Rediscovering Eco-cultural Gardening

Gardening is a very old activity. The word “garden” has its roots in an Old English term meaning “fence” or “enclosure,” and the earliest enclosed outdoor space discovered was created about 12,000 years ago.

We are still learning about gardening.

More accurately, we are rediscovering ideas that earlier gardeners understood thousands of years ago.

One of the earliest ideas, evidently, was that a fence keeps some hungry animals from the vegetables and (later) from the flowers.

The most basic principle for successful gardening is compatibility with Nature. We are advised occasionally that humans developed instinctive behaviors, e.g., Fight or Flight, at an early stage of our history, and evolved to thrive with a diet that consisted of a combination of foods that grew naturally in our local environment.

By the same token, plants and animals evolved over long periods to thrive in specific regions, together with each other. As a result of this co-evolution, we have interdependence between plants and animals that grow naturally within a specific environment. We even have interdependence between those plants and animals and certain aspects of the environment itself.

Ancient civilizations that understood these relationships intuitively gardened—and lived—in harmony with Nature. “Eco-culture” is today’s buzzword for the connection between ecological and cultural practices.

Some aspects of the environment appear not to interact with the plants and animals: the weather, elevation, and sunlight operate under their own rules, but the soil microbiota has close relationships with the flora and fauna.

Gardening is easiest and most successful when we recognize and respect these natural relationships. Good practices include gardening organically and growing plants that are native to the local environment.

The more recent history of gardening, however, has included many attempts to rewrite Nature’s rulebook. For example, as people traveled the globe, they added plants from exotic environments to their gardens and developed adaptive practices, including irrigation systems, greenhouses, and indoor gardening.

Also, as gardeners desired plants that would grow faster or larger, taste better, or look better, they developed hybridizing methods, fertilizers, and pesticides.

Such departures from Nature’s ways are often successful in achieving certain objectives, but they often have negative consequences, as well.

The clearest downside of attempts to “fool Mother Nature” is that gardening requires more time, energy and expense. If you find gardening to be burdensome, try converting to plants that are native to your environment.

When large-scale, commercial gardening (“agriculture”) adopts new technologies, the disruptions of Nature’s processes also grow larger in scale. Widespread applications of synthetic agricultural chemicals are damaging the soil biota, are poisoning the soil, killing birds, bees and butterflies, contributing to climate change and threatening our health.

Historically, ecological traumas began with the Industrial Revolution and accelerated in the 1940’s (with at the start of World War II), particularly in uses of synthetic chemicals.

Today, a growing number of non-profit organizations are sounding alarms about these practices and advocating alignment with Nature’s ways. Consumers increasingly demand organic foods, and intuitively resist genetically engineering foods. These groups and individual gardeners are rediscovering eco-cultural gardening.

Our roots are showing!

More to come: links to consumer-oriented non-profit groups related to eco-cultural gardening.

Here’s a related article (with an inappropriate title), “The dirty little secrets of a Native American garden,” from the San Francisco Examiner.

More Interesting Than Dirt

Gardeners should refer correctly to the essence of our gardens, which is soil, and avoid calling it “dirt.”

Most soils consist of three groups of particles: sand (the largest in size), (clay (the smallest in size) and silt. The percentages of sand, clay and silt determine the texture of the soil. The best soil for gardening, called loam, has nearly equal parts of sand, silt and clay. Soil with this texture has good balance between retaining and draining moisture.

St another level, garden soil is a living environment, an ecological system, with microorganisms, decaying organic matter, earthworms and other insects. Each of these components contributes to the soil’s habitat for flora and fauna. Living soil involves a vast number of interdependent activities, which combine to create a complex and dynamic environment. These functions are enough to keep soil scientists studying for their lifetimes and motivate gardeners to at least appreciate what is going on under the surface of their gardens.

By comparison, dirt might contain a good mix of sand, silt and clay, but lacks any of the organic components of good garden soil. Dirt can be regarded as raw material for conversion to garden soil by adding organic matter (compost); this process will provide food for beneficial microorganisms and support the eventual development of the ecological system.

