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If you are having trouble with your vegetable and fruit plants failing to produce, chances are very good that what your plants are lacking are pollinators. Without insect pollination, many food plants that we grow in our gardens cannot complete the pollination process and therefore, will not produce fruits or vegetables.
All plants require pollination in order to make seeds and fruit, but sometimes Mother Nature, or even we gardeners, can prevent plants that need pollinators from getting the pollination that they need.
What is Insect Pollination?
Many types of animals are part of the pollination process. Some of these include bats, birds and even land mammals, but the most common pollinators are insects. Insect pollination is crucial to most gardens and is as simple as insects like bees, butterflies and wasps flying from flower to flower in order to collect nectar. In the process, pollen collects on their bodies and rubs off on other flowers that they visit. This fertilizes the flower and the plant will then grow seeds and the fruit around the seeds.
Unfortunately, many things can interrupt the insect pollination process. Too much rain or too much wind can keep pollinators from being able to reach a plant and its flowers. A gardener may also be putting pesticides on their plants to keep away the damaging bugs, but these pesticides will also kill beneficial insects and keep them out of the garden as well.
For urban gardeners who may be gardening on high balconies or indoors, insect pollinators simply can’t reach the plants and flowers where they are located.
Food Plants That Rely on Pollinators
Only 10 percent of all flowering plants do not rely on pollinators for pollination, which means the rest require pollination with help from outside forces. Some examples of common food plants that need pollinators are:
- Summer Squash
- Hard Squash
Without pollination, these food plants that rely on pollinators cannot produce the fruits that we eat.
Tips to Improve the Pollination Process in your Garden
If you find that your food plants are not producing fruit and you suspect that that a lack of pollination is causing it, you can do a couple things to improve insect pollination in your yard.
Stop Using Insecticides
Imperfect fruits and vegetables are better than no fruits and vegetables. Many insecticides kill all insects, both bad and good. Do not use insecticides on food plants that rely on pollinators. Instead, try using bug controls such as predatory insects or bacteria that are specific to the bad bugs that are causing the damage to your garden. Or, simply accept that a small portion of your crops will be lost to insect damage, which is a small price to pay in exchange for getting any fruit at all.
Don’t Use Overhead Watering
Overhead watering is when you use a sprinkler to water your garden. If you water your garden like this, especially if you water in the morning and evening when insect pollinators are most active, this can create the same sort of conditions as too much rain, which will keep pollinators away. Do not use overhead watering on food plants that rely on pollinators. Instead, use drip irrigation at the base of the plant. Not only will you get more pollinators in the garden, but your plants will absorb more of the water.
Plant a Pollinator Garden
Planting a pollinator garden will attract pollinators to your yard, and while they are in the pollinator garden, they will also visit the plants in your vegetable garden. You can find directions for planting a pollinator garden here.
If Mother Nature is sabotaging your insect pollination with too much rain or too much wind, or if you are gardening in a location pollinators can’t get to, like a high rise, a greenhouse or indoors, you can hand-pollinate plants that need pollinators. Simply take a small paintbrush and swirl it inside a flower and then, much like a normal insect pollinator, move from flower to flower gently swirling the brush inside the flowers. This process is a little tedious but worth the time if natural pollinators are not available.
Why Pollinators are Important & How We Can Help
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NOTE from Matt & Betsy: Today we’re thrilled to share content with you from one of our brand new writers! Please join us in welcoming Emry Trantham, whose passion and interest in the DIY lifestyle attracted us to her. We hope you enjoy the fabulous articles she’ll be contributing to DIY Natural!
Prior to the last few years, I hardly remember hearing the word “pollinators” outside of a few science lessons in middle school. Now that I’m more immersed in the world of gardening, though, it’s a term with which I’ve become quite familiar.
Between the ever-mysterious Colony Collapse Disorder affecting honeybees and general habitat destruction for most other pollinators, all of us are hearing about pollinators more frequently than ever before. We’re beginning to realize that pollinators are in trouble, and their future is in our hands. We can’t live in a world without pollinators, but the good news is that every one of us can help make this world a better place for them to live.
Why Pollination and Pollinators are Important
Pollination, quite simply, is the way many plants reproduce. Since plants are immobile, they require assistance with their reproduction, and that’s where pollinators come in. They take pollen from one plant to another, thereby making plant reproduction possible.
