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Flowers, Fruits, and Frass

Local and statewide information on a variety of current topics for home gardeners and market growers.
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Putting the Pollinator Garden to bed by Karl Hedding

Regardless if you have a pollinator garden or not, that is, for any type of garden, waiting until the spring to cut back plants and cleanup dead plant material provides a hotel for insects to overwinter in and can be a source of seeds for the birds. However, always remove diseased plant material in the fall. Don't compost the diseased material. For example, Bee Balm may have powdery mildew by the end of the summer. Bee Balm is a great plant to have for pollinators so you don't need to remove the plant from your garden, just clean up any diseased plant material.

A high-quality pollinator garden will have both native and non-native plants. Non-native plants (e.g. Japanese Anemone, Lantana, Zinnias, Cosmos) tend to not reseed themselves as readily as native plants. But of course, some will reseed themselves and what applies to native plants applies to them also. Most natives will propagate themselves by seeds. Others will propagate underground. (e.g. Missouri Sundrops, Prairie Coreopsis). Native plants will tend to reseed themselves because they've not been modified by breeders to not reseed themselves.

Native plant propagation is good because you probably need more native plants in your pollinator garden. Pollinator gardens tend to be more successful in an English Country Garden style than in a more formal garden because of the reseeding. You need many plants with many flowers with a high volume of pollen and nectar. A more formal garden will still attract pollinators, but there will be much less pollen and nectar available to them because of the fewer plants and blooms.

It helps greatly if you know your native plants. Then you will know whether to leave the seed heads on until spring or cut them off in the fall. For example, Smooth Aster and Tall Joe Pye Weed will produce many flowers on one plant. You will probably only want one or two in your garden depending on the space you have. You will probably want to cut them back in the fall. On the other hand, one Yellow Coneflower will not produce that many blooms. You need many more of these plants. You may want to wait until spring to cut them back.

Some natives reseed too easily and will require heavy weeding out in the spring if the seed heads are not cut off in the fall – e.g. Golden Alexanders, Hyssops, Obedient Plant. Don't compost these seed heads or your composting area will be taken over by these plants. These plants can crowd out other desirable pollinator plants if left to themselves. Some natives that reseed too readily such as Columbine and some of the Milkweeds need the seed heads cut off when they're done blooming earlier in the growing season. Some natives are annuals such as Canada Anemone. You have to let these reseed if you want plants next season.

Three or more inches of mulch applied in the spring will keep down the number of plants reseeding themselves. You will still get new plants, just not as many as when the mulch is thin or it's bare soil. If you want more reseeding, then keep your mulch thinner, but you will get other undesirable weeds and grass in your garden also. Heavy mulching will encourage the spreading of native plants that propagate underground such as Tall Goldenrod, Missouri Sundrops, and Prairie Coreopsis. Knowing when your native plants bloom can also influence the quantity you want of that plant. Spring and fall bloomers are in highest demand from pollinators.

So, if you know your native plants, you will know the habit of the plant, then you can decide what you want more of and let it reseed itself and what plants you don't need more of and cut off the seed heads. You can transplant the voluntary native seedlings in the spring to where you want them and weed out the rest if you have too many. In my home pollinator garden, it is not possible to have too many Great Blue Lobelia, Blue Vervain, Rattlesnake Master, Royal Catchfly or any of the Beardtongues, Figworts, or Spiderworts. I don't cut off these seed heads until spring. It took me ten years to go from one Large Flowered Beardtongue plant to three plants. They are a challenge to get to propagate in the garden.

After a number of years, you'll reach a point where you have a sufficient number of a particular native plant and you want to limit its spreading. For example, I've reached that point with my Prairie Petunia and Wild Geranium. Cut off those seed heads when you reach that point. You can also harvest your own seeds and try propagating them yourself.

You can tell the quality of your Pollinator Garden by how many new plants the pollinators bring into your garden. For example, this year pollinators added Tall Goldenrod to the Extension Pollinator Garden. Tall Goldenrod is what is growing along the railroad tracks behind the Extension Office. It is an undesirable native plant. Stiff Goldenrod is a better choice. Seedbox is a native plant the pollinators added to my home Pollinator Garden this year.


All Photos by John Hilty

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