Dirt with a less than ideal mix of sand, silt and clay often can be improved by adding compost. Adding sand to a clayey soil, or clay to a sandy soil, might seem like a good idea, but it very difficult to create a good mix and usually results in something like concrete. Just add compost.

When we think of things that we cannot live without, many people will list sunlight, air and water, but not include soil, which is the essential fourth contributor to life on earth.

With this in mind, soil scientists from around the world have joined to name 2015 as the International Year of Soils, with the goals to educate the public about the importance of healthy soils. The Global Soils Partnership, which includes the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization <>, The Soil Science Society of America <>, and many other groups, is spearheading these efforts. We are pleased to support this educational initiative.

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The Partnership has identified a theme for the educational activities of each month during 2015. The theme for April is “Soils Clean and Capture Water,” which is timely during California’s current severe drought conditions. As a group, the monthly themes provide an overview of the many ways in which soils support the quality of life on Plant Earth.

  • January – Soils Sustain Life
  • July – Soils are Living
  • February – Soils Support Urban Life
  • August – Soils Support Health
  • March – Soils Support Agriculture
  • September – Soils Protect the Natural Environment
  • April – Soils Clean and Capture Water
  • October – Soils and the Products We Use
  • May – Soils Support Buildings/Infrastructure
  • November – Soils and Climate
  • June – Soils Support Recreation
  • December – Soils, Culture, and People

Each gardener can support the International Year of Soils, in these ways:

All plants respond to good soil!

Gardening to Save the Planet

We are learning about humanity’s many impacts on the near and distant future of our planet. Some people are in denial about these impacts, while others are concerned and ready to do whatever we can to ensure that our Earth will support future generations.

To support and encourage such positive action, leading botanist Peter Raven will visit the UCSC Arboretum next week to meet with UCSC faculty and staff, and present a public talk, “Saving Plants, Saving Ourselves.” Raven will present an informed update on the increasing threats to Earth’s environment, and emphasize the special role of public gardens in conserving plants that could be lost through habitat loss and climate change.

Peter Raven has a long friendship with the UCSC Arboretum, and a national reputation as a conservationist and advocate of global biodiversity: Time magazine hailed him as a Hero of the Planet. His visit to the Monterey Bay area inspires us to reflect on the home gardener’s unique role in saving the planet.

Here are ten everyday practices that gardeners can apply to help sustain the environment and protect plant diversity.

  • Irrigate your garden wisely, using drip technology to deliver water only where needed, and mulch (organic or inorganic) to minimize evaporation and weed growth.
  • Recycle household water into the garden, using plant-friendly soaps and detergents.
  • Prune your acquisitions of consumer goods that bury our landfills and clutter our environment…and that you really don’t need.
  • Propagate plants that Nature’s pollinators (bees and other insects, bats and birds) love and need to survive. Clusters of flowering plants will enrich your landscape.
  • Conserve biodiversity by protecting endangered species and including rare and threatened California native plants in your landscape. (Visit the California Native Plant Society’s website, for info.)
  • Nourish your plants with organic fertilizers, and discontinue uses of artificial chemicals
  • Control plant-eating insects with insect predators and organic insecticides. Use physical barriers and non-toxic deterrents to control other plant-eaters, e.g., snails, gophers and deer,
  • Select plants that are native to California or other summer-dry climates, to enable their healthy growth, support wildlife and ease your gardening workload.
  • Compost the “carbon-rich” fantasies of climate change deniers with the “nitrogen-rich” facts of the world’s scientists to promote wise stewardship of the environment. (Alto, keep all biomass on the property by composting green garden waste!)
  • Cultivate these good practices among your friends and neighbors.

The UCSC Arboretum employs these practices regularly, and assigns high priority to its work in plant conservation.

pt sur Austin and Tim

Click to Enlarge

This photo shows UCSC student Austin Robey and Arboretum volunteer Tim Forsell as they replanted endangered California native manzanita shrubs on a steep slope near the Point Sur State Historic Park and Lighthouse. The Arboretum’s Brett Hall coordinated the conservation project.