Pollination isn’t necessary to make flowers grow and bloom, but it is necessary for many plants to grow fruit. If many plants aren’t properly pollinated, they cannot bear fruit or produce new seeds with which to grow new plants. On a small scale, a lack of pollination results in a fruitless tree on a large scale, it could mean a shortage to our food supply.
Not all the foods we eat require pollinators, but many of them do. Here are just a few of the foods that we wouldn’t be able to enjoy without pollinators:
If you try to eat a whole foods diet, you’re probably aghast at the thought of losing those foods. Most of these are on my grocery list every week, and they’re vital to a balanced diet. And, seriously, what would we make our green smoothies with if we didn’t have coconut milk and blueberries?
Types of Pollinators
You probably already know that honeybees are pollinators, but you may not know that they aren’t even native to North America. In fact, they were imported from Europe in the 17th Century. (Source 3) While honeybees are certainly an important part of American agriculture today, they are far from being the only pollinators that we depend on. Other pollinators include:
- Mason Bees
- Mosquitoes (that’s right, mosquitoes)
With a list so diverse, you might be surprised that we are facing a shortage of pollinators. How can so many seemingly unrelated creatures be in trouble at the same time? The answer to that is complex.
Why Pollinators Need Our Help
One of the biggest obstacles that pollinators are facing today is the use (and misuse) of certain pesticides. Pesticides in and of themselves aren’t new we’ve been using them for generations. Why are they just now affecting the pollinators so negatively? That has to do with the type of pesticides we are using now, many of which are “neonicotinoids.” That’s a long, hard-to-prounounce word used to describe a class of pesticides that were at first considered improvements over older, more toxic pesticides.
When the neonicotinoid class was registered with the Environmental Protection Agency in 1984, the pesticides were lauded for being less toxic to mammals than many of their predecessors. However, we are beginning to see now that they are affecting pollinators in drastic ways. According to the EPA, “…neonicotinic residues can accumulate in pollen and nectar of treated plants and may represent a potential exposure to pollinators. Adverse effects data as well as beekill incidents have also been reported, highlighting the potential direct and/or indirect effects of neonicotinic pesticides” (Source 1).
With the increase of neonicotinoid pesticide usage has come a decrease in healthy pollinators. (If you’re interested in more information about neonicotinoid usage and how it affects pollinators, please visit The Xerces Society.)
While pesticides are part of the reason that pollinator populations are in decline, there are certainly other aggravating factors. Habitat loss is another issue facing our pollinators. Perfectly weedless, well-mowed lawns have taken the place of flowered meadows and woodland borders. Native vegetation is being replaced with non-native landscaping. The human world is ever-expanding, ever-growing, ever-destructing. When we remove food-sources and nesting sites for pollinators, we make it harder for them to thrive. This is especially harmful to migratory species that often travel thousands of miles between their habitats. When food sources are few and far-between, many insects are less likely to make the distance. (Unfortunately for pollinators, they can’t bring their homemade energy bars, trail mix and BPA-free water bottles with them when they travel.)
How We Can Help
I know the future doesn’t look great for pollinators. They’re being slowly weakened and killed off by pesticides, they’re losing their natural habitats, and their numbers are decreasing like never before. And certainly, the gravity of this situation cannot be underestimated.
But there is good news, too. We humans have put the pollinators in this position, and we can and will help get them out of it. An action so seemingly small as planting a pollinator garden can make all the difference for the pollinator population in your backyard, and next week we’ll discuss how to make your home the perfect habitat for pollinators.
(Spoiler alert: there will be flowers and maybe even some rotten logs. But I don’t want to give too much away just yet.)
References & Recommended Reading:
Insect Pollination: Why Pollinators Are Important In Your Garden - garden
Full plate? Thank a pollinator. One out of every three bites of food we eat is only possible because it has been crosspollinated by pollinators such as hummingbirds, bees, butterflies, and other insects.
But insect populations are declining partially due to habitat loss. Learn how to attract birds and butterflies to your yard or patio this spring by planting native Midwestern flowers and trees in a morning webinar dedicated to helping pollinators.
Just in time for spring, the Good Growing blog and podcast team of University of Illinois horticulture educators Chris Enroth, Andrew Holsinger, Ken Johnson, and Katie Parker will cover how anyone with an outdoor space can be supportive with pollinator-friendly plantings.
