NATIVE PLANTINGS are a giant part of the equation in supporting pollinators, but many other smaller efforts we can make with ornamental plants, and even the edibles we choose to grow, can add up, too. I was delighted to see the latest Uprising Seeds catalog was themed “Pollinate.” Brian Campbell, with Crystine Goldberg, grows organic seed at Uprising in Bellingham, Washington, and we talked about some of his favorite pollinator plants on the farm that are always abuzz with beneficial insect life.
“They’re our biggest unpaid staff workers,” says Brian. “They’re the pollinators that we depend on, so we really pay attention.”
We discussed why building up your pollinator palette of extra-early bloomers in particular is important; which families of plants have the most impact, and how certain flowering things like Alyssum and Phacelia may help attract aphid-fighting helpers–and even a bigger role for cilantro!
Read along as you listen to the Feb. 4, 2019 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
planting for pollinators, with brian campbell
Q. I’ve missed talking to you guys, and I still remember how you taught me to grow better beets, for instance, one of the lessons I’ve gotten from you over the years. So, thank you for that. [Cyrstine and Brian are on the left, above, with their crew and baby Rio.]
Q. I’m a beet queen so… [laughter].
Q. Love my beets. How many years now have you guys been at it at Uprising?
A. Yes, so we’ve been farming out here in Northwest Washington for about 15 years.
A. I think this is our 12th catalog we’ve put out, starting from like a little threefold brochure of a couple of offerings to what we have, what we put out now, which is, up to about 350.
Q. So it’s about 350, and how big is the farm?
A. So, we farm about 5 acres actively. We lease about 8 acres about a half an hour north of Bellingham, right up against the Canadian border. About 5 of that is actively worked and maybe 3 of that to 4 goes to actual cropping every year, with some rotated out every year for some cover-cropping and soil-building.
Q. So, I should say that I love the illustrations in the current catalog. I think they’re by an artist friend of yours, and again, to go with this theme: “Pollinate.” Can we give credit to her? It’s a woman?
A. Yes, yes, for sure. We’re really happy to meet Jasna Guy, who’s an artist living in North Vancouver, and we just stumbled across her, quietly posting really wonderful, mind-blowing art on Instagram and started a dialog with her. And she’s been, I think, for the past six or seven years now, exploring insects, especially bees and other pollinators, and also really fascinating botanical studies of the floral resources that those pollinators depend upon.
Motivated, I think, to some degree, initially, by Colony Collapse Disorder and the honeybee crisis, but has since then really delved into native pollinators as well, and a lot of our native bees that we’re really rich out here in the Pacific Northwest.
Q. Well, they’re very dreamy, intimate pictures so I recommend people take a peek at the catalog of Uprising.
So, just to disclaim, we’re going to talk about pollination, or plants with pollen, flowering things that beneficial insects like. But neither one of us, Brian, is an entomologist, or specializing in phylogenetics, the study of the evolutionary history in relationships among organisms, like what insect co-evolved with what species of plant. That’s not what we’re talking about.
But we both grow a lot of things and, of course, as gardeners and farmers and especially seed farmers, notice some things are really abuzz, more than others. And so, because you’re a seed farmer, you let everything go to flower—you let it go through its sexual reproductive phase, otherwise you wouldn’t get seed, right?
A. Sure. Yes, of course. Yes, that’s pretty much the crux of what’s happening at our place, it’s pollination.
A. So, like you said, we don’t consider ourselves experts or anything. But they are also our biggest unpaid staff workers, they’re the pollinators that we depend on, so we really pay attention.
Q. I like that, “unpaid staff workers.” That’s very funny, actually.
A. [Laughter.] I mean, they get something out of the deal as well, too, of course. But no, I’d say of what we grow and probably true of the vast majority of the food crops and ornamental flower crops, 95 percent of them are probably dependent on insect pollination. I can only, off the top of my head, think of only a handful that don’t benefit in some way from pollinator populations.
Q. So give us sort of a… Pretend it’s not winter, pretend it’s the peak season., and things are in flower everywhere on the farm. Help us get a visual/audio in our mind’s eye or ear. What’s it like on those 5 planted acres, when so many crops are all in flower at the same time? Must be like an epic symphony of insects.
