Vegetable Garden Best Practices for Pollinators

bumble bee on blueberry

Bumble bee buzz pollination on blueberry, Heather Holm, 2018

Vegetable gardening can be a part of every backyard and community space. Our ancestoral homesteads were complete with orchards, berry producing bushes and vegetable crops.  Before pesticides, gardeners were well versed in using beneficial insects, soil health, hedgerows, beetle banks, biodiversity and composting to insure a bountiful harvest.

Harvesting heirloom tomatoes

Basics of a biodiverse veggie garden:

You'll need a plan whether it's starting a new or expanding your fruit and veggie gardens or crops.

  • Start a list - what do you and your garden friends like to eat?
  • Plan your garden with flowers, veggies, herbs and fruit intermixed.  Rotate what you plant each year. Within plant families also. For instance, don't put a nightshade where you had one last year.
  • Choose a site that gets at least 6 hours of direct sunlight per day.
  • Before you plant, know your soil. What it is and what it needs. Test the soil to determine pH and nutrients. Ideal soil for most veggie plants is loose, deep and crumbly with good drainage and plenty of nutrients and organic matter. Also know your area (sun, wind, rain variables).
  • Seed catalogs are fun to peruse. Buy only from trusted seed suppliers. Get seeds with a good history of germination that are open pollinated for seed saving and not treated/coated with pesticides.
  • Add organic matter such as compost, leaf and grass clippings. To prepare the soil before planting your garden, a cover crop like buckwheat can help rebuild deficient soil especially the first year .
  • Start a compost system with veggie and yard waste to recycle nutrient rich material for the veggie garden. Place the bins in or near the garden.
  • Protect soil from erosion by covering the garden with plants and mulch.
  • Keep areas around plants weeded.  Use newspaper, cardboard, leaf litter or rotted unsprayed hay for mulch. Blueberries do well with pine needles.
  • Keep a detailed garden journal.  Keep notes on weather, fruiting times, disease, what does well and not, and when pests visit.  Include a map in your journal.
  • Do not use chemical pesticides including insecticides, herbicides and fungicides.  All pesticides can harm pollinators and other insects.  Hand pick pests or use least harmful "pesticides" such as diatomaceous earth, insecticidal soaps, vinegar or corn gluten.
  • Greenhouses are especially nice for growing winter greens, getting a head start on sprouting in spring, and drying herbs in the summer.

hand weeding spinach

Garden maintenance:

RELAX: It's best to consider tending and weeding as a meditative activity. It's a time to connect with nature, plants and creatures so it can be an enjoyable practice. Keep a journal of your garden observations to include weather, planting times, pest and disease control and also personal appreciations such as welcome visits from hummingbirds, seed pod shapes or magnificent sunsets.


  • Scout plants several times a week for plant and insect problems.
  • Tolerate minor insect and plant damage.
  • Pick off and dispose of pests by hand.  For instance, throw potatoe bugs or tomato horn-worms into a pail of soapy water until they suffocate.
  • Remove any diseased or infested plant parts from the garden area.
  • Floating row covers discourage pests like flea beetles on cabbage and eggplant.
  • Control weeds with mulches, hand-pulling, hoes or other garden tools.
  • Add diversity with flowers around the garden to attract beneficial insects and pollinators.
  • Fencing and row covers help deter garden robbers like raccoons, rabbits and moles. Organic farmers allow a percentage 30%-60% of fruits to "nature" including wildlife. Cut holes in the row covers for pollinators to access flowers, or remove the covers when plants are blooming.

LEAVE YOUR GARDEN UP OVER WINTER:  Skipping fall clean up until late spring is one good way to get a jump start on controlling pests in the spring. Instead of cutting everything down, leave your gardens up for overwintering beneficial insects and pollinators that use stiff stemed plants to hibernate.  Native bees hunker down under peeling tree bark, or burrow in the ground, mulch or leave piles. Chrysalis for swallowtail butterflies hang from dead plant stems or tuck away in a seed pod or under leaf litter.  If we cut down and clean up the garden, we are eliminating overwintering sites for pollinators and beneficial insects. 

BIRDS AND WILDLIFE like chickadees, wrens and bluebirds are insect eaters. They consume thousands of caterpillars and pest insects to raise their young.  Leaving the garden up means there will be more protein-rich insects for birds. Birds are experts at finding "overwintering" insects in plant stems, under bark and in leaf litter. The more nurturing-habitat you have, the bigger bird population. Honey bee hives can be placed near the garden for pollination services, and native bee houses on trees or stands near or in the garden.