Registration is required.
If you need a reasonable accommodation to participate in these programs, please contact Ken Johnson at [email protected] Early requests are strongly encouraged to allow sufficient time for meeting your access needs.
Attracting Hummingbirds to your Yard
Hummingbirds are fun and fascinating to watch darting through landscapes as they search for nectar and bugs. Learn how you can enhance your home landscape with flowers and feeders to attract hummingbirds. Presenter: Katie Parker
What’s the Buzz? Attracting Pollinators to your Garden
When it comes to pollination, honeybees get most of the attention. However, many insects play a role in pollination. Discover why pollinators are important and what steps you can take to make your outside spaces more attractive and friendly to pollinators. Presenter: Ken Johnson
Native Illinois Wildflowers and Grasses for the Home Landscape
Do you have a passion for wildflowers? Home gardeners will learn how and when to plant and how to maintain the long-term health and appeal of native plants to make the most of their beauty and hardiness. Presenter: Chris Enroth
Fulfill Your Native Desires: Choosing Native Trees and Shrubs for the Backyard
Native trees and shrubs support insects and wildlife in local ecosystems. Discover the value and characteristics of native woody plants and the beauty desirable trees and shrubs can add to various sites in your landscape. Presenter: Andrew Holsinger
For More Information
- Attracting Pollinators to Your Garden Using Native Plants (Eastern United States) (PDF, 3.5 MB) - developed and published by the USDA Forest Service providing a guide to providing habitats for pollinators in the eastern United States.
- Attracting Pollinators to Your Garden Using Native Plants (PDF, 3.2 MB) - developed and published by the Lolo National Forest, Missoula, Montana, providing a guide to providing habitats for pollinators primarily in the western United States.
- Gardening for Native Bees in Utah and Beyond (PDF, 3,9 MB) - a Utah Pests Fact Sheet published in January 2013 by Utah State University Extension and Utah Plant Pest Diagnostic Laboratory. This fact sheet provides guidance for plant selection to garden for pollinators, including some 200 garden plant genera nationwide and a table of their flowering phenologies (in northern Utah).
- Honeybee Conservancy - Plant a Bee Garden - By planting a bee garden, you can do your part to help the bees by adding to the shrinking inventory of flower-rich habitat in your area. In return, the bees will pollinate your flowers, providing a bountiful harvest of fruits, seeds and vegetables as well as the joy of watching them up close.
- Plants for Pollinators in the Inland Northwest (PDF, 3.1 MB) - a USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service Technical Note, TN Plant Materials No. 2B, October 2011. This technical note provides guidance for the design and implementation of conservation plantings to enhance habitat for pollinators including bees, wasps, butterflies, moths, and hummingbirds. Plant species included in this document are adapted to the Inland Northwest, which encompasses northern Idaho, northeastern Oregon and eastern Washington.
Learn How You Can Use Agroforestry to Help Pollinators
The April 2015 issue of the Inside Agroforestry Newsletter has hit the streets on the National Agroforestry Center website. This issue of Agroforestry Center's Inside Agroforestry highlights ways that agroforestry has supported pollinator conservation and management as well as efforts that have also served to educate the public.
Pawnee National Grassland Receives Its First Pollinator Garden
Aster, a native plant in the sunflower family that attracts pollinators on the Pawnee National Grassland. Note the small pollinator insect on the right flower.
Noble Energy established a pollinator garden on the Lillifield Pipeline as part of their restoration work last fall. The fenced area was hydro-seeded with plant species native bees and butterflies favor and will help provide a space for these pollinators to thrive. Pollinators are an important part of plant reproduction. Large game animals, migratory songbirds and livestock feast on plants dependent on pollinators for propagation. Pollinators also benefit the agricultural community by proliferating important crop species. Many native bees and butterflies are declining due to the decline of pollinator plants they need to survive.