A. Yes, it’s really fun to bring people out, even market farmers, who are used to being around production farms, because it’s just a totally different looking operation. It starts in early spring with the biennials, and it’s just kind of waves of blooms, pretty much right up until late summer and into fall even.
Q. The sound must just be amazing.
A. People who are used to 8-inch-tall radish greens, we’ve got 5-foot-tall, 5-foot-wide radishes that need to be staked, and they’re just covered with blossoms. A lot of what people’s associations of plants—what plants look like in their edible form—bear no resemblance to once they’ve matured and reached their full height and flowering glory.
Q. Yes, I don’t know how many years ago, it must be a dozen years ago, I think I had a row of parsnips, maybe; I think it was parsnips. I must have missed one or more when I was digging. I must have missed some. I don’t know what happened, but must have been that either a seed sowed the next year or the thing sprouted. I guess, is that a biennial? I think it would be a biennial, yes? Is it?
A. Yes, sure.
Q. So one must have been buried under the ground and it survived and it sprouted the next year and it went through its reproductive stage and it was like this incredible, giant, beautiful, yellow, thing, a flowerhead. And so it was like, after that, I thought well, let’s just let this happen every year, like this is amazing. [Laughter.]
A. It’s really like above-ground biomass at our farm is really a stupendous volume of stuff. We grow a couple of things on larger scales that we supply to a couple other seed catalogs. And when you get a quarter-acre of arugula in flower that’s 5 foot tall and just pretty much a solid volume of, 30 foot by 5 foot by 300 foot volume of flowers all at once, it’s really a pretty spectacular sight.
Q. So, when I talk to botanists and entomologists about what are good “pollinator plants,” one family of herbaceous plants that’s always tops on everyone’s list for pollinator interest is the daisy or sunflower relatives, the composites. So are any of those on your hit parade in the catalog or things that you are featuring and have noticed a lot of interaction with?
A. Yes, for sure, like rudbeckias for example, are very popular. I think a lot of those, both the sunflower family and also Umbelliferae, both of those tend to have really big, broad, upright landing places with very accessible flowers. And think those really work well for a lot of the generalist species.
Of course the insects have been co-evolving with plants for millions of years and there are specialists, that have especially long tongues to get nectar out of tube flowers, and ones that are very specialized in very small flowers, but there’s big broad classes of plants that really appeal widely, and that’s definitely one of them.
Echinacea is another good example in that category that seems to be very popular.
A. We do.
Q. Bachelor’s buttons is in there too, right?
A. Definitely, yes, all those are really good generalists that we see a lot of different species in. And then there’s some—for example we grew a new Rudbeckia to us that is petal-less so it lacks the what people generally think of as the petals of the flower. Of course, it’s a composite, so it’s composed of lots of little flowers, but it doesn’t have the outer petals, the ones you would notice. Instead it has these tiny little petals. For that one, we noticed it was only the little metallic green sweat bees; that would be the only bee we would ever see on it.
So it’s really neat to see the interactions of how some are especially favored by some. It’s interesting to observe the activity and who likes what and when.
Q. And what for instance, to our human eyes, what’s more attractive, ornamental or delicious (in the case of a vegetable). How we’ve changed things is for our human tastes, through breeding and selection. And indeed the scientists explain that though like we love big fluffy double flowers, real puffy and giant, but we were just talking about that landing place that is sometimes obscured or shifted or reconfigured, and doesn’t work for the insects. So sometimes the one we like the best is the one that’s least appealing to them.
And you talk about those apetalous Rudbeckia [above, ‘Green Wizard’], they don’t, you’re right—not as many of them get it. And I think it might have to do—again, I’m not a scientist—but have to do with the sense of being steered to things, like looking from overhead and going, “Oh wait, there’s those ray flowers pointing me to that central landing pad.” Like they may not recognize it, you know what I mean?
Q. It might be as simple as that, right?
A. Yes, and there’s also the interesting fact that there’s a whole other level of UV reflected patterning on flowers that is not visible to u, but that totally acts as bullseyes to bees.
Q. Exactly. I always think of it like the guys who have two red lights, one in each hand, at the landing strip at the airport, and they’re guiding the planes that are taxiing. I always think of those as like those markings and, like you say, the things we can’t see on the flowers as those things. [Laughter.]
