With the solstice on Dec. 22, gardeners begin to anticipate longer days. From the shortest days of eight hours, 50 minutes, 51 seconds on Dec. 21 and 22 (based on sunrise and sunset in Augusta), we’ll be all the way up to eight hours, 57 minutes by Jan. 3; 9 hours by Jan. 6; 10 hours by Feb. 5; and 11 by Feb. 26. It’s all sunny skies, garden-wise, from there. Onion seedlings will have sprouted; the packet of pepper seeds (‘Klari Baby Cheese,’ my favorite) will be out on the table, waiting to be sown in mid- to late-March; the Swiss chard overwintering under row covers will be putting on new growth.

Most native pollinators will probably still be dormant. In a University of Maine Cooperative Extension publication called “Understanding Native Bees, the Great Pollinators: Enhancing Their Habitat in Maine,” Constance Stubbs and Nancy Coverstone say: “Although some species may be active by late February if temperatures are unusually warm, the vernal bee species (those present in the spring) generally become active by mid-April. You may observe them on early blooming flowers, such as willow catkins and dandelions.” (See umaine.edu/publications/7153e/)

The time between now and April can be used to increase the productivity of a garden, of a whole ecosystem, in fact, by planning a landscape that supports all native pollinators, whether flies, wasps, bees, butterflies, bats or hummingbirds, as well as non-natives, such as the honeybee; and by making houses for some native pollinators. As they gather nectar and pollen for their own uses, these pollinators also transfer pollen from the stamens (male, pollen-bearing structures on flowers) to the stigmas (female parts of plants) of various flowers, pollinating them so that they create many of the fruits we eat, the seeds birds eat, and so on. Even the bees themselves become part of the ecosystem’s food chain; as Stubbs and Coverstone note, some birds, insects, spiders, skunks, raccoons and bears eat bee adults or larvae.

The plight of the non-native honeybee is well known. Its populations are suffering, apparently from mites, disease, loss of habitat, the stresses involved in being trucked around the country to pollinate single crops at a time, and exposure to pesticides. Anything we can do as gardeners to help these maligned creatures as well as their native kin will also help our crops.

The more than 270 species of native Maine bees include those little sweat bees that sometimes come around us as we garden on hot days; leafcutter and mason bees, including the blue orchard mason bee; and 16 species of bumble bees. Blue orchard mason bees come out of dormancy just when apples and other fruits are blooming, and they are excellent pollinators of these crops. So putting simple mason bee houses in your orchard is one way to help ensure pollination of those crops. See the UMaine fact sheet mentioned above for clear directions, and start collecting scrap 2 x 6 pine or spruce lumber to make those houses this winter (or today; they’re great holiday gifts).

To further help pollinators, create a landscape that provides pollen and nectar from early spring through late fall – from those dandelions and willow catkins in spring, to asters, goldenrod and, again, dandelions in fall. Note that simply not using herbicides on a lawn and/or letting some areas of lawn grow up into meadows can benefit pollinators tremendously – not to mention the health of surface and groundwater that will no longer be polluted by fertilizer and pesticide leaching or runoff; and not to mention the health of the babies and puppies playing on those lawns. Simply thinking of dandelions as our friends is a powerful and important first step off the pesticide treadmill.

We let some areas of our landscape grow naturally, mowing them once a year to keep woody growth down, and are rewarded with expanses of fragrant milkweed flowers in summer and bright, bee-covered goldenrod into fall. Stubbs and Coverstone list plants that support pollinators in their publication; nothing on their list is invasive, and many species are native.

Yet another way to support pollinators is to implore your neighbors to do the same; i.e., plant for pollinators and nix the pesticides. Do as Citizens for a Green Camden have done: Create a map (e.g., citizensforagreencamden.org/images/town-mapLG.jpg) showing who in town has pledged to have a poison-free lawn, and who has not.

What better way to celebrate peace on earth, goodwill toward all?

 

Jean English lives in Lincolnville.