Ecosystem Gardening: Blog Action Day on Food 10/16/11

Meadow garlic (Allium canadense), a Florida native,
belongs in your herb garden next to the chives.
More and more people are growing at least some of their own food. The reasons for this resurgence include food safety issues, lack of money for fresh vegetables, educating the children that carrots grow in the ground (not on the supermarket shelves), and simply the desire to replace an unused and expensive-to-maintain lawn with something more productive.

What is a post on food doing on a native plant society blog?
Native plants play an important role in sustainable edible gardens. Sometimes native plants are the crops such as meadow garlic (“A Native Herb has Earned a Spot Amongst the Mediterranean Species” ), prickly pear ("Edible Native Recovers from the Frost"), and dotted horsemint (“Dotted Horsemint: An Appreciation”), but mostly native plants play a supporting role. An edible garden with all its non-native plants, both the carefully-bred cultivars and ancient heirloom species, does not exist in isolation; it is part of the larger ecosystemthe surrounding landscape and neighborhood.

Butternut squash (Curcubita maxima). Squash flowers
need to be visited by 8 or 9 pollinators to ensure
good fruit formation.
To have a successful, poison-free edible garden, the surrounding landscape should include features that house, feed and shelter pollinators and pest predators—informally known as the "beneficials." Pollinators are essential for many of our favorite crops and it’s been estimated that every third bite of food has been pollinated by a bee. (“Every Third Bite”) For instance, crops in the squash family (summer squash, butternut squash, melons, cucumbers) need to be visited by a pollinator 8 or 9 times to ensure the formation of the fruit.

We’ve heard a lot about the honeybees and the colony collapse disorder that beekeepers have been grappling with, but if you practice ecosystem gardening, you’ll attract native bees that can do a fantastic job as pollinators for your crops and fruits, plus if the non-native honeybees find their way into your yard, you’ll be supporting them, too.

A native blue bee works a prickly pear cactus flower
(Opuntia humisfolia), an edible native.
In addition to bees, the other beneficials include birds, bats, frogs, toads, lizards (but not the larger plant-eating lizardsthe iguanas found in south Florida), snakes, spiders, centipedes, predatory insects, and parasitoid insects. Encouraging them is an important part of your integrated pest management (IPM) program and overall ecosystem management. There are a number of excellent advantages for this method of control:

· Your crops will not have any pesticide residues.
· The predators do much of the work, although you will help with physical controls.
· It helps to prevent the development of pesticide resistance in target bugs.
· You are not contributing to overall environmental pollution.
· Insect predators will wax and wane in pace with pest populations.
· It's a more balanced ecosystem. A poisoned landscape requires ever vigilant, total life-support from you.

Beggar ticks (Bidens alba) may be a weed, but it attracts
a wide variety of insects including these cool
polka-dotted wasp moths.
Attracting and Keeping Pest Killers

Provide good habitat for both the insects and their predators--some have called this farmscaping. You'll want to encourage a large insect population to keep the predators supplied with plenty of food. This may seem counter-productive since you're trying to get rid of problem insects, but your goal as an ecosystem gardener is to let the populations reach a balance or equilibrium. The predator populations expand and contract in reaction to the pest populations. You can purchase ladybugs and other predatory insects, but adding too many predators at once rarely works, and of course, the ladybugs will fly away home or at least to some other place.

It's a good idea to keep a variety of flowers with different colors and structures blooming in areas in and around your edible gardens throughout the growing season—that means year round here in Florida. This way you provide nectar and pollen for both the adult predatory insects and the important pollinators. Create different layers of vegetation in the areas around your edible gardens by planting native hedgerows that have leaves from the ground to high shrubbery level to provide good shelter--hedgerows make a good windbreak, as well.
Some specific plant types attract your beneficials:

1) Low-growing creepers provide cover for ground beetles.
2) Small florets arranged in a flat flower head are good for the adult phase of those tiny parasitoid wasps. Plants from the carrot family (Apiaceae) work well. These are plants that you'd have in your herb garden anyway such as parsley, fennel, coriander, and dill.
3) Flowers in the daisy family (Asteraceae) such as asters, mist flowers, coreopsis, black-eyed Susans, marigolds, zinnias, and goldenrod.
4) Flowers of the mint family (Lamiaceae) members such as monarda, salvia, scarlet sage, and various mints to attract hummingbirds, predatory wasps, hover flies, and robber flies.

Plant a bug garden with some parsley or dill so
you'll have a place to deposit the beautiful
black swallowtail larvae. This way you can
eat your herbs and still support the butterflies.
When you look at this list, most of the flowers that attract beneficial insects are also attractive to humans. Some gardeners set aside an area with parsley and/or dill for the bugs. You can relocate those swallowtail butterfly larvae to the bug garden so they may dine in peace on your non-crop parsley or dill. And when these plants bloom, the beneficial parasitoid wasps will also enjoy the nectar and pollen and later birds will enjoy the seeds. Your bug garden will become a bird and butterfly garden.