The Pawnee National Grassland (PNG) is located in northeast Colorado east of Fort Collins, Colorado, and serves as an important reserve of native short-grass prairie formerly abundant along Colorado's Front Range. This project was a cooperative effort between the oil and gas industry and federal agencies. Pawnee National Grassland employees consulted with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), as they recently installed several large pollinator gardens on lands managed under the Cropland Reserve Program (CRP). These areas are located on farms and ranches near the Grassland. The PNG Planner, Biologist, and Rangeland Specialist suggested prime locations and added fencing to keep livestock out while allowing birds easy access to the garden. NRCS staff created a seed mix for the project, and Noble Energy installed the garden this fall at the direction of the PNG Lands and Minerals Specialist. "Everyone is excited to see the pollinator garden this spring. The Pawnee National Grassland is always looking for partnership opportunities such as this to expand our ability to manage the Grassland resources for long-term, public benefit," Acting District Ranger Ken Tu said.
Forest Service is Aflutter with Native Plant and Pollinator Gardens
The Cranberry Mountain Nature Center Native Plant and Pollinator Garden is located along an accessible walkway with views of the highland Scenic Highway. (U.S. Forest Service photo/Diana Stull).
With a view of majestic mountains in the background, visitors to the Cranberry Mountain Nature Center of the Monongahela National Forest find themselves immersed in a bevy of beautiful plants in bloom and fluttering monarch butterflies. Beneath the natural grandeur, a very essential ecosystem service is taking place – pollination.
In celebration of National Pollinator Week, June 17-21, 2013, the Forest Service invites you to come and visit the beautiful gems called Native Plant and Pollinator gardens currently in bloom in the Eastern Region.
Insect Pollination: Why Pollinators Are Important In Your Garden - garden
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|Over 90 Brownies and Girl Scouts helped build a butterfly habitat at Yazoo National Wildlife Refuge.|
Pollinators need your help! There is increasing evidence that many pollinators are in decline. However, there are some simple things you can do at home to encourage pollinator diversity and abundance.
Pollinator Brochure: Attracting Pollinators to your Garden.
Pollinator Brochure: Attracting Pollinators to your Garden.
1) Plant a Pollinator Garden. The most obvious need for pollinating species is a diversity of nectar and pollen sources. Consider the following when choosing plants for your garden:
- Choose plants that flower at different times of the year to provide nectar and pollen sources throughout the growing season
- Plant in clumps, rather than single plants, to better attract pollinators
- Provide a variety of flower colors and shapes to attract different pollinators. NAPPC’s Pollinator Syndrome table provides information on the types of flowers that different pollinator groups (bats, hummingbirds, bees, butterflies, etc.) find attractive.
- Whenever possible, choose native plants. Native plants will attract more native pollinators and can serve as larval host plants for some species of pollinators. Check field guides to find out which plants the larval stage of local butterflies eat. Pollinator friendly plants for your area can be found in NAPPC's Ecoregional Planting Guides. Contact your local or state native plant society for help. Information on finding native plants and native plant societies for your area
- If monarch butterflies live within your area, consider planting milkweed so their caterpillars have food. Find a list of milkweed appropriate for your area.
For more information:
- No. Am. Pollinator Protection Campaign Ecoregional Planting Guides
- Information for finding Native Plants in your area
- Pollinator Partnership/No. Am. Pollinator Protection Campaign Resources for Pollinator Gardens
- Gardening for Monarchs (general information)
- Appropriate milkweed by region
- More resources for creating monarch habitat including finding milkweed seeds and plants
- Brochure on Milkweed ecology, production, and restoration.
- The Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center website, find lists of native plant suppliers and organizations, or ask their resident horticulturalist a question, or use their Native Plant Information Database to search for native plants by traits or names.
- The Plant Native website provides lists of native plants, directories of native plant nurseries, some native plant societies and gardening books by region.
- Find native plant societies
- NRCS technical notes, including Plants for Pollinators in various states, and Habitat Development for Pollinators in various states
- Native Plant Guides for Maryland and the Chesapeake Bay Watershed
- Chesapeake Bay Native Plant Center
- Native plants for the Southeast
- Pollinator Gardens in Alaska
- Hummingbird Feeder Maintenance
2) Provide Nesting Sites. Different pollinators have different needs for nesting sites.
Hummingbirds typically nest in trees or shrubs, and use plant materials, mosses, lichens, and spider webs to construct their nests. Their nests are very hard to find because they are typically tiny, located well off the ground, and are very camouflaged to protect from predators.
