Insectary plants are grown to attract and provide for beneficial insects.
There are many insect parasites and predators that can help control garden pests without the use of chemical pesticides. While they may not eliminate all of the pests, insect parasites have evolved into effective predators of the insects that plague our gardens and landscapes. By installing plants that attract and feed these beneficial insects, the need for more stringent measures is reduced. And, hey, who doesn’t want a garden filled with flowers?
What makes an insect beneficial?
Insects are called ‘beneficials’ when they help us get what we want. In the case of gardening, beneficial insects may be pollinators, predators, or parasites. Pollinators, such as solitary bees, increase crop yields by transferring pollen to female flowers. If you have a monochrome garden with no flowers other than your cucumber and tomato plants, you won’t get nearly the same production as you would with a diverse color palette and many other flowers besides your vegies. Other beneficials, such as lady beetles, chow down on aphids and many other pests, like they were a bag of potato chips. A third group of beneficials is the parasites. These insects lay their eggs in insect pests, killing them from the inside out. The syrphid wasp, or hoverfly, and many other tiny parasitic wasps, are very efficient killers and, no, they do not sting people.
The problem with buying predatory insects
Some beneficial insects are so well known that you can buy them. Lady beetles (ladybugs), lacewings, and praying mantis are purchased each spring by the millions, It is true, they are voracious feeders and they can put a serious dent in an aphid or other pest population. And they can fly, which means that if your landscape does not give them what they want and need, they will go elsewhere. This is where insectary plants comes in.
Color, shape, and height
Some insects prefer globe flowers, while other prefer flat landing strips. Most insects see a very limited range of color (even if that range is frequently beyond what we can see). Some insects prefer flowers and foliage that are low to the ground, while others seek out taller flowers with a better view. By planting a wide variety of flower colors, shapes, and heights, you can attract and retain the widest range of beneficial insects to your garden or landscape.
The trick to attracting and maintaining these beneficial insects is to plan for sequential flowering. Of course, your job will be even easier if you select plants well suited to your microclimate, while you’re at it! The choice of which plants to use depends on the pests commonly found in your garden or landscape. These plants are nearly always a good bet:
Where to put insectary plants
Your insectary plants can be used to create hedgerows that surround a garden plot, along a walkway path, or you can simply intersperse these helpers throughout the landscape. Most residential gardens, however, are too small to make this much of a concern, unlike agricultural fields, so you can put them wherever they will thrive and look nice.
Like other plants in the landscape, your insectary plants will need weeding, irrigation, and protection from vertebrate pests to stay healthy. The initial investment of time and effort will make your job as a gardener that much easier, once these plants become established. Be sure to provide your guests with water, while you're at it!
Sorghum is a global food and fodder crop and it makes a pretty good syrup.
Sorghum is a drought and heat resistant member of the grain family, making it an easy plant in warmer regions. Even if you don't enjoy a bowl of cooked sorghum (and you really should try it), the seeds make excellent food for local birds and wildlife (and backyard chickens). If you’ve ever bought a bag of wild bird seed, the larger, dark brown seeds are sorghum. Sorghum is used predominantly in the South to make syrup, but it is the world’s fifth largest cereal crop. Sorghum’s high sugar content makes it useful in making biofuels, alcoholic beverages, and flour. It can even be popped like popcorn or added to soups and stews, the way you would use barley. Sorghum is an ancient grain, having been domesticated some 8,000 years ago, and it is gluten-free.
Cousins to sugarcane, sorghum is one rugged plant. It reproduces by rhizomes and by seeds and it grows and spreads so well that “Johnson grass” (Sorghum halapense) has earned its reputation as a troublesome invasive. The same characteristics that make sorghum a potential problem are the very same characteristics that make it a useful landscape addition. Some sorghum varieties grow as tall as corn, while others have more of a clumping growth. In either case, the wide, flat leaves grow upward and then hang over, staying green all summer. The seed clusters are abundant and prolific. Sorghum is a short-day plant. This means that is needs long nights to begin the flowering process. In the Bay Area, most sorghum plan its will die back to clumps in winter and then come back each spring, proving a wealth of seeds for local birds and wildlife (and you!) throughout the summer.
Nitrogen ‘fixing’ sorghum
Like legumes, pineapple, mango, and sweet potatoes, sorghum has evolved alongside a helpful bacteria (Gluconacetobacter diazotrophicus) that fixes atmospheric nitrogen, making it available to the plant and its neighbors (until it goes to seed).
Sorghum pests and diseases
Like many other plants, sorghum has built-in defenses of its own. In its early stages of growth, and when severely stressed, sorghum plants contain relatively high levels of hydrogen cyanide and other chemicals that protect it from being eaten. Dried fruit beetles, sugarcane aphids, crane fly larva, and sorghum midges may also attack your sorghum, but I have found this to be a very durable plant.
Using sorghum in a home garden or landscape
While you can certainly grow sorghum in an agricultural field, this plant also lends itself nicely to the edges of walkway paths, raised beds, difficult areas, and poor soil. Once established, sorghum needs only minimal care and irrigation, compared to most other plants. Also, it will come back, year after year, without any effort on your part.
Try adding this ancient grain to your garden landscape today!
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!
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