Your practices in your own garden also could help to save the planet. A good start would be to attend Peter Raven’s talk..


Registrations for the Peter Raven talk sold out quickly. To receive timely announcements of future events at the Arboretum, visit

If you would like to sponsor an educational event at the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum, contact Jennifer Macotto, 831-427-2998 or

For information on how you could help save a rare species: visit

Poisoning the Pollinators

It’s about time for National Pollinator Week, June 16–23. Check it out at Polllintaor Partnership.

Big agriculture uses many synthetic chemicals. Consumers are concerned by neonicotinoids (“neonics”), which are sprayed on nearly all cornfields, which the U.S. Department of Agriculture projects this year will cover an area equal nearly the size of California.  Neonics also are sprayed on many garden center plants, and are used on seeds used to grow soy, wheat, cotton, sorghum, peanuts and other crops.

These chemicals persist in soils, travel through plants and poison nectar and pollen. USDA scientists found an average of nine pesticides and fungicides in a sample of plants. The contaminated pollen is eaten by hive bees, which pollinate many of the plants we eat, and many wild bees, which pollinate 90% of all flowering plants.

Neonics do not to kill bees, but seem to reduce the bees’ ability to resist infection by a parasitic fungus and could make bees more susceptible to the parasitic Varroa mite. Researchers at Harvard University also suspect that neonics impair honeybee’s memory, cognition or behavior, and damage their ability to navigate back to their hive.

Increasingly, research indicates that neonics contribute to “Colony Collapse Disorder,” which refers to the sudden decline of entire beehives. During the past five years, some 30% of bees in the United States have simply disappeared. This is about 50% greater than the expected rate.

The Environmental Protection Agency now requires that neonic product labels include a bee hazard icon and directions to minimize use where bees and other pollinators could forage, or where sprays could drift to hives or “pollinator attractive habitats.” Sadly, the EPA’s labels do not address neonic-treated seeds, which also affect bees.

In July of 2013, the Saving America’s Pollinators Act (H.R 2692) was introduced. This bill would suspend the use of neonics until proven safe, and harmless to pollinators. Observers give the bill a zero chance to become law.

Meanwhile, the principal producers of neonics, Bayer and Syngenta, insist that CCD is not caused by their pesticides, but by parasites, pathogens, loss of habitat and other factors. Monsanto, which treats its seeds with neonics, joins in these arguments.

As private and public interests clash, home gardeners can help to protect our pollinators:

  • Buy only certified-organic seeds and plant starts.
  • Eliminate synthetic chemical pesticides from your garden.
  • Plant wildflowers to attract and feed bees.
  • Leave part of your landscape natural for solitary-living native bees.
  • Ask your congressman to support the Saving America’s Pollinators Act.

A world without bees means a world without flowers!


Several organizations have posted formation about problems for honeybees.. Interested readers can conduct their own search for “Colony Collapse Disorder” or related search terms.  Here are some websites that I have found to be informative.

For more information for residential gardeners, see the brochure, “Bee Safe Gardening Tips,” by Bee Action and Friends of the Earth.

For a n analysis of the position taken by producers of neonics, see Michele Simon’s well-research report, “Follow the Honey: 7 was pesticide companies are spinning the bee crisis tg protect profits.” This report also is distributed by Bee Action and Friends of the Earth.

Another interesting and useful paper from Friends of the Earth, for home gardeners, is
Gardeners Beware: Bee-Toxic Pesticides Found in “Bee-Friendly” Plants Sold at Garden Centers Nationwide. It should not be surprising that garden centers, especially the big box stores, want to eliminate insects on the plants they sell, and use insecticides for that purpose, but it might be surprising to learn that about half the time those insecticides are toxic to honeybees.

Other websites to check out include the following:

Beyond Pesticides This site is about all pollinators, not just honeybees. In particular, see th recent article “Not Longer a BIG Mystery,” which concludes that there is no longer any ambiguity about the impact of synthetic chemicals on bees and other pollinators.

Melissa Garden A great source of information about Plants for Pollinators and information about bees.  (“Melissa” is a Greek word meaning honeybee.)