Many butterflies lay eggs on specific plants (host plants) that their young (caterpillars) eat. For example, monarch butterflies lay their eggs on milkweed plants. You can find out more about the plants butterflies use by searching on the butterfly species of interest
Most bees nest in the ground and in wood or dry plant stems. Most bees are solitary nesters except bumble bees and the non-native honeybees. Bumble bees have been found nesting in holes in the ground abandoned by mammals, in openings in stone walls, in abandoned bird boxes, and other cavities. You can provide nesting sites for native bees -
- Ground nesting sites: Simply maintaining a small, undisturbed patch of well-drained bare or sparsely vegetated ground may provide nesting habitat for ground-nesting bees. It is best if the site faces south so that it gets the most sun possible during the day, and is not inundated by a sprinkler.
- Wood nesting sites: Carpenter bees will chew their own burrows in wood, while many other bees use holes or cavities that are already in wood or dry plant stems.
- If it's not a safety hazard, consider leaving a dead tree or limb undisturbed to provide natural nesting habitat.
- When pruning shrubs if you notice stems that are hollow or soft inside (e.g., raspberries, roses, sumac, elderberry, goldenrod, coneflower), cut some stems back to a foot in height to provide bee nesting sites.
- Some bees will nest in artificial nesting sites – blocks of preservative-free wood with drilled holes of different diameters. These "bee blocks" are a great way to learn about native bees because it is easy to observe them periodically. While they may provide some habitat, recent research raises concerns that these sites may provide habitat for non-native species [which may compete with our native species] and could result in increased parasitism rates on bees using them. Also, when used, it is very important to have an inner paper liner and replace it annually otherwise if any of the bees are diseased, the disease can easily spread to the bees using the holes the next year. Note: solitary wasps will also use these for nesting sites.
For more information:
- Providing habitat for ruby-throated hummingbirds
- NRCS Native pollinators brochure
- Gardening for butterflies
- Gardening and landscaping practices for nesting native bees
- Enhancing nest sites for native bee crop pollinators
- Instructions for building artificial bee nesting sites – if you use these, be sure to line with paper to prevent the spread of disease, as show in the video below:
- U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Connecting People with Nature – How to build a bee block
- The Xerces Society - Pollinator Conservation Program - Nests For Native Bees
3) Avoid or Limit Pesticide Use. Pesticides can kill more than the target pest. Some pesticide residues can kill pollinators for several days after the pesticide is applied. Pesticides can also kill natural predators, which can lead to even worse pest problems.
Consider the following when managing pests in your garden:
- Try removing individual pests by hand if possible (wearing garden gloves)
- Encourage native predators (for example, praying mantids) with a diverse garden habitat
Expect and accept a little bit of pest activity
- Learn more about integrated pest management for yards and gardens
- Learn more about integrated pest management on farmlands
- If you must use a pesticide:
- only use it when you have a pest problem (not as a preventative)
- choose one that is effective for the target pest and the least toxic to non-pest species
- choose one that does not persist on vegetation
- use the lowest effective application rate
- avoid applying when wildflowers are in bloom
- apply it in the late afternoon or evening when most pollinators are not as active
- target your application where needed (e.g., use a hand sprayer, rather than aerial applications)
- use liquid sprays or granules, rather than dusts, to avoid it drifting to other plants
- do not spray when it is windy
- avoid microencapsulated formulations as they can be mistaken for pollen by pollinators
- do not apply near water, or sensitive species or sensitive habitats
- always read and follow label directions carefully
- rinse pesticide tanks after each use to avoid cross-contamination of pesticides
- notify nearby beekeepers several days before using products harmful to honeybees
- develop and implement training programs to increase awareness and knowledge of pollinators and their activity patterns among pesticide applicators
- develop public outreach information to raise awareness of the potential role that improperly used pesticides may play in the decline of pollinators
- S ome pollinators, such as Normia bees (that rest in crop fields overnight) and moths (that are active overnight), may be harmed by nighttime application of pesticides. Check to determine if these pollinators are active in your area before applying pesticides at night.
- Regardless of application time, if toxins remain on plant parts, pollinators such as leafcutter bees still may be harmed if they bring contaminated leaves back to their nest. Likewise, the larvae of butterflies that pollinate plants may be harmed by ingesting toxins remaining on plant parts.
What Are Pollinators & Why Do We Need Them?