A. Yes, definitely.
A. We do, we have quite a few. It’s always been something that’s brought us a lot of joy, growing sunflowers. It’s a little less easy to observe the pollinators in the sunflowers because they’re up so much higher than the ones you can really get in on. But definitely, those big discs in the center are just always abuzz.
And, at our place, there’s always so much flowering that we imagine it as being a pretty dreamy landscape for bees. So the things that are really popular, with such a selection available at our farm, I think it’s really clear with ones that are especially favored and have especially rich nectar and pollen resources for bees.
Q. Now with sunflowers, do you start them indoors and then transplant them? Are you direct-sowing? I know that can be dependent on lots of different reasons, the decision about that can be … but for gardeners, what do you think? Which way?
A. We’ve done both. We tend to… just for ease of management, we’ve switched, over the years, to try to direct-seed as much as we can, just to save one step in the process. But I think there’s a lot of benefits to starting them inside, in terms of planting into a weed-free bed, kind of at a later stage of development, for having a full bed, where you don’t have gaps, some things might have gotten eaten, or spotty germination or things like that.
There are benefits to both ways, we kind of tend towards a more laissez-faire kind of approach these days and direct-seed as much as we can.
Q. So another group of plants that, when I talk to entomologists and people who specialize otherwise in pollinator stuff, another group of plants that have great beneficial insect appeal are the cousins of the mints, you know, the things, the Apiaceae. Lots of things in the herb garden: bee balm, Nepeta, thyme, and of course the true mints. [Above, bee in Transylvanian sage, a mint relative.]
I think you grow some relatives there, like Eryngium, yes?
A. Yes, Eryngium is great. It’s a perennial, and this was our second year with that one, and I would say that was probably the most popular thing with pollinators on the farm this year, in terms of both numbers and diversity. We saw just tons of different species of beetles, flies. Most of the bee families we have represented at our farm were in there. Yes, it’s a pretty spectacular plant in bloom and seems equally appealing to insects as it is to us.
Q. So, now you’re growing one of the ones that’s a sea holly, as they call them, a sort of bluish or silvery-blue in color? [Above, ‘Blue Glitter’ sea holly.]
A. Yes, exactly. Silvery-blue with a kind of spiky dried appearance to it.
Q. I think we have, I forget where in the United States it’s from, I think, Eryngium yuccifolium, the rattlesnake master, I think that is an American plant but that looks a little bit different. It’s ghostly, silvery.
A. Yes, yes, there’s several species in that genus with pretty interesting looks.
Q. And then, I think you have some anise hyssops and so forth. I would imagine you get some interest there.
A. Yes, for sure. Anise hyssop is a great one, and all the basils are also real good with pollinators. We have a low-growing Italian mint, called mentuccia [Calamintha nepeta], that also is a really good nectary plant. The nice thing about a lot of those is that the majority of the perennials in that family, and just perennials in general, tend to have an earlier bloom time. So a lot of what we try to do is not just manage plants that are popular with insects, but also having staggered blooms throughout the season, so that there’s a constant supply for them to feed on and just to have those populations healthy.
Q. Right, and that’s really the key, from the earliest thing you can have in bloom to the latest, to have a real succession of opportunities.
A. Yes, especially the early blooming things.
Q. What are some of your really early things that are in bloom on the farm?
A. We’ve got several. We always grow quite a bit of brassica seed at our place, that cabbage/kale family, and that’s a biennial. That usually starts blooming in April. And that coincides right about when the bumblebees are coming out in full force. So those early nectary plants for the bumblebees are really critical for establishing healthy colonies, because of the queens that have overwintered, and then they start a brood right away. Their first job is to find floral sources and a home, and then they start their brood, which will be the season’s bumblebees. So the success of those early queens that emerge is really critical.
Also, another one is Jacob’s ladder [above] which is-
Q. Polemonium, yes? Is that what you mean?
A. Yes, related to Valerian, it’s like the Valerian family, a lot of people are familiar with that one, it’s got really lovely kind of sky blue blooms and really nice architecture, and that was our first-blooming plant at the farm this year. That’s another good one.