The Xerces Society An authoritative —and interesting—site for invertebrate conservation, with a focus on bees and butterflies and other threatened invertebrates,


Apples Without Worms, Part Two

Codling moths are serious insect pests of apples. If your apples have “worms,” you probably have codling moths.

Life Cycle of the Codling Moth

The codling moth’s life cycle has an important stage in the soil or organic debris around the base of your apple tree. The full-grown larvae of the moth, in silken cocoons, overwinter in this environment, and develop into adult moths around mid-March to early April.

The moths fly into the tree to mate and deposit their eggs on the leaves, spurs or immature fruit. They are one-half to three quarters inch long, with a dark band at their wingtips.  They can be difficult to spot because their colors blend with the tree’s bark, and they are active for only a few hours before and after sunset.

The eggs hatch in early to mid-May, and the young larvae tunnel into the core of the fruit and eat their fill, leaving behind reddish-brown frass (insect waste).

After they develop fully, the larvae drop from the fruit and tree to continue their life cycle in the soil or debris at the base of the tree.

A second generation often occurs in cooler coastal environments such as the Monterey Bay area, with the new group of young larvae attacking the fruit in mid-July.

Management of the Codling Moth

Organic pesticides for home gardeners are CYD–X Insecticidal Virus, which infects and kills the larvae of codling moths, and Spinosad, which is a nerve and stomach poison derived via fermentation from naturally occurring bacterium. These products might be found in a garden center; or can be ordered from or other online sources.

Apply insecticide sprays as the eggs hatch and the larvae begin to attack the fruit and make the first “sting” (a tiny mound of frass on the fruit, marking a larva’s entry).  Timing can be tricky, because temperature and other factors affect the moths’ schedule. For example, mating occurs only when sunset temperatures exceed 62 degrees Fahrenheit.

A Good Reference

The primary source of information for today’s column is the University of California publication, “Codling Moth: Integrated Pest Management for Home Gardeners and Landscape Professionals.” For additional approaches to management of these pests, download this free publication at

Managing an established population of codling moths will require both insecticide sprays and additional methods. For example, sanitation, always a good practice, involves promptly removing infested and dropped fruit.

Eating a fresh apple from your own tree can be delightful, but you might have to compete with the wildlife.


Here is one of several Spinosad products that have been formulated and packaged for home gardening. This products is available in gardens centers and online from Peaceful Valley ,

Monterey Garden Spray Concentrate – Spinosad (Pint)
$19.99 + $9.99 shipping

pbi800-aSpinosad for home gardeners Use on vegetable and fruit crops, ornamentals, and turf to control caterpillars as well as beetles, leafminers, thrips, Colorado potato beetles, fire ants and more! Use 4 Tbs/gal water. Spinosad insecticides are nerve and stomach poison derived via fermentation from naturally occurring bacterium Saccharopolyspora spinosa. New chemistry represents an alternative to Bt for worm control and offers excellent control of targeted pests and low toxicity to non-target organisms, including most beneficial insects. Low mammalian toxicity, helps conserve beneficials.

Apples Without Worms

Each year, around now, I plan to spray my four small apple trees and indulge my optimistic vision of harvesting apples that are beautiful, tasty and—most of all—free of worms.

My apple trees include a small Fuji, a Gala espalier, a second espalier with eight familiar varieties of apple and my prize: a dwarf Cox’s Orange Pippin, originally from England. Here is Wikipedia’s description:

“Cox’s Orange Pippin is highly regarded due to its excellent flavour and attractive appearance. The apples are of medium size, orange-red in colour deepening to bright red and mottled with carmine over a deep yellow background. The flesh is very aromatic, yellow-white, fine-grained, crisp and very juicy. Cox’s flavour is sprightly sub-acid, with hints of cherry and anise, becoming softer and milder with age…One of the best in quality of the English dessert apples; Cox’s Orange Pippin may be eaten out of hand or sliced.”

The worms that ruin these great apples annually are the larvae of the codling moth (Cydia pomonella).

My usual plan of attack has been to spray the tree three times with horticultural oil, before it sets buds, to smother insects as they hatch. I have never accomplished this task in a timely and thorough manner, and never had satisfactory results.

