A beginner’s guide to pollination happening in your garden

Julia Atkinson-Dunn is the writer and creator behind Studio Home.

As a child, I could confidently identify a flower’s anthers, stamens, and other reproductive mechanisms.

Thanks to the basic botany taught everywhere in elementary school classes, I even managed to make a simplistic description of the pollination process.

But much of that information was then drowned out by the lesser, but all-consuming knowledge needed in adulthood, and it wasn’t until I started gardening that it came to the surface.

Effective pollination is much easier if we know the habits of some of our most common pollinators.

Julia Atkinson Dunn

Effective pollination is much easier if we know the habits of some of our most common pollinators.

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With my connection to the natural world and its processes through creating my own garden in my mid-thirties, I enjoyed watching the increased movement of bees around my beds, knowing that this is indeed a good thing.

On occasion, I’ve even felt the need to justify my interest in floral gardening (as opposed to growing food) by ending my garden descriptions with, “Of course, I grow flowers for pollinators, you know”.

If nothing else, the fact that one out of every three bites of food we eat is the result of animal pollination, reinforces our dependence on these beasts and the cultivation of flowers sustains their sustenance.

Flies, along with butterflies and moths, are important contributors to the pollination circus.

Julia Atkinson Dunn

Flies, along with butterflies and moths, are important contributors to the pollination circus.

To take you back to the roots of your class, the process of pollination is described as the transfer of a plant’s pollen (plant sperm) from the anther (part of the stamen which is the male anatomy of a flower) to the stigma (part of the pistil which is the female anatomy of the flower). The result is fertilization and the ability for a plant to produce fruit and/or seeds.

Yes, it’s botanical sex, but with a supporting third party – the pollinator.

Pollen transfer can be facilitated by wind and water or by insects and mammals. Plants have evolved in a way that ensures the continued diversification and health of their own species, designing themselves to appeal specifically to the pollinator best suited to their conditions and needs.

Their scent, color, shape, and even bloom time correspond directly to the preferences of the chosen pollinator who is in search of sources of delicious nectar and nutritious pollen. We are just lucky passers-by who admire, and sometimes welcome, the activity.

Most plants prefer to be pollinated with pollen from another of their own species. This is called “cross-pollination,” and is why you may need to plant more than one of each plant to achieve fruit or successful self-seeding.

Fertilizing a flower with its own pollen or that of another flower on the same plant can result in poor seed production and less vigorous seedlings. This is called “self-pollination”, basically inbreeding, and is sometimes difficult for the plant to avoid. Some plants, such as flax which is pollinated primarily by tui, try to reduce “self-pollination” by ripening their anther a few weeks before their stigma.

Most plants prefer to be pollinated with pollen from another of their own species.

Julia Atkinson Dunn

Most plants prefer to be pollinated with pollen from another of their own species.

Effective pollination is much easier if we know the habits of some of our most common pollinators.

For example, each separate foraging trip made by a bee focuses on a single type of plant. News of good sources of nectar and pollen is shared among bees in the form of the Waggle Dance – a bee wags and turns its body to describe the distance, direction and type of plant its fellow foragers should explore.

I was intrigued to discover that bumblebees provide turbo boosted pollination service which is especially desirable for many plants including tomatoes, blueberries and eggplant. These plants do not give up their pollen as easily, requiring close contact vibrations to release it. This is called “buzz pollination”, and this is where the bumblebee reigns supreme! Listen carefully for that furious buzz the next time you’re in the garden.

Halfway through writing this article, I stepped out to watch my own pollinator crew in action. I spent an hour with my nose at bloom level, swapping close observations between my eyes, my camera, and my phone’s slow-motion video setting. It was truly fascinating and I marveled at the challenges each pollinator faced as they navigated the vast diversity of floral architecture.

Dahlias tend to get a lot of attention.

Julia Atkinson Dunn

Dahlias tend to get a lot of attention.

By far the plants receiving the most attention in the garden, including regular on-arrival clashes between overbearing bumblebees and nippy bees, were single-petalled dahlias, coneflower and helenium. My harvest of sanguisorba, with its dense flower heads, did not seem popular at all – which I found understandable.

Also, for the first time, I noticed the occasional metallic green soldier quietly soaring above my astrantia and eryngium, approaching their work with a little less enthusiasm than their busier, more important. It hadn’t really occurred to me that flies, along with butterflies and moths, are also significant contributors to the pollination circus.

I encourage you to take some time to see who the pollinators are in your own garden. It’s a busy, productive and beautiful place to work.

You can reach Julia Atkinson-Dunn at @studiohomegardening or www.studiohome.co.nz.

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