To put it simply, pollinators are animals that assist in the process of pollination. Pollination involves transferring pollen grains from the anther, the male organ, of a plant to another plant’s stigma, the female organ. The planet is a biodiverse ecosystem and without pollination, flowers and plants couldn’t be fertilized, and won’t be able to produce the fruits and vegetables we consume daily. Our survival is a symbiotic relationship we cannot ignore.
Currently, the world is facing an imminent crisis when it comes to pollinators, particularly the bee. While the honey bee makes up a large majority of the pollinating force in America, in the honey bee population within the agricultural industry. This population decline is a troubling trend considering the many essential fruits and products that need pollination such as cucumbers fruits and honey. Many of them are currently “listed species” in other words on disappearance watches for many countries.
Pollinators help us by essentially doing the leg work for us. Though the act of pollinating itself sounds simple, the sheer scale of it is enormous. For example, consider this: the amount of fruit minimum yielded by a dwarf apple tree is 3 bushels. There are 125 apples per bushel, meaning there are 375 apples yielded total. Imagine pollinating over 125 flowers by hand! If we don’t use pollinators, not only will produce yields decrease, but the possibility of scarcity is imminent considering the world’s growing population and dietary needs.
Though humans can technically pollinate 5-10 trees a day by hand, bees are more effective. Some species such as mason bees can pollinate up to 5,000 flowers a day! Considering how the average acre of an orchard has around 30 trees, it makes more sense to rely on nature than to solely rely on human hands.
Which Bugs Are Pollinators?
They include a wide range of animals beyond insects, such as birds and bats. However, for your gardening goals, below we list the top 3 bugs that are beneficial insect pollinators:
Bees are the most beneficial insects—pollinators of the highest order and are considered to be the most effective and efficient out of them all. Covered in fine hairs which trap pollen, they can carry more pollen compared to their other insect counterparts. While the agricultural industry uses honey bees for their pollinating needs, native bee species have shown to be just as or even more efficient when it comes to pollination. Depending on the species such as the worker bee may live independently of one another or co-exist in a hive while supporting their queen.
Because butterflies collect a flower’s nectar via an extended attachment of their mouth, known as a proboscis, they collect less pollen on their wings and legs compared to bees. However, they are still a useful pollinator as butterflies can travel longer distances compared to their furry and buzzy insect counterparts. Before you start planting for butterflies, do online research to see which species are native to your area and what flowers they’re attracted to.
Beetles depend on flowers as their food source, beetles are understandably another great pollinator. Fossils have also shown that beetles are the first pollinators on Earth! with beetles playing an important role in pollination during the age of the dinosaurs. On top of this, there are also many more beetles species compared to others. It’s no surprise with their large numbers and their reliance on flowers that beetles have are on the list.
What Do Pollinating Insects Have in Common?
When it comes to pollinating, the bottom-line trait that all pollinating insects have in common is the transferal of pollen from one flower to another. Without this transferal of pollen, it’s not possible for a plant to bear fruit or to thrive and reproduce. Depending on the insect, the transferal of pollen differs as well.
For example, bees, butterflies, and moths have fine hairs on their bodies which trap pollen, enabling them to carry the pollen to another plant. Other bugs such as beetles consume parts of a flower, only to leave the pollen in their droppings when visiting another flower. In some cases, individual species have their unique way to pollinate a plant concerning their reproduction habits, such as the yucca moth and the yucca plant.
Regardless of the way an insect pollinates, the key thing to remember is their value in our natural ecosystems. Without them, there is no food, and without food, there is no sustainability in our lives.
There is also a variety of other useful insects for any eco-garden, especially “Angiosperms” flowering. The natural predator of local pests can be very important in keeping pest numbers down—depending on your region, helpful insects may include ladybugs, prayer mantises, spiders, lacewings, that prey on an assortment of bugs which may cause harm to your blooms, such as aphids and slugs.
Your Very Own Pollinator Paradise
I have to admit, turning your homestead into a pollinator sanctuary has one more benefit that I didn’t mention before. It makes your homestead even more beautiful!
Not only will you have lots of flowers growing nearly all year long, but you’ll have thousands of butterflies, singing birds, a bonanza of bees, and other flying friends transforming your homestead into a paradise-like environment for you to enjoy.
Go make your homestead a sanctuary for pollinators and a paradise on earth for you!