From the Ground Up: Pollinators love the heat in mid-summer, low maintenance plants

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By Becki Lynch, Iowa State University Extension

As we move into the heat and humidity of mid-summer, the benign neglect required to maintain a pollinator habitat begins to look good. As the heat rises, our energy seems to flag. Add to that the humidity, and any mid-day gardening or weeding begins to look like a form of torture. Well, leaving your garden alone during this time of year is exactly what pollinators like. They’re in the middle of their season of generations and looking for lots of nectar and nesting places. The wealth of blooms in mid-summer from cone flowers, Rudbeckia, sages and herbs provide lots of foraging habitat, while the foliage of host plants such as milkweed, fennel, Alcea (hollyhocks) and violets is mature and not yet dying back for the year.

Generally, your mid-summer plants are maturing and have begun the process of setting fruit and seed. This stage leaves little energy for keeping up appearances as we move through July. Don’t be surprised if foliage begins to yellow and flower production slows. This is natural and a great reason why planting different species for pollinators that mature at different times is a great idea. As summer bloomers eventually die back, center stage will be taken over by the Asters, Joe Pye Weed, goldenrod, sedums and grasses.

However, for all perennials, there is a cycle and length for blooming that seems to guarantee at least one time frame when nothing is blooming at all. That’s when annuals begin to show their star power. Marigolds, zinnias, Pentas and lantana are just a few that pollinators love, and these love the heat and sun. Because they’re usually planted in May, they’ve spent several weeks building roots and foliage. It is mid-summer when they begin to take off with continuous blooms to the end of the season through frost. Another tip for pollinators in those non-bloom times is to have rotten fruit available in a shallow, elevated dish in your yard. You’ll find numerous butterflies and bees clustered on the nectar-rich bananas, strawberries, blackberries, etc.

So, what about watering that summer garden? Over-watering is worse than under-watering, especially in a pollinator bed where many plants are drought tolerant native plants. But when it’s hot you need to water. So here’s a general guideline: if the plants/seeds are in their first year — 1 inch (measure with empty tuna can) of water every 7 to 10 days; Second year of growth — 1 inch every 10 to 14 days; Third year — 1 inch every two to three weeks. And if the plants are drought tolerant, by third year, they won’t need too much supplemental watering. Be sure to study the water/sun/soil needs of your plants, and plant ones with the same needs together. That way you can vary the watering within a single bed.

Plant a variety of nectar and host plants that bloom at different times and you’ll have lots of pollinators. Then slow down, and enjoy your gardens.

• For gardening questions, call the Linn County Extension Master Gardener Hortline at (319) 447-0647.

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