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A Few Thoughts on Organic Gardening

Table of Contents

1: Soil Care Basics2: Increasing Humus3: Maximizing Use of Cover Crops4: Avoid Bare Ground, Minimize Tillage5: Plant Care6: Beneficial Insects7: Habitat Plantings8: Other Strategies for Insects9: Yet More Insect Strategies10: Gardening Through All Four Seasons11: Eating Fresh

7. Dealing with the Competition: Habitat Plantings

There is an equally vast number of plant species that can be encouraged and protected, or planted in permanent habitat plots on the edges of and inside the garden. If you plan to grow flower and herb beds, be sure to place them in or close to the garden.

In most cases, it is the flowers of habitat plants that provide food for beneficial insects in the form of both nectar and pollen. In some cases, in lieu of or in addition to flowers, plants (sweet potatoes, fava beans) have “extra-floral nectaries,” nectar-exuding cells at the nodes of stems or leaves, at which beneficial insects feed. And remember that flowering plants are not only a source of food—they also serve as places where insects find partners of their own species, and mate. Whoever thought of that pretty flower in her garden as a hot-spot disco?!

One should strive for a diversity of plants so there will always be plenty of flowers at any time in the season.

Spring
Borage; brassicas such as broccoli and kale, and crucifers such as mustard, turnip, and radish which are allowed to flower; tulip poplar; vetches; pussy willow; buckwheat; clovers; mints, including catnip and the “mountain mints;” smartweed; Norway maple; grains such as rye and wheat, as the seed head is forming and pollen is produced; peonies; etc. Of particular note are the umbels, a large group of plants with large umbrella-like clusters of small flowers—yarrow, fennel, parsnip, carrot, parsley, celery, dill, anise, etc. Some of these, such as yarrow, are perennials and can be furnished permanent plots in and about the garden. Some are bienniels, meaning they do their major growth in the first season, overwinter, then flower and make seed in the second. Good examples are carrots and parsnips. I often plant the roots of these two—stored overwinter—throughout the garden, and allow them to flower in this, their second season. Some of the umbels such as dill and coriander (cilantro) are annuals which grow and flower in the same season, and also self-seed readily. I gather the seed heads when the seeds are ripe and walk through the garden, beating the seed heads against my hand to scatter the seeds throughout the garden. The following spring and summer, volunteer dill and cilantro plants pop up all over. If one is somewhere that doesn’t fit, it is a weed, and I pull it out. If it pops up somewhere that is compatible with my crop plantings, it is welcome to grow and flower. We get to eat lots of nice dill and cilantro, plus have the flower heads host our insect friends, without ever going to the trouble of planting them.
Summer
Again, buckwheat, the “instant cover crop” which can flower within thirty days of sowing; borage; comfrey; mints of all sorts; tansy; bronze fennel; smartweed (Vietnamese cilantro); sunflowers; cosmos; zinnia; sweet potato.
Fall
Joy sedum; vetches; chrysanthemums; tansy; bronze fennel; garlic chives; yarrow.
Winter
Well, no, you won’t find plants flowering in the iron grip of winter. However, remember the needs for a protected place for beneficials to overwinter, either for themselves or their eggs. Probably too much emphasis is given to “cleaning up” the garden in the fall. But we should avoid being too clean when putting the garden to bed. For example, the last of the broccoli can be left in place to shelter insects such as parasitic wasps. The dead leaves of comfrey should also be left in place as an overwinter retreat for beneficials.