Q. How interesting.
A. And then we’ve switched, we used to grow mostly grain cover crops for overwintering. We would grow a rye mixed with vetch. And more and more, since we would till it in pretty early and not really get that much height or benefit from the rye, other than the winter cover, we’ve switched to clovers, which have the added benefit of having a really good insectary bloom as well. We grew crimson clover [above] and red clover both and they—especially when you have it on an acre scale—it’s really pretty spectacular.
Q. Wow, yes, that must be. [Laughter.] So you mentioned earlier some of the umbel type flowers, and I think there are probably a lot more. And that’s another family that a lot of entomologists always mention to me as having great insect appeal. It’s where celery, carrots, parsley and cilantro, yes, fit in?
A. Yes, cilantro, exactly, and actually we sell a Pollinator and Soil-builder Mix that is intended to be broadcast-sown and let gone wild in a corner of the garden, and they feature pretty heavily in that mix just because they are so good as sources of both pollen and nectar.
Also, cilantro in the garden—people often complain about it bolting-
A. …and it can be seen as a resource instead of something to pull up and re-sow, because it is such a good bee resource.
Q. So, that brings up a conversation I had. You mentioned also earlier that the basils are so popular with some of the pollinators. But of course, if we as gardeners want to keep cutting basil leaves, we pinch off the flowers and so we don’t get that experience. And with the cilantro, as you said, it’s going to “bolt” so we pull it, well then we don’t get that experience.
Q. I remember a conversation years ago with Frank Morton of Wild Garden Seeds, who I know you like as I do and respect, a lettuce and calendula breeder and various other things. And he said something like how it was because he started becoming a seed farmer or seed breeder, watching what happened when you didn’t pull out your cilantro because you wanted to get seed from it, or whatever the thing was, even the lettuce—watching who showed up, this like amazing number of insects who showed up to enjoy.
And he talked about micro-wasps that parasitize aphids and caterpillars and native fruit-pollinating solitary bees, things he hadn’t seen otherwise. Syrphids, who go after the aphids, or minute pirate bugs for thrips control and all these kinds of interesting things that happen.
So what would be a few things that we’re probably all growing that you would say to us, “Don’t behead it so early, gardeners. Let it grow. Let it grow on.” [Laughter.]
A. Yes, sure, Frank is a really great teacher of observation and just really being present and observing what’s happening in your field. I’ve always looked up to him for that. I think things like we’ve already discussed—parsley. A lot of times people will leave parsley to overwinter because it is so winter-hardy in a lot of parts of the country. And as it blooms in the next season, is a great thing to leave out.
Cilantro is similarly great and we actually, we intentionally companion-plant a lot of things in our field for the express purpose of attracting insects. When we’re growing a fall brassica crop to overwinter, most people who grow brassicas in the fall know that aphids are often a terrible problem with that. So we will often put every third bed or so we will plant to Phacelia [above], which is another plant—one of its aliases is bee’s friend, which kind of lets you know about what it does in the garden. And we find that just the syrphid flies, like you mentioned, the parasitic wasps that predate on those aphids are really beneficial in keeping those populations in check. Alyssum is another really good one that we haven’t mentioned, that I know-
Q. It’s a brassica, too. It’s a brassica of all the crazy things, I think, isn’t it? [Laughter.]
A. Yes, surprising, isn’t it? But I know of several commercial growers, even on a very large scale that do that. Every fourth row of Phacelia, or that do an understory of Alyssum in their brassicas, just to bring beneficial insects that will predate on them.
Q. Brilliant. Well, Brian Campbell, we’ve used up all our time. I could talk to you all day [laughter] and I’m visualizing those 5 acres of cascading moments of bloom. So thank you so much, and I really look forward to speaking to you again.
A. Yes, thanks Margaret, it was lovely to talk to you again.
request an uprising catalog, and more
more advice about supporting beneficial insects
- What I learned about pollinators in 2018
- Doug Tallamy on “nativars” — cultivars of native plants
- Pollinators of native plants, with Heather Holm
- Feed the bees: advice from Xerces Society
- Butterfly gardening, with Jane Hurwitz
(Photos from Uprising Seeds, used with permission.)
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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its ninth year in March 2018. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play Feb. 4, 2019 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).