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  • Andy Davis

"Vegetable gardening" for pollinators - why isn't this a thing?

Hi folks, today's blog post will be a bit of a divergence from the usual science-y stuff, so you won't really need your thinking caps on for this one. Today I'm going to take everyone on a bit of a "photographic journey" from my own yard this year, and more specifically, of my own vegetable garden! I know, this is a little self-serving, but in fact there is an important message here, and one that relates to insects and pollinators - something we all know and love (in addition to monarchs).

So in case you hadn't figured it out, yes, I'm a backyard vegetable gardener. I have been for many years, thanks to my dad, who was one too. It's a great hobby/pastime - it gets me exercising, it provides my family with healthy food, and it teaches my kids where there food comes from. This past year, I made a long-overdue upgrade to my garden, and it paid off not only in produce, but also, in insect abundance, which is why I'm writing this. In short, I got to thinking, why this (vegetable gardening) isn't a thing in the world of homeowner insect conservation? Where are the newspaper and magazine articles talking about this? Why aren't are the insect conservation groups talking about it? Does no one know about this? Maybe this is where this blog will come in. Today I'm going to describe how my backyard hobby turned into a boon for the pollinators, critters and birds in my yard, and, why you should do this too.

Let me start by pointing out what changed this year. I've always had a small veggie garden, but this year we made a change and "moved" the garden from a small spot in the backyard (that didn't get much light) to the front yard, in a spot that was basically just the front lawn, but which gets full sun all day. That's right, I dug up the lawn for this! I had a neighbor come in with a tractor and till it all up early this spring. After that, I put in some fencing to keep out the deer, plus installed a spigot and watering system. I think the entire garden from corner to corner was about 50ft by 40ft. I think this is the perfect size for one homeowner.

After a final till of the soil I got to work planting. This was late-February! Here in Georgia people can plant three crops per year, starting with an early crop of cold-tolerant veggies in the spring, then some summer (heat-tolerant) crops, and then some cool fall crops too. Those of you up north likely have only one growing season, though there is no reason why this idea would not carry over to your region.

Here are a few pictures of the garden development, that I took along the way

In the below picture, the garden fence is up and the first crops are starting to come up. You can see the early stages of the green beans, potatoes, lettuce, and peas. This was April.

By late-April and May, the garden was filling in, and I was already getting produce.

Next are a few shots of the many crop-picking efforts, in no real order. I picked a LOT of veggies over the year! It was way more than I could eat, and so I was giving lots away too.

I guess you can see how the garden was a big success this year, in terms of veggies for us!

OK, so now that I've pointed out how much I benefitted from this garden, let me also point out how the insects in the yard benefitted too! I have fewer pictures of this part, but, I can tell you that each of the veggie plants in the garden had a flowering stage, which by definition, requires pollination. And, from what I saw, there were lots of pollinators in the garden all year! I saw lots of honeybees, tones of bumblebees, and, lots of butterflies and skippers, all on the flowers of the veggies. Importantly, I also saw lots of other non-pollinators, like crickets, flies, soil arthropods, and even spiders in the garden. And before you ask, of course, I did not use any pesticides or chemicals - all insects were welcome. At one point there was a baby bunny! The really cool thing is that because of all of these insects and bugs, I saw lots of birds going in and out of the garden all summer. I assume they were eating the bugs. This tells me that they were foraging in the garden to find food for their own babies.

In short, my veggie garden was a thriving ecosystem!

(Picture above is of some bumbles using the many blooms of a luffa plant!)

The other thing I noticed was that some of the plants I grew were also serving as hostplants for certain Lepidoptera, like long-tailed skippers, which used my green beans. I saw dozens and dozens of these butterflies every time I was picking beans, and sometimes, even saw the larvae in the beans (I left those on the vine). Based on the number of larvae I saw I estimated that my garden produced well over 100 larvae of just this one species. Some of these probably became tasty snack for the birds, and some probably went on to become butterflies, to carry on the population. Aside from that, there were tones of leaf-legged bugs (which some people despise), and even more flies.

Did I mention the spiders? There were many orb-weavers and webs throughout the garden, who were eating the many bugs. There were also non-orb-weavers, like crab spiders, wolf spiders, and others that were making a living crawling on the plants or soil.

(this picture is my favorite)

Keep in mind that none of these animals and bugs would have been there if the veggie garden was not there. That front lawn was doing absolutely nothing for the insects! So in other words, in creating a veggie garden, I had also created an ecosystem.

I guess at some point this year I started wondering, if backyard (or frontyard) veggie gardens are so good at promoting and supporting pollinator, insect and wildlife populations, AND, if they do this all while providing healthy, organic food for humans, then WHY IN THE WORLD ARE WE NOT TELLING PEOPLE TO DO THIS to support pollinators? Everyone has been consumed with creating waystations, butterfly gardens or pollinator-friendly yards lately, but if you think about it, the same spaces that people are using for their "pollinator gardens" could be used for growing veggies which would also support pollinators. Or, why aren't people mixing veggie plants in with their pollinator gardens? That would be brilliant; since veggies require pollinators to produce, then having lots of pollinator-attracting flowers near your veggies would be a win-win.

Also consider this, that people who garden for pollinators tend to have green thumbs anyway, and, they tend to have a lot of garden tools and equipment. They also probably already shop for plants in nurseries, which tend to also have veggie plants. And, they probably have already invested in garden hoses, or irrigation, for their flower gardens. So in other words, most "butterfly gardeners" already have the tools and know-how to become "veggie gardeners!"

So really, I have no idea why this isn't a thing!

OK, nuff said. I hope this post was inspiring to you, and gave you lots to think about over this winter. Thanks for reading! I'll get back to some science in the coming weeks.



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The science of monarch butterflies

A blog about monarchs, written by a monarch scientist, for people who love monarchs

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