen from flower to flower, making it possible for plants to develop fruits and seeds. About 80 percent of the world's food plants require pollinators to reproduce. Our dining choices would be both meager and dull without the work of pollinators.

Unfortunately, pollinators are facing overwhelming survival pressures. According to the authors of Pollinators of the Sonoran Desert, 200 vertebrate and about 10,000 insect pollinators are at risk worldwide. Loss of habitat and introduction of exotic species (both plant and animal) that out compete natives create a double whammy. Pollinators, such as hummingbirds and butterflies, that migrate long distances rely on "nectar corridors" to sustain them. Native plants growing along the pollinators' traditional migratory routes flower in conjunction with the travel period, creating a tidy symbiotic relationship. The plants provide nectar and pollen to fuel the pollinators, who in turn help the plants to reproduce. As wild habitat and native plants disappear, breaks in the nectar corridors severely threaten the Southwest's unique ecosystems.

You can help fill in gaps in the nectar corridor by adding plants for pollinators in your landscape, creating theme gardens to encourage specific pollinators, such as hummingbirds or butterflies, and encouraging the planting of public parks and schoolyards with appropriate native plants. You'll be rewarded with visits from beautiful and intriguing creatures.

Tips for Creating Pollinator Habitat
Four simple ingredients are required for any wildlife habitat: food, water, shelter and space for nesting. Following are a few ideas to enhance habitat in your yard.

Eliminate pesticide use. Less than five percent of insect species have the potential to be real pests in our gardens. Unfortunately, many pesticides are "broad spectrum" meaning they kill everything, including beneficial pollinators. Most birds, including hummingbirds, are heavily dependent upon insects at some point in their lifespan, so spraying pesticides impacts them as well.

In comparison to many regions, the Southwest is relatively unplagued by garden pests. Instead of automatically reaching for a spray can when you see an insect, adopt Integrated Pest Management (IPM) techniques. IPM is far less complicated than it sounds. Basically, you start with observation, identify the insect, employ easy control methods (such as handpicking hornworms), and advance from least-toxic solutions (soapy water spray) to more toxic methods only as needed. (I'll cover IPM in more detail in an upcoming report.)

Don't manicure plants. Offer shelter by leaving low branches on trees and shrubs. Don't shear shrubs into "cubes and balls" which eliminates cover as well as flowering.

Choose native plants. Native pollinators have evolved with native plants over eons. Non-native plants may be "unrecognized" by creatures, thus are bypassed and offer no sustenance. Choose native species with long bloom periods as well natives with staggered bloom periods over the entire year so there is always something to eat.

My next report will provide a list of attractive native plants to encourage pollinators.

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