In the Garden:
Coastal and Tropical South
September, 2011
Regional Report

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Turk's cap hibiscus has nectar to attract both butterflies and tiny pollinators like black ants.

Gardening for Nectar

Gardeners understand well the need to foster pollinators, primarily insects, in our gardens. Choose plants and gardening strategies that will help your garden welcome these most wanted guests by providing the nectar they need.

Employ Best Practices
To bring in the bees, ants, beetles, and the bigger pollen movers including birds and mammals, be sure you are focused on the Big Four of backyard wildlife habitat. You must provide safe places for critters and creatures to rest and nest, ample water, and food sources. One of the main foods in gardens is nectar produced by flowers of all sorts to lure the proper pollinators in for lunch. The plants deliver food and the pollinators happen to collect and distribute the pollen as they go about their business.

The single biggest thing you can do to encourage these behaviors is the gardener's version of the Hippocratic Oath that doctors take; that is, to do no harm. In the garden, that means using few or no pesticides, regardless whether they are synthetic chemical products or from organic sources. The reason pyrethrin, permethrin, or neem will control the aphids in your vegetables is because all are fatal to the insects with small mouth parts, even the ones you'd like to encourage. Occasional use of such products on a few plants is unlikely to have a negative effect on the overall garden. However, if you also use these products across the garden and through the year, as on camellias for scale insects in spring, they are more likely to harm the good guys. The likelihood that a desired pollinator will try to feed on a treated plant and be done in by it goes up dramatically if you use systemic insecticides such as disyston and imitacloprid. Because their effects are intended to be last for months, and can affect much more than their intended targets, they should be used rarely, if at all.

Use the Whole Garden
Too many gardening articles seem to separate the garden into unnatural divisions. The food garden should and does attract butterflies as surely as a formal butterfly garden does, and shrubs in bloom will be covered in bees when the garden is healthy overall. To truly encourage the nectar-feeders to visit your garden frequently, take the holistic view of its potential and use it all. We instinctively fill sunny spaces with flowers, but with some forethought, the shade can be as hospitable to insects. From groundcover liriopes to reed stem orchids, hidden gingers and Mexican petunias, shade can bloom, too.

Visitors to my garden year round note that bees are almost constantly present, and I am pleased to explain my strategy. Years ago I realized that if there is something in bloom every day, even a plant others would consider a weed, the bees and other pollinators will seek it out. I cannot say for certain that my strategy is responsible, but when I need the pollinators to work over the squash or anything else, they are always around in good numbers.

In dry or windy times, the nectar-lovers need plain water as well as the sugary nectars. Some appreciate places to dry out in rainy weather, as well as a spot to bask in the sun. You might add a mister to a water source, use soaker hoses or put out shallow pans of water to offer hydration and lay a flat rock in a sunny spot to create a warm, dry haven.

Planting for Nectar
When it comes to the plants that best attract nectar-feeding insects, variety is the spice of life. Traditionally, we think of tubular red blossoms like those of coral honeysuckle and red bracts of plants such as shrimp plant as ideal for nectar-lovers, and they do bring in hummingbirds and more. But other insects are less dependent on color than they are flower shape and even aromas. Luna moths and other night fliers seek the white tubes of night blooming jasmine, but find their paradise via its wafting scent.

Plant the rainbow of flower colors like a crazy quilt, rather than filling big spaces with one kind of plant or one color. Likewise, vary the heights of plants in the nectar garden to make it as easy for those who crawl as those who fly to reach the goal. Even a space no wider than three feet, like the space between a sidewalk and the street, can use this strategy. Down the center, plant a tall row of mixed winter and summer bloomers such as annual snapdragons and perennial salvias. On either side of them, plant shorter perennials like daylilies with seasonal annuals. It is not just tubular flowers that attract pollinators. Those that creep along, like some ants and beetles, prefer flatter surfaces offered by daisy shapes, and even dragonflies need landing places. This mix of colors, flower shapes, and bloom times will keep the insects coming and the pollen going, all because you gardened for nectar.


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