by Marcus Ragus (Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens)
When organic gardeners manage garden pest problems they often look at more than just the caterpillar, snail or diseased leaf. Their effort is to focus on the garden as a whole system of interacting influences that should, when well managed, act as a healthy and balanced environment more like that of a natural eco-system.
One of the key factors in building healthy self managing systems is to develop liveable habitats for creatures that can assist with regulating the pests in the garden. In many cases this can be as simple as providing shelter and a regular food supply for these creatures. A relatively simple way of achieving this goal within productive gardens is to identify plants that can provide us with multiple uses. For example a parsnip is an excellent root vegetable but most people are not aware that it is also an excellent nectar bearing plant when allowed to run to flower. The flowers provide lots of high energy nectar and pollen protein for insect predators such as native parasitic wasps, adult lacewings and adult hoverflies who in turn also feed on plant pests such as aphids, whitefly and scales. If planted in groups they can often provide dense foliage habitat for other predators like brown tree frogs, skinks and even small insectivorous birds such as wrens, thornbills and silvereyes. These dense leafy habitats also enable insectivorous predatory creatures such as spiders and predatory mites to lay eggs, raise young and generally hang about and lie in wait for prey.
What is Floral Abundance?
The term ‘Floral Abundance’ is often used for environments that encompass flowering plants in planned productive gardens which provide such benefits as those described above. There are many plants that can be used for creating these rich habitats. Normally it is best to use a combination of plant types from annuals, biennials to perennials, which can then provide diversity of plant type but also what is referred to as permanence of habitat all year round. There is nothing worse for these environments than to clear a site of all plants; there needs to be some cover and ideally flower all year round to encourage a rich diversity of predators. If you need production space you can leave edge beds surrounding the production bed environments that can then be filled with plants that provide habitat and flower most of the year round. The predatory creatures will move from these beds to the production beds as crops develop. The key is to plan your plantings so that flowering takes place throughout the year and the best plants to use are ones which pro
vide multiple uses for the gardener.
Classifying plants into families
Most people may be familiar with the fact that plants are collectively classified into families of broadly representative plant types. A number of these families have characteristics that are better suited for floral abundance gardens like high nectar and pollen production, prolific flowering over a long period and flowers suited to insectivorous insects. They also are made up of plants that have multiple uses for the produce gardener either to harvest as a vegetable, or to save the seed, or to use in a floral abundance garden. Additionally they can look great even when left to flower. So don’t think that you are wasting your vegetables or other productive plants by letting them go to flower, there really is so much more they can do for the garden.
Floral Abundance families that are great to start with
The Brassicaceae or the cabbage family includes productive plants such as leafy kales, rocket and mustards like the variety known as ‘Green in the Snow’. Not only have they got very edible greens, they are also particularly useful flowering plants if sown in the early summer of the previous season. These plants will produce high pollen bearing flower s in late winter, early spring through to summer and are particularly useful for beneficial insects when not many other plants have set flower.
The Apiaceae family includes productive plants such as parsnips, carrots, parsley, celery, celeriac, dill, fennel, coriander and lots more. They are characterised by very attractive umbrella like heads of greenish to cream, white flowers. The flowers glisten with nectar and they are also early spring to summer bloomers if planted in the previous spring, summer period. Carrots are particularly stunning when left to flower as in the case of the wild carrot or better known as Queen Anne’s lace.
The Asteraceae are an interesting family made up of plants with daisy like flower heads. Even though these flowers look like single flowers they are actually made up of many tiny flowers that individually open over a period of days or weeks. They are long lasting and are wonderful for beneficial creatures such as parasitic wasps and hover fly adults, providing a regular and long lasting food supply of nectar and pollen for them. Plants in this group include, lettuce, chicory, dandelion, feverfew, chamomile, calendula, and many other daisy’s galore.
Many of these families also produce viable seed to re-sow in the home garden, although some like Brassicaceae and some Apiaceae may not always breed true. However if flowering times of these plants are staggered as to species or variety this can limit cross breeding. Asteraceae plants are mostly self pollinating and therefore can breed true in most cases.
The development of a floral abundance garden is not difficult to establish, all it takes is a little planning and a change of mindset. There are many other plants that can also contribute to these types of gardens so experiment and find what best works for you and your garden. These additions to your garden actually work and their benefits have been demonstrated even within commercial agricultural throughout the world. It’s never too late to give it a go you will certainly not regret it.