How Native Plants Can Help Your Vegetable Garden Grow
When growing a vegetable garden, there are so many variables that can either mean a successful garden with an abundance of fresh vegetables or a paltry yield. We tend to monitor how much water our garden receives, find the perfect spot so our plants get enough or perhaps not too much sunlight, and perhaps we remember that we need to add amendments to the soil so the plants get enough nutrients. One thing that we can easily overlook is the need for pollinators to help our vegetable plants produce those much wanted vegetables.
So how do we help ensure that our yard is full of pollinators, such as butterflies, that can help pollinate our vegetable plants? By growing native plants that serve as hosts on our property, because it is the only way to help create more pollinators. A great example of a shrub that many think are beneficial to ecosystems, but which are actually more harmful, is the butterfly bush. Many people believe that butterfly bushes–which are named as such, because many butterflies can descend on one all at once–is one of the best ways to invite pollinators, specifically butterflies, to their yards. However, a butterfly bush, which is considered invasive in many Mid-Atlantic states because they can spread outside of gardens and replace native plants in the ecosystem, do not serve as host plants as no caterpillars feed on them, thus they do not help create new pollinators. The best way to make sure that you have pollinators in your yard is to plant host plants. Host plants are those that other organisms live on and live off of.
To help your vegetable garden, here are some alternative native plants that serve as host plants for caterpillars (and are very beautiful):
Butterfly weed, swamp milkweed, common milkweed: all serve as host plants for Monarch butterflies. Swamp milkweed is an especially good choice for rain gardens and other heavy moisture areas. Not all milkweed is native to our region, such as the tropical milkweed. A good source to double check any plants before purchasing is the Digital Atlas of Virginia Flora.
Spicebush: a larval host for the Spicebush Swallowtail, this shrub is extremely versatile and will tolerate all types of sun exposure and moisture.
Common Winterberry: this shrub with beautiful red berries in the winter is a larval host for the Henry’s Elfin. It’s also a great replacement for nandina, because the winterberry’s berries are edible by wildlife; whereas, the nandina’s berries are toxic.
Oak: Oak trees can support over 500 insects and animals, making it a very wildlife friendly addition to any yard. Oaks serve as host plants to the following butterflies: Striped Hairstreak, Banded Hairstreak, Mourning Cloak, Edwards Hairstreak, Red Banded Hairstreak, White M Hairstreak, and Horace's Duskywing.
Paw Paw: the paw paw only serves as a larval host to one butterfly, the Zebra Swallowtail. However, if you plant at least two Paw Paw trees (or maybe a neighbor has one), you not only support wildlife, but you can harvest the fruit for yourself.
Christie Hoerneman has a passion for native plants, is a librarian at Central Rappahannock Regional Library, and on the Board of Directors at Downtown Greens.
This article was published in the April 2023 editon of Front Porch Magazine. Click the button below to read the full publication.