This year, I learned that horticultural oil treatment can eliminate aphids, but has no impact on codling moths or other pests that attack the fruit. A fruitless strategy!

I mentioned my concern this week to a member of the California Rare Fruit Growers, who said he has a detailed regimen for treating the soil around his trees, has never sprayed and has no pest problems. At the moment, I couldn’t write down his method and it seemed like a long-term process anyway, so I researched the issue.

Valuable advice is available from Michael Phillips’ highly regarded book, The Apple Grower: A Guide for the Organic Orchardist (2nd edition, 2005). He advocates treating the soil to promote the development of fungi that help trees to deal with pests and diseases. This might be the method practiced by my CNGF contact.

Apple farmers use two effective new organic products: Surround, a spray that coats apples with insect-repelling kaolin clay, and Entrust, based on Spinosad, a poison that is derived from naturally occurring bacterium. These products are sold in commercial quantities for licensed users.

Spinosad is also available in smaller quantities for usage by unlicensed home gardeners, in Captain Jack’s Dead Bug Brew, Green Light Lawn & Garden Spray with Spinosad 2, Monterey Garden Insect Spray and other products.


Entrust, a Spinosad product, is available only in larger quantities for commercial fruit growers. Here is an example of one such product, Entrust.

Entrust 80 WP – Spinosad (1 LB) – PBI400


Entrust - Spinosad

$599.00  This product qualifies for $9.99 flat rate shipping in the Continental US.

This is a special order item. Please call 888-784-1722 to place an order.

This product is not registered for sale in the following states: PR

Pesticide ID # is required for all CA commercial growers AND all Nevada County, CA residents

Spinosad insecticides are nerve and stomach poison derived via fermentation from naturally occurring bacterium Saccharopolyspora spinosa. New chemistry represents an alternative to Bt for worm control and offers excellent control of targeted pests and low toxicity to non-target organisms, including most beneficial insects. Low mammalian toxicity, helps conserve beneficial insects.

Dry formulation of spinosad labeled for cole crops, corn, cucurbits, fruiting and leafy vegetables, pome fruits, potatoes, stone fruits, strawberries, bushberries and cranberries. Controls caterpillars, certain beetles, thrips and leafminers, including many pests prone to resistance problems such as diamondback moth, cabbage looper, fall armyworm and Colorado potato beetle. For Colorado potato beetle, use only every other year to help prevent resistance.

Apply .5 – 2 oz per acre.

Note: At the recommended application rate, one pound of Entrust would be enough for on treatment for between eight and thirty-two acres of crops. Other information sources indicate that multiple treatments may be required, because the coating can be rubbed or washed off easily.

Happily, Spinosad products are available in both commercial quantities and smaller quantities for home gardens. See the following essay: “Apples Without Worms, Part 2”


Surround, a spray based on kaolin clay, seems interesting for commercial fruit growers, but appears not to be available (yet) in quantities that are appropriate for small orchards in a residential garden. Here is an example of a commercial product:

Surround WP (Kaolin Clay)

$37.50/25 lb. bag at Planet Natural.

Made from modified kaolin clay, Surround WP Crop Protectant is sprayed on as a liquid, which evaporates leaving a protective powdery film on the surfaces of leaves, stems and fruit. Controls a long list of insect pests on vegetables, fruit trees, ornamental plants s and more. OMRI Listed for use in organic production.

Surround works to protect plants and deter insects in three specific ways:

  1. Tiny particles of the kaolin clay attach to insects when they contact it, agitating and repelling them.
  2. Even if the particles do NOT attach to their bodies, the insects find the coated plant/ fruit unsuitable for feeding and egg-laying.
  3. The protective white film cools plants by up to 15° Fahrenheit, which can help to reduce heat and water stress. Many fruits show improved color, smoothness and size with less russet, dropping, sunburn and cracking.

DIRECTIONS FOR USE:        Application rates are dependent on the amount of foliage
that needs to be covered. Mix 1/4 to 1/2 lb. per gallon of water (25 to 50 lb. per 100 gallons of water per acre). May be applied up to the day of harvest.