In addition to maintaining a large insect population, attract and keep carnivorous birds and bats on your property by supplying appropriately designed bird and bat houses and other shelter such as snags and brush piles. Hummingbirds eat insects when they are raising young, so keep them coming to your property with red or orange tubular flowers and hummingbird feeders. (“One Native Plant = Three Habitat Benefits” ) Install a purple martin apartment house in an open area near a body of water. Maintain some of your property as an open meadow (rather than a closely cropped lawn) for the bluebirds and other ground-feeding birds. If you garden in a small urban plot, a balcony, or just a cinder block raised bed garden, you could plant butterfly and insect-attracting plants nearby: in containers near the front door, in a hanging basket under eaves, or at the local community center, school, or church yard. This way, your whole neighborhood becomes a functioning ecosystem.

Leave some out-of-the-way places uncultivated with no weed barrier and no mulch, but with a log or a pile of brush where critters can make their nests in the ground. Most solitary bees, which are important native pollinators, build their nests in the ground or drill into dead wood. Create permanent toad shelters in and around your gardenstoads will return the favor by dining on your slugs and bugs. A toad shelter can be as simple as a piece of a clay pot or a flat rock with a small crevice under it.

Green darner dragonflies mating and depositing their
eggs in the water. Water features should include still
water with emergent plants such as this
native spatterdock (Nuphar advena).
To provide habitat for frogs and dragonflies, you need a pond or a water feature nearby so they can complete their life cycles. It doesn't have to be large (just a half barrel or a sunken pre-formed hard plastic pond), but it should include a good variety of plant materials, fish, snails, and both shallow and deep water. If your pond has a beach, or mud flats, the butterflies and wasps will also enjoy it. If you are raising watercress, you will need a circulating water feature such as a multi-layered fountain with a solar-powered pump. This fountain can also be designed for frogs, birds and bugs, if you have a relatively still section where the over-flow collects.

Your Neighborhood Ecosystem

Many people call themselves locavores and try to use only local sources for food. What could be more local than growing edibles in our yards, school gardens, and community gardens? More native plants in and around your yard and the entire neighborhood provide the backbone for a bug-welcoming ecosystem, which provides the perfect environment for the neighborhood edible gardens.


· My post over on the Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens blog includes an explanation of the harmful poison cycle: "A Poison is a Poison is a Poison."
· At the FNPS conference last May we learned about native bees: “What was all that Buzzz at FNPS?” and “More Buzz About Bees
· Why are they Dying?” From the New Internationalist Magazine
· On Einstein, Bees, and the Survival of the Human Race” from the Entomology Department at the University of Georgia.
· U.S Fish and Wildlife Service’s “pollinators” web page with lots of resources:

I am proud to be taking part in Blog Action Day OCT 16 2011

The post is part of the Blog Action Day October 16, 2011

The official Blog Action Day tag is #BAD11

Now is a great time to start an edible garden in Florida, where we grow the cool weather crops right through the winter. Producing your own food—now that's action.
Ginny Stibolt


Anonymous said…
Wow, Ginny great post! You've made a great case for using native plants and for the non-poisonous ecosystem gardening. I hope lots of people read this important messge.

V. Avery
Anonymous said…
Ginny, this is a fantastic post with so much useful information to help people who garden and guess what? People who eat food!! And that covers just about everybody, I think!! These issues should be at the forefront of everyone's thoughts - today and tomorrow, too. Thanks for all you are doing to help natives, educate people, and make the world more sustainable. Sue
Marvelous post, Ginny. Floridians interested in growing fruits, herbs or veggies (and who isn't) really need to hook into adding the balancing native plant habitat to help ensure pollination and free organic pest control. Many of our retail native nurseries are now also offering edible food plants and classes on permaculture and other edibles gardening topics. Sustainable landscapes sustain us and the world we live in. Thanks for your great work.
janealvarado83 said…

I hope you're having an awesome week! I thought you might like this infographic I helped build about the health, mental, and financial benefits of gardening (

If you think your readers would like it too, please feel free to use it on the Florida Native Plant Society. There's code at the bottom of our post that makes it super easy to post on your blog. It's all free (of course). If you have any questions about posting it, let me know and I'll try to help.


~ Janey
Hobo Botanist said…
Awesome article, growing food along with natives is all part of creating an ecologically sociologically sustainable landscape. Native palm flowers are also wonderful for attracting predatory insects.
You know what? You learn something new every day. I've been designing and installing landscapes for 15 years now. And yes, we've seen an uptick in requests for edibles in gardens over the last 3 years. But I never even thought of the importance of including plants that attract polinators and other beneficials. You've taught me something new and we will use this. Thank you!
Sometimes gardening take away all my stress and make me relaxed, What I enjoyed he most in gardening is when its time for harvesting the crops or tending my beautiful flowers. I enjoyed more in gardening than being in the office doing some paper works :(


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