Native Plants Bring Valuable Benefits to Farms

Natural Habitat Increases Pollinators, Pest Management, and Soil Fertility

by BC Farms & Food  -  Permalink
April 19, 2018

Kristen & James Miskelly, two young biologists dedicated to native plants and natural habitat restoration, are working on a big problem: the rapid decline of vital plant pollinators. At Haliburton Farm in Victoria, BC, where the Miskellys operate Saanich Native Plants nursery, they demonstrate how habitat and wild plants bring productivity and economic benefits to farms. (Article continues below video.)

Video: Farming with Native Plants to Bring Back Pollinators

A yellow and black western tiger swallowtail butterfly lands on the beautiful white flowers of a mock orange. Native plants bring valuable benefits to farms.

A western tiger swallowtail pollinates the flowers of a native mock orange shrub.

Just as tools, a barn, or a hoop house are essential for farming, setting aside natural habitat for native species is an integral part of growing healthy crops.

Natural habitats support a diversity of wild pollinators for crops. Habitats also provide sanctuary for birds and animals that manage pests. As native plants and animals interact with the farm, they bring a remarkable increase in pollination, natural pest management, and soil fertility. Nature and diversity eliminate the need for pesticides.

Reliance on Honey Bees

Much of modern agriculture relies on non-native European honey bees, trucked in by beekeepers, to pollinate farm crops. In recent years, however, scientists and farmers have noted with alarm the startling decline of these bees and other pollinators. This includes native bees, hummingbirds, flies, beetles, wasps, butterflies, moths and other animals critical to human food production.

A native bumblebee pollinates pea blossoms. Native plants bring valuable benefits to farms.

A native bumblebee pollinates pea blossoms.

“Most of the fruits and vegetables we eat can’t be produced without the flower being pollinated,” said James Miskelly.

In the case of honey bees, industrial farming methods like monocropping and pesticides are the likely primary causes. Yet, the decline of the bees is only the tip of a much larger problem. As industrial farming, pesticide use, and urban development spread, they wipe out native habitat for all insects, birds, plants and animals.

“Pollinator decline is getting a lot of attention because pollination is so intimately connected to human economy and nutrition,” said James. “It’s important to keep in mind that virtually everything that is naturally occurring in our area is in decline… In Victoria, we have just a few percent of the original cover of native vegetation left.”

Restoring Natural Habitat on the Farm

Kristen and James Miskelly at Saanich Native Plants. Native plants bring valuable benefits to farms.

Kristen and James Miskelly at Saanich Native Plants.

The Miskellys realized that revitalizing native vegetation could not only help local farms, but serve as a demonstration project for sustainable agriculture at any scale. The key is to restore habitat.

At Haliburton Farm, about one-fifth of the land (1.5 to 2 acres) is set aside for nature. In addition to the crop areas, the farm includes four distinct natural habitats: ponds, wetland meadow, dry meadow, and woodland.

To help restore and build these habitats, volunteers at the farm dug the ponds and replaced invasive Reed Canary grass with native grasses, flowers, shrubs, and trees. The Miskellys and volunteers continue to restore the meadows and forest areas on the farm.

These natural areas are breeding grounds for some of British Columbia’s 450 species of native bees and other beneficial insects, which then go into the farm and pollinate growing crops.

The ponds and restored wetland at Haliburton Farm in Victoria. Native plants bring valuable benefits to farms.

The ponds and restored wetland at Haliburton Farm in Victoria.

Value of Native Plants on the Farm

Not only do natural areas with their native plants, insects, and wildlife, bring beauty to the farm, they help with crop production in ways that conventional farming can’t match.

Dense spike-primrose, a pink-blossomed flower that grows in wetland meadows. Native plants bring valuable benefits to farms.

Dense spike-primrose, an endangered species, thrives in the wetland meadow at Haliburton Farm.

Wild plants that grow in the wetlands, meadows and woodlands don’t only host “generalist” pollinators, they also attract a diversity of “specialist” insects. These range from tiny bees to rare butterflies that have interdependent relationships with specific plants.

Many fruits and vegetables, such as apples, blueberries, cucumbers and squash, rely on bumblebees or other native insects for pollination. Native pollinators, like mason bees, are much more efficient than honey bees at transferring pollen from flower to flower, resulting in increased fruit production.

Down at ground level, encouraged by rich native habitat, countless species of fungi, bacteria and other microorganisms regenerate the soil on the farm for food growing.

Ponds, meadows and forests also provide a natural environment for birds, salamanders, frogs and snakes that devour crop-damaging pests.

“People talk about integrated pest management,” said Kristen. “You can’t do it without having natural predators! You have snakes eating slugs…,” birds feasting on crop-damaging insects. When crops are near natural habitat, the number of pests is reduced.

Hedgerows to Attract Pollinators and Pest Managers

Hedgerow of flowering shrubs along the fenceline of the farm. Native plants bring valuable benefits to farms.

Hedgerows along the fenceline of the farm supply a succession of blooms and fruit for pollinators and birds.

In addition to the habitats on the farm, volunteers at Haliburton Farm planted native hedgerows along the fence lines. Designed to bloom and fruit in succession to create a continual food supply, these tall shrubs and trees attract beneficial birds and pollinators throughout the seasons.

Flowering hedgerows not only enhance the appearance of fences and borders on the farm, they also serve as valuable windbreaks to protect crops. Hedgerow natives can include such colourful plants as Nootka rose, Indian plum, snowberries, red flowering currants, Saskatoon berries, Pacific crabapple, tall Oregon grape, and mock orange.

Native Plants Can Transform Farming

The habitat restoration at Saanich Native Plants and Haliburton Farm is a model of how farming with nature can transform agriculture in the 21st century. Incorporating natural habitat with sustainable farming can increase food productivity, provide natural pest management, build soil fertility, create microclimates that protect crops, beautify the landscape, and help bring back the pollinators.

More articles:

Profitable and Ecological Small-Scale FarmingProfitable and Ecological Small-Scale Farming

Grow a Climate Change Resilient GardenGrow a Climate Change Resilient Garden

10 Tips for Year-Round Vegetable Gardens10 Tips for Year-Round Vegetable Gardens


2 Responses leave one →
  1. 2019 February 4
    Attwell Clare permalink

    Thank you!!

  2. 2019 February 4
    Carol Pickup permalink

    I chair the Farmlands Trust Society (Greater Victoria). This info is great-we grow a field of pollinator plants and have won an award for Canada in 2018.

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