Active Ingredient:            Kaolin ….. 95.0%
Inert Ingredients:              5.0%


Surround WP Kaolin Clay – Insect Repellent

Description         Surround W. P. is made from 95% kaolin clay, a naturally occurring mineral. When applied to fruit trees, crops, and other plants, it forms a white film. Surround suppresses a wide range of pests, especially those that damage fruit crops including pears, apples, grapes, berries, and some vegetables. It can be applied up to day of harvest and is easily rubbed off when the fruit or produce is ready to eat.

Surround can help control pests such as: pear psylla, cutworms, pear midge, pear slug, apple sucker, climbing cutworm, eastern tent caterpillar, gypsy moth, Japanese beetle, June beetle, grasshoppers, green fruit worm, leafrollers, lygus bug, Mormon cricket, cicada, stink bug, tarnished plant bug, thrips, fabria leafspot, apple maggot, codling moth, plum curculio, rose chafer, aphids, naval orangeworm, husk fly, blueberry maggot, blackberry psyllid, flea beetles, orchards, grape leaf skeletonizer, bean leaf beetle, Mexican bean beetle, powdery mildew, cucumber beetle, boll weevil, armyworm, black vine weevil, and fruit flies.

How it works      Insects are repelled by Surround. It sticks to their body parts and encourages them to move on elsewhere. At harvest time, the white film can be removed simply by rubbing off.

General usage:     Use in orchards, fields, vegetable gardens.

  1. Directions for use:           Using a backpack sprayer:
    Mix 1/4 to 1/2 pound (approximately three cups) of Surround WP per one gallon of water. If your sprayer is not easy to shake, premix in a container and pour the mixture into your sprayer
  2. Add the powder slowly to approximately 1/4 of the water you will be using, stir and mix well by shaking vigorously for 30 seconds.
  3. Add the remaining water and shake for an additional 30 seconds.
  4. Shake the sprayer occasionally during application.
  5. When finished, spray until the sprayer is empty and flush the system. Leftover mix can be used within 2 weeks to avoid spoilage. Rinse the sprayer before the next batch.

Advisories          Do not apply directly to water, or to areas where surface water is present or to intertidal areas below mean high water mark.

Application rates    General rate varies between 25 – 50 pounds per 100 gallons of water. Amount of water used will depend on amount of foliage to be treated.

Apple half-treated with kaolin clay

Apple with Kaolin Clay



Saving the Bees

The puzzle of recent years—what’s killing the bees?—appears to be close to solution.

Scientists have said that the cause of the bees’ mysterious Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) could be a combination of factors. The possible explanations, however, always include uses of pesticides that have some beneficial effects in agriculture, but that are toxic to both bumblebees and honeybees.

Both kinds of bees are essential to the success of about one-third of U.S. food crops. As the bees die, our food supply is subject to very serious threat.

Increasingly, the focus is on neonicotinoids, a class of chemicals that are used as systemic insecticides in both commercial agriculture and residential gardening.

This year, an estimated 500,000 bees were found dead or dying in Oregon. Ironically enough, this largest known incident of bumblebee deaths, occurred during National Pollinator Week, an annual celebration of the valuable ecosystem services provided by bees, birds, butterflies, bats and beetles.

The Oregon Department of Agriculture soon confirmed that a neonicotinoid insecticide, dinoterfuran, caused the bee die-off and announced a temporary ban on its applications on landscape trees and shrubs, nursery and greenhouse plants, turf grass, forests and agricultural crops.”

Despite the growing evidence of the negative impact of these pesticides on bee populations, and the European Commission’s continent-wide suspension of neonicotinoids, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been looking for other explanations of CCD and has established a 2018 deadline for completing its reviews of the major neonicotinoids.

Earlier this year, commercial beekeepers and environmental groups petitioned the EPA to suspend uses of these pesticides, and, early in July 2013, a coalition of environmental groups urged President Obama to direct the EPA to follow the European Commission’s lead by suspending uses of neonicotinoids.

