Well, here we are, enjoying our first pandemic. Most of us anyway. But even the flimsiest grasp of history informs us that bad times are a dime a dozen. The Universe is indeed infinite, and it has innumerable ways to stress us out, and when it isn’t, someone else is.

In previous such times, people rallied. During WWII, the Big One, people brought their pots and pans to be made into battleships, delivered their bacon grease to become bombs, and planted Victory Gardens so farmers could turn their plowshares into swords and fight overseas. This time around it seems people are more interested in Monday morning quarterbacking decision makers. Something about the present day and age that has everyone thinking they know more than the experts. Until they need a transplant. Or chemo. Then, suddenly, they’re all ears.

Anyway, despite the stupidity of our memed out and overly politicized times and how they have made caricatures of too many once open, complex, and critically thinking people, it seems that one constructive thing Americans are doing is planting more gardens. All my garden center contacts confirm this, adding that people seem most interested in starting vegetable gardens.

Vegetable gardens have a bad rap as being ugly. Well, it doesn’t have to be that way. Adding flowering plants for pollinators is a good first step to making a vegetable garden more productive and better-looking all at the same time.

 Makes sense. Vegetable gardening is commonly viewed as both an easy entry into gardening and a money saver. Neither, of course, is necessarily true, but with well-directed effort the average non-gardening homeowner can soon enjoy all the positive attributes of gardening—good  outdoors exercise, connection to the earth and it’s fascinating and affirming life processes, stress relief, and, of course, delicious, nutritious vegetables fresh from the garden.

So, yes, times of crisis are a fine time to transform that forlorn patch of turf into the fertile and productive mini-farm it has always wanted to become, but I’ll also argue that even in the best of times people should grow more of their own food. We have strayed too far from the simultaneously humbling and uplifting awareness that we depend on the planet, all of its plants and animals, and its intricate, fragile, and miraculously beautiful life cycles to provide us food, water, all the other necessities of life, and then some! The minute you start put seeds in furrows and start coaxing them to germinate, you are firmly, yet gently, reminded of this.

But vegetables can be hard to grow. Over many years, most food producing plants have been selected away from the original wild plants they once were and molded into plants that better meet the needs and desires of people–better flavor, greater production, longer storage, and some other things. Of course, there was a price to pay for this, which the plants themselves had to pay. They lost some of their natural defenses against pests and disease. This is why most of our modern vegetables sometimes require the use of pesticides.

Although there are some cheap, easily obtained, and reasonably safe home pesticides on the market, it is probably fair to say that most homeowners would rather not devote the time, expense, and effort to using them if they don’t absolutely have to. It’s probably also fair to say they when they do use them it is often unnecessary and sometimes unsafely. Fortunately, through good execution of gardening basics, most home gardeners can grow plenty of crops without pesticides and still achieve fresh, healthy, and bountiful harvests.

These gardening basics are pretty simple: improve soil by the addition of organic matter, choose vegetables that perform well in your region, select among those the most highly rated varieties for disease and pest resistance, maintain garden hygiene, fertilize when/if needed, and water when necessary. Oh, and one other thing. Something important that will really amp up one’s odds of success—include within the vegetable patch (or grow somewhere nearby) a variety of nectar and pollen producing flowers that will consistently bloom from May to October that will attract pollinators.

Apart from pollinating vegetable plants and ensuring a better harvest, certain types of pollinators will also perform another function that is just as important—pest  control. Although you’ll still enjoy them, butterflies and bees are of little to no use here. Nope. For pests, you need flies and wasps.

I know exactly what you’re thinking. Ack! Flies? They like garbage, they visit poop, and then land on your deviled eggs at picnics. And wasps? They sting. You are of course free to think and say these things, and you wouldn’t be completely wrong if you do, but you also wouldn’t be exactly right. And you definitely wouldn’t be seeing the bigger picture.

First, flies. The Order of flies (Diptera) is massive. Annoying and disgusting house flies make up but a tiny fraction of the approximately million species. The rest? Well, some of those are pollinators. They sup on nectar, and honestly could not care less about your poop or your picnics. Mostly, they just fly around doing their good deeds completely unnoticed because they’re often very small, mistaken for bees which they mimic, or both. And we have got to learn to appreciate them!

A hover fly.

A tomato hornworm bearing unmistakable evidence of having been parasitized.

As adults (and not unlike most adults in other species, including ours) they feed and mate. Feeding for them is to enjoy nectar in the flowers you provide. This is all well and good. As they visit flowers to feed they contribute some to better pollination which brings greater abundance to the land. But what we’re really interested in is their mating. for it leads to pest control. And a gruesome pest control at that.

What happens is the females get pregnant, and they’re angry about it. They start patrolling the landscape looking, I’m told, mostly for vegetable gardens. Like yours. Where your practically defenseless royal family, pale, sweet, inbred plants are haplessly trying to grow and produce tasty vegetables for you and your family. It is on these plants where those fat, hot, irritated, pregnant female flies with swollen feet find a plethora of soft bodied insects like aphids and caterpillars chewing their way through your crops, and, upon them she descends and brings hell with her as she lays her eggs under their soft, supple skin.  Then, the eggs hatch into pupae. Which, then, set about eating the pest alive from the inside until it dies. Which, in my opinion, is  a truly fitting end to anything that tries to eat anything from my garden, except, of course, for my kids. And maybe some friends. Possibly my wife.

Some wasps, like flies, feed on pollen and nectar and then lay their eggs in other insects, but some prefer a varied diet and will also feed outright on them. Most “garden-variety” wasps are very small, and, unless you’re looking for them, go virtually unseen. They won’t sting you. You shouldn’t fear them. Nor should you fear the larger wasps in the garden. Many are not even capable of stinging, and even those that can simply won’t while they are feeding. When it comes to food, they are pretty darned focused. Stings only happen when an unlucky person strays too near a nest or is dumb enough to walk around barefoot.

Here are ten steps to a beautiful and productive Vegetable/Pollinator Garden.

  1. Choose a sunny, reasonably flat site (or make a flat site by terracing a slope).
  2. Good soil preparation. Vegetables are heavy feeders. You’ll want more fertility than ornamental gardens, so work in some extra compost, mushroom compost, or composted manure.
  3. Select the vegetables that grow well in your region, and, among those, the most highly rated varieties. Your local garden center is a good source for this information, as are your county extension agent, regional vegetable trial gardens often associated with universities, and All American Selections.
  4. Select a mix of pollinator plants that will provide a continuous bloom from April or May to frost. Often, this is most easily achieved using annuals. You can buy these as plants or seeds. Again, check out your garden center, extension, and regional trials for the best varieties.
  5. Keep the garden weeded by pulling or using a hoe. Mulching lightly with clean straw or pine straw can reduce the need to weed.
  6. Water when the soil is drying out. Mulching can reduce the need to water.
  7. Refrain from using pesticides unless absolutely necessary. We suggest consulting with your extension agent when you suspect a pest or disease. If spraying a pesticide is deemed necessary, choose the pesticide that causes the least damage to the environment and beneficial insects. Many times, your beneficial insect populations take a few days to catch up to your pests, but once they do they quickly clear up the problem.
  8. Protect your vegetable garden from deer using fencing.
  9. Raised beds make it easier to improve your soil, ensure better soil drainage, warm up your soil more quickly in the spring, and they make it a little easier on the gardener to plant, weed, and harvest.
  10. Acquire other useful references. We recommend publications by your state’s university extension office, some nonprofits, garden centers, and nearby longtime gardeners. There are also many great books on vegetable gardening.

This blog in a slightly different version was previously published by the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden.