How Can Native Flowers Save Your Veggies?

When I share the EarthDance story with tour goers and public events, I’m often asked, “How does an organic farm deal with pests?” The answer is complicated — organic farmers take a whole-farm approach to pest management that begins with fostering healthy soil, which supports healthy plants with stronger resistance to insects attack.

Another important part of EarthDance’s IPM (Integrated Pest Management) strategy is encouraging “natural allies” or beneficial insects.  That is, we provide habitat for bugs that prey on pests, the insects that would damage our food crops.  These insects often eat pests only during one phase of life, but depend on food from flowers to sustain them throughout their adulthood.  For example, Parasitic wasps lay their eggs inside many caterpillars.  When the eggs hatch, they feed on the pest.  When they grow to adulthood, they need to eat pollen and nectar from flowers. There is also research to indicate that well-fed beneficial insects lay more eggs, increasing the total predator population!

As EarthDance continues to embrace a permaculture approach to farming, we are excited to announce our native wildflower IPM project.  This year, EarthDance was awarded a

NCR-SARE (North Central Region Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education, a division of the US Department of Agriculture) grant that enables us to plant a huge number of native plants in order to make the farm a more diverse, better-functioning ecosystem.  EarthDance is grateful to NRC-SARE for their support of this project!  As they mature, superstar native species like New England Aster, Dotted Mint, and Golden Alexanders will attract beneficial insects and pollinators while beautifying our farmscape.   A total of 800 native plants will be interplanted with EarthDance’s permaculture orchard trees.

These natives will provide food for a wide variety of pollinators and beneficial insects. This is called farmscaping: using plants and landscaping techniques to attract and conserve beneficial wildlife, which includes insects and birds. We interplanted our fruit trees amidst our vegetable beds in order to give birds a place to perch and build nests, so that they can eat insects in our crops. In our SARE grant, EarthDance’s proposed to farmscape by planting native plants in our fruit tree berms.

The native plant species were chosen based on their proven ability to attract beneficial insects. (Michigan State University study) In addition to providing a “welcome map” for predator bugs, the flowers will also feed bees that pollinate our crops. On top of those ecosystem services, the flowers will make our landscape more beautiful, increasing the pleasure of spending time on the farm.  Plus, some of the natives, such as echinacea and boneset can be harvested for medicine making as well.  On top of these yields, EarthDance will also be able to provide increased education as we demonstrate the system to tour goers, farm apprentices, and local youth.

A big thanks to the many volunteers who have helped us kick off the planting!  With the help of 35 volunteers, we have already planted almost 700 natives.   As it continues, we will share updates about this exciting project!