This is high drama, indeed, with great consequences for our food supply and our gardens as well. There are of course several sides to significant issues, and this one is no different. Restricting applications of widely used synthetic chemical pesticides will impact farmers’ practices and constrict the revenue streams for manufacturers of agricultural chemicals. It will be interesting to see what arguments they will devise to justify the systematic killing of a critically important group of farmworkers: the honeybees.

To help save the bees, do your homework.

• Download and read “Bee Protective Habitat Guide” (www.beyond This free publication provides information on CCD and pollinator-friendly flowers.

• Download and read “Help the Honeybees: A List of Pesticides to Avoid”  ( This is another free publication with a surprising list of popular pesticides that contain neonicotinoids.

• Take the Pesticide-Free Zone Pledge and post a Pesticide-Free Zone sign in your garden ( Bees and other beneficial insects) will thank you!


Here are several websites with up-to-date information on CCD and related topics, e.g., pesticides.

Beyond Pesticides

Center for Food Safety

Melissa Garden

The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation

Pacific Horticulture’s “Pollinators: An information and Action Guide for West Coast Gardeners” (scroll to the end of the article to click on “Pollinator Projects for Citizen Scientists”

Here is a 4:25 video clip of Nature’s pollinators at work: The Beauty of Pollination.




Attract Pollinators to Your Garden

Synthetic chemicals have a variety of garden uses: adding nutrients to the soil (or directly to plants), discouraging/killing harmful insects and other small pests, and protecting plants from viruses, fungi and other scourges.

These benefits, however, come with downsides, including destroying microorganisms in the soil and beneficial insects, accumulating salts in the soil, and harming (or worse) pets and gardeners themselves. And there’s more, too much to review in this column.

Our present focus is on the harm that synthetic chemicals bring to insect pollinators: honeybees, native bees (which are different) and butterflies. Concerned scientists and citizen scientists have recorded significant population declines among these pollinators, and have pointed to pesticides as the likely cause of these declines.

Our gardens need these pollinators. They are essential in sexual reproduction of plants, including the development of fruits, vegetables and berries, all of which bear seeds, and both natural and human-directed hybridization of plants.

There are also asexual forms of plant reproduction, to be sure, but we’re concerned here with the pollinators.

The first priority in attracting pollinators to your garden is to adopt organic gardening methods, i.e., no synthetic chemicals. Safe organic products are available to address any gardening need, and integrated pest management (IPM) strategies work better and cheaper in the long run than the quick fixes of synthetic chemicals.

The next important priority is to plant more flowers as food resources for bees and butterflies. An excellent resource this subject is The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, a non-profit organization. The Society offers reliable information on all aspects of attracting pollinators.

The Society’s guidelines for California gardeners get to the point:

  • Use local native plants (bees prefer them);
  • Choose several colors of flowers (blue, purple, violet, shite and yellow are good; pink and red not so much);
  • Plant flowers in clumps (a four-foot wide clump of one flower is much better than a scattering of the same number of plants);
  • Include flowers of different shapes (bees come in different sizes and different preferences);
  • Have a diversity of species flowering all season (both the bees and you will appreciate having flowers for most of the year).

Another helpful resource is The Melissa Garden: A Honeybee Sanctuary, which is located in Sonoma County. The owners offer an extensive list of plants that attract bees, and offer tours and classes in beekeeping, attracting pollinators, and related topics. “Melissa” is from the Greek word for honeybee.

Visit for links to The Xerces Society, the Melissa Garden and other resources for attracting pollinators to your garden, as well as for information on organic gardening and integrated pest management.

As you add flowering plants to your garden, choose some for the bees and butterflies.


The Xerces Society

Melissa Garden

Attracting Pollinators to Your Garden Using Native Plants

Organic Gardening: There are many books and magazines on this subject. A classic in the field is Maria Rodale’s Organic Gardening: Your Seasonal Companion to Creating a Beautiful and Delicious Organic Garden (Rodale Press, 1998)

Integrated Pest Management The University of California’s Integrated Pest Management program is a valuable resource for California  gardeners. Another useful resource is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s webpage on IPM Principles.