by Susan Waterman

You may be one of the many gardeners who look forward to having an early taste of spring in February by attending the annual NM Xeriscape Council Conference and Expo in Albuquerque (February 25-28). There will be many gardening, plant and soil experts there with numerous displays, seminars and information tables.

In keeping with the upcoming conference, I was inspired to consider the place for xeric plants, flowering plants requiring minimal water, in the food garden. These plants have a superstar role where they are highly beneficial and even essential – as attractors for pollinators such as honey bees, other bees and other hairy insects, wasps, ants, beetles, moths, butterflies and flies, who come to harvest their nectar. Some of the veggie garden plants may be wind-pollinated or self-pollinated, but many require the activity of honeybees or other creatures. All outbreeding plants, for example gourds or celery, where the pollen is ready before the female part (stigma) is ready to receive it, will require assistance from bees or other insects.

An important consideration in selecting plants to attract and feed pollinators is the fact that if you choose xeric plants, they won’t want as much water as many of the veggies may be receiving. Of course, the way water is delivered to the plants is a main factor, and often a drip irrigation system is recommended as a highly efficient way to help conserve water by utilizing specific watering points. Infrequent and deep watering is generally considered the best approach; water will rise upward in the soil as moisture evaporates from the surface, so roots get double the benefit! Even if you’re using a drip system, the amount of water for the xeric plants should be about half of what the veggies are receiving.

We simply can’t have seeds and fruits without pollination, and without seeds, we have no plants. Pollination is a natural process that perhaps has been taken for granted for generations of farmers and growers. Nowadays, even pollination is a natural process subject to the vagaries of nature and the follies of humankind. For many years around two decades back the bee population was decimated by infestations of mites and other diseases. Populations of pollinators have declined due to pesticide misuse and overuse as well as urban sprawl. Now it has been suggested that the normal activities of bees may be hampered by the presence of GMO genes in plants and by the ubiquitous matrix of low frequency wavelengths generated by cell phone and radio towers. The navigation capacities of the bees are rendered ineffective so that bees are unable to travel back to their hives after a day of pollinating. Don’t these vital garden friends deserve a little treat, a helping hand?

While the high desert environment presents its own challenges to growing veggies and fruits, one measure we as gardeners can take to assist Mother Nature in providing food to ourselves is to provide gourmet food to attract and sustain bees and other pollinators that are so essential. Some areas are experiencing a shortage of pollinators for various reasons, so attracting pollinators to your garden will help ensure adequate and even pollination. Many xeric plants are wonderful for attracting pollinators. Not only will these lovely plants sustain the pollinators essential to an abundant garden, but many are perennials and will add lively color and fragrance to the garden.

The plants attracting pollinators may be planted on the garden border, especially the shrubs and small trees. Or, the flowers may be planted in clumps throughout the garden or in a mini flowerbed in one central location within the vegetable garden.

Here are a few suggestions for xeric plants that are great forage for pollinators, especially bees. All the plants listed are xeric and perennial. They will also attract butterflies to the garden. Xeric plants for pollinators include herbs, flowers, shrubs and small trees.

Herbs and flowers

Blanket flowers (Gaillardia species)

Buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculantum, Eriogonum fasciculatum): also a good green manure crop

Catmint (Nepeta species)

Clay –Orange Butterfly weed  (Asclepias tuberosa):  up to 18” high

Goldenrod ( Solidago sp.)

Hyssop - (Agastache species): some varieties (e.g. Blue Fortune or Black adder) may prefer a little shade and a little more water. Up to 3 feet high. Also known as “hummingbird mint”

Jupiter’s Beard (Centranthus sp.)

Lavender (Lavandula species): select early, mid-season and late blooming varieties.

Maximilian sunflower (Helianthus maximiliana)

Penstemon

Prairie clover (Dalea scariosa): provides early forage

Russian Sage (Perovskia atriplicafolia ): can become a bit invasive

Sages (Salvia species)

Shrubs and small trees

Fruit trees of all varieties

Bird of paradise (Caesalpinia gilliesii): Zone 7 and warmer

Blue Mist Spirea (Caryopteris sp.)

Chaste tree (Vitex agnus-castus)

Desert willow (Chilopsis linearus)

Golden Raintree (Koelreuteria paniculata):  up to 20 feet tall or more

Lilac (Syringa sp.):  select early and late bloomers for the perimiter

Mock Orange (Philadelphus sp.)

Service berry (Amelanchier alnifolia)

Enjoy the added beauty and the song of bees and play of butterflies in your garden all season long.

Susan Waterman has a Ph.D. in botany and over 25 years in sustainable agriculture. For more info, visit www.harvestbyhand.com. Question? Email green@harvestbyhand.com.