Vegetable Garden Best Practices for Pollinators

Vegetable gardening can be a part of every backyard and community space.  Our ancestoral homesteads were complete with orchards, berry producing bushes and vegetable crops.  Before pesticides, gardeners were well versed in using beneficial insects, soil health, hedgerows, beetle banks, biodiversity and composting to ensure a bountiful harvest.

Basics of a biodiverse vegetable garden

Harvesting heirloom tomatoes
Heirlooms are hardy and enjoy a small greenhouse environment.
photo: Laurie Schneider

You'll need a plan whether it's starting a new or expanding your fruit and veggie gardens or crops.

  1. Start a list - what do you and your garden friends like to eat?
  2. Plan your garden with flowers, veggies, herbs and fruit intermixed.  Rotate what you plant each year. Within plant families also. For instance, don't put a nightshade where you had one last year.
  3. Choose a site that gets at least 6 hours of direct sunlight per day.
  4. Before you plant, know your soil.  What it is and what it needs. Ideal soil for most veggie plants is loose, deep and crumbly with good drainage and plenty of nutrients and organic matter. Also know your area (sun, wind, rain variables).
  5. Seed catalogs are fun to peruse. Buy only from trusted seed suppliers. Get seeds with a good history of germination that are open pollinated for seed saving and not treated/coated with pesticides.
  6. Add organic matter such as compost, leaf and grass clippings. To prepare the soil before planting your garden, a cover crop like buckwheat can help rebuild deficient soil especially in the first year .
  7. Start a compost system with veggie and yard waste to recycle nutrient rich material for the veggie garden. Place the bins in or near the garden.
  8. Protect soil from erosion by covering the garden with plants and mulch.
  9. Keep areas around plants weeded.  Use newspaper, cardboard, leaf litter or rotted unsprayed hay for mulch. Blueberries do well with pine needles.
  10. Keep a detailed garden journal.  Keep notes on weather, fruiting times, disease, what does well and not, and when pests visit.  Include a map in your journal.
  11. Do not use chemical pesticides including insecticides, herbicides and fungicides.  All pesticides can harm pollinators and other insects.  Hand pick pests or use least harmful "pesticides" such as diatomaceous earth, insecticidal soaps, vinegar or corn gluten.
  12. Greenhouses are especially nice for growing winter greens, getting a head start on sprouting in spring, and drying herbs in the summer.

Garden maintenance with beneficial insects in mind

hand weeding spinach
Hand weeding and thinning spinach. photo: L. Schneider

Relax: Some consider tending and weeding a meditative activity. It's a time to connect with nature. Keep a journal of your garden observations to include weather, planting times, pest and disease control and also personal appreciations such as welcome visits from hummingbirds, seed pod shapes or magnificent sunsets.

Pests and weeds

  • Scout plants several times a week for plant and insect problems.
  • Tolerate minor insect and plant damage.
  • Pick off and dispose of pests by hand.  For instance, throw potato bugs or tomato horn-worms into a pail of soapy water until they suffocate.
  • Remove any diseased or infested plant parts from the garden area.
  • Floating row covers discourage pests like flea beetles on cabbage and eggplant.
  • Control weeds with mulches, hand-pulling, hoes or other garden tools.
  • Add diversity with flowers around the garden to attract beneficial insects and pollinators.
  • Fencing and row covers help deter garden robbers like raccoons, rabbits and moles. Organic farmers allow a percentage 30%-60% of fruits to "nature" including wildlife. Cut holes in the row covers for pollinators to access flowers, or remove the covers when plants are blooming.
mining bee on plum tree
Tawny mining bee (Adrena fulva) on plum. 
photo:  Laurie Schneider

Leave your garden up over winter. Skipping fall clean up until late spring is one good way to get a jump start on controlling pests in the spring. Instead of cutting everything down, leave your gardens up for overwintering beneficial insects and pollinators that use stiff stemmed plants to hibernate.  Native bees hunker down under peeling tree bark, or burrow in the ground, mulch or leaf piles. Chrysalis for swallowtail butterflies hang from dead plant stems or tuck away in a seed pod or under leaf litter.  If we cut down and clean up the garden, we are eliminating overwintering sites for pollinators and beneficial insects. 

Birds and wildlife such as chickadees, wrens and bluebirds are insect eaters. They consume thousands of caterpillars and pest insects to raise their young.  Leaving the garden up means there will be more protein-rich insects for birds. Birds are experts at finding "overwintering" insects in plant stems, under bark and in leaf litter. The more nurturing-habitat you have, the bigger bird population. Honey bee hives can be placed near the garden for pollination services, and native bee houses on trees or stands near or in the garden.   Include seed heavy plants, berry producing shrubs and fruit trees for song birds such as:  viburnum, serviceberry, blueberry, highbush cranberry, chokeberry, elderberry, hawthorn, crabapple, plum, pear, and apple.

lady beetle
Lady beetle (Hippodamia convergens) consumes aphids.
photo:  Bugguide

Predatory and beneficial insects for gardening

There are thousands of species of predatory and parasitic beneficial insects that help control common garden pests by feeding on them or feeding them to their young.  Many of the insects you encounter in the garden are benign or beneficial. These following beneficial insects are capable of consuming thousands of pests every day: ladybugs, lacewings, stinkbugs, soldier beetles, tachnid flies, parasitic wasps, pirate bugs, ground beetles and others. Ladybugs are notorious pest eaters, each consuming dozens of pest insects and insect eggs every day.  To have a balanced population of predatory insects, provide overwintering habitat.

black wasp
bumble bee on blueberry
honey bee on cucumber
red belted bumble bee
squash bee