Include seed heavy plants, berry producing shrubs and fruit trees for song birds such as:

Mining bee on plum (Schneider, 2017), Raspberry bushes at Hoch Organics (Schneider, 2018), Bumble bee on blueberries (Holm, 2018)

mining bee on plum tree Hoch Orchards Raspberry bumble bee on blueberry








  • Virburnum
  • Serviceberry
  • Blueberry
  • Highbush cranberry
  • Chokeberry
  • Elderberry
  • Hawthorn
  • Crabapple
  • Plum, pear, apple

Predatory and beneficial insects for gardening:

There are thousands of species of predatory and parasitic beneficial insects that help control common garden pests by feeding on them or feeding them to their young.  Many of the insects you encounter in the garden are benign or beneficial. These insects are capable of consuming tens of thousands of pests every day such as ladybugs, lacewings, stinkbugs, soldier beetles, tachnid flies, parasitic wasps, pirate bugs, ground beetles and others. Ladybugs are notorious pest eaters, each consuming dozens of pest insects and insect eggs every day.  To have a balanced population of predatory insects, provide overwintering habitat.

Plants that attract and support beneficial insects & pollinators:

  • Achillea millefolium – yarrow
  • Ammi majus – laceflower
  • Anethum graveolens – dill
  • Angelica species – angelica
  • Baccharis species – baccharis
  • Boltonia asteroides – boltonia
  • Coreopsis species – tickseed
  • Cosmos bipinnatus – cosmos
  • Eriogonum species – native buckwheat
  • Eupatorium perfoliatum – common boneset
  • Helianthus annuus – sunflower
  • Leucanthemum x superbum – shasta daisy
  • Labularia maritima – sweet alyssum
  • Phacelia tanacetifolia – lacy phacelia
  • Pycnanthemum species – mountain mint
  • Ratibida pinnata – prairie coneflower
  • Rudbeckia species – black-eyed Susans
  • Solidago species – goldenrod
  • Spirea alba – meadowsweet
  • Symphyotrichum species – hardy aster
  • Veronicastrum virginicum – culver’s root
  • Zizia aurea – golden alexanders
  • Zizia aptera – heartleaf alexanders  

squash bee on squash flower   honey bee on cucumber  rusty patch bumble bee bee balm 





Left: Squash bees on squash;  Center: Honey bee on cucumber; Rusty patch bumble bee on bergamot;

Garden Accents:

  • garden pathways or stepping stones
  • raised bed boxes
  • hedgerow of fruit producing shrubs (wind block)
  • fruit bearing trees
  • arbors, trellises, sculptures
  • fountain or water feature
  • benches, gazebo, patio
  • honey bee hive, bird houses, bird feeders, bee houses

Veggie companion planting:

  • heirloom corn and sunflowers
  • heirloom tomato or corn, green bean or pea and cosmo, marigold or rosemary (repels beetles)
  • do not plant tomato, potato and corn nearby to avoid earworm and blight
  • zucchini, watermelon and marigold
  • potato and marigold
  • peppers and basil (repels aphids, spider mites)
  • cucumber, winter squash and zinnia (repel aphids, beetles)
  • strawberries as cover crop around asparagus, rhubarb
  • strawberry, onions, lettuce and marigolds
  • bush beans repel beetles, nitrogen-fixing
  • borage repel insect pests, attracts pollinators
  • lettuce, mint keeps slugs away, chives and garlic (repel aphids)
  • broccoli, carrots, peas, radishes work weel with marigolds
  • lupin repels beetles, nitrogen-fixing
  • tomatoes repel cabbage caterpillars
  • onions deter many pests
  • radishes deter cucumber beetles
  • carrots with onions and leeks repel carrot flies

Garden Tools

  • hoe
  • rototiller
  • rakes
  • wheel barrow
  • pruners
  • pitch fork
  • buckets
  • hoses and sprinklers

Helpful links:

Beneficial insect lists (Center for Urban Ecology & Sustainability)

Pollinator plant list (Center for Urban Ecology & Sustainability)

Native seed mix suppliers (Xerces Society)

Organic farming methods (Midwest Organic & Sustainable Education Service)

Companion planting chart (Farmers Almanac)

Vegetable garden designs (Morning Chores)

Cover crops for vegetable farminging (Midwest Organic & Sustainable Education Service)

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