I recently gave a mini workshop for new Butterfly Garden volunteers and invited newcomers to Lowcountry gardening. I kept it short and simple and talked about four things:
1. Plants that attract pollinators
2. Our soil
It went well so I decided to repeat it as a blog.
First of all – what plants attract pollinators? Well, believe it or not, anything that blooms is a big hit. A study was recently done at Great Dixter, an amazing garden in Kent, England. Insect life was measured in a native wildflower meadow and then again in the Great Border – a mixed herbaceous border of plants and shrubs, but not containing many natives if any. There were more varieties of insects in the Great Border. The key is not just to plant natives, but to encourage biodiversity by planting a variety of flowering plants – natives as well as exotics.
Pollinators tend to like flowers with open daisy like blossoms as you find with Coneflowers or Sunflowers. A notable exception is Cuphea (it has many commons names such as Mexican Firecracker or Mexican cigarette plant) It has candy corn colored tubular flowers and bees and hummingbirds love it.
2. Soil – Our soil tends to be sand on top of heavy clay. It is no wonder that South Carolina had and has a flourishing clay mining industry. Our soil also has quite a bit of Phosphorus in it. If you are going to fertilize, look for a fertilizer with no or little Phosphorus. It is better to enrich or supplement your soil with a good organic compost. I use Mushroom compost available at any big box store. It is inexpensive and tends to be more alkaline which is good because our soil is acidic. Milorganite is a good all purpose fertilizer and best of all, it does not burn if you put on too much.
3. Deer – They are a real problem down here and it seems like every year they add different plants as their most favored buffet item. I have an electric fence because I grow English roses and could not do so without an effective deer barrier. You can do other things to deter deer. The idea is to make your yard inaccessible and not pleasant. Sprays do work, but you have to keep after it and start early in the season when things first begin to sprout. I like “Deer Stopper,” but some people have success with “Scram” or “Bobbex.” Physical barriers like thick hedges or even fishing line strung about a foot off the ground can work. Deer do not like to have their legs tangled.
4. Weeds - Lucky us. We have two distinct seasons of weeds down here—warm weather weeds and cold weather weeds. Spurges tend to grow through both seasons. You have seen Prostrate Spurge creeping in cracks of pavement. Fortunately, they are super easy to pull out. The worst warm weather weed is Chamber Bitter. It starts out as an innocuous looking little tree, but it can grow to six feet. Under the leaves are hundreds of seeds just waiting to explode. Chamber Bitter is everywhere and this past summer saw a bumper crop. In the winter, we have Hairy Bittercress. It loves to ride along in nursery pots when you buy a plant. I always remove at least the top inch of soil in a new purchase to avoid weed seeds. It has tiny little flowers and actually looks quite cute. Warning – it can spread like crazy.
At the risk of sounding deranged, sometimes pulling weeds can be therapeutic. Unless you have a commercial composter picking up your yard waste, do not compost weeds or diseased plant material. Spent plant materials or weeds need to be heated to a certain temperature in order to kill weed seeds or pathogens.
So that is Gardening for Pollinators 101. I do have to say that my garden has never looked this good at the end of October. It must have been those three solid weeks of rain that we had that did the trick.