The first flowers I planted were for me. I wanted color -- lots of it -- in my new front garden. Minutes after I’d popped a purple coneflower in the ground, a swallowtail butterfly flapped in for a sip of nectar. Soon a honeybee was buzzing about, gathering pollen. Days later I spotted my first hummingbird. I was entranced and wanted more – not just flowers but the living creatures they attract.
Nowadays gardening for pollinators is hugely popular. And pollinators need our help. Native bees are imperiled by habitat loss, pesticide use, and other factors. Honeybees are dying from colony collapse disorder. The iconic monarch butterfly, which makes an epic migration from the U.S. to Mexico each winter before successive generations return in spring, is also in trouble. Unable to find food and shelter in our paved cities, lawn-dominated suburbs, and rural agricultural fields, many pollinators are struggling.
The good news is that anyone with a patch of dirt or a handful of patio containers can create a welcoming waystation for passing pollinators.
The birds and the bees
Certain flowers attract pollinating insects and birds by producing nectar and pollen. These energy foods entice pollinators to visit, and while they’re fueling up or collecting pollen or nectar to take back to their hive, their legs and bodies become dusted with pollen. Hitchhiking in this way from one flower to another, pollen is transferred from male to female parts of flowers, and fertilization occurs. A fertilized flower produces fruit and seeds, ensuring more plants for the future. In this way, flowering plants and animal pollinators need each other, and we need pollinators in order to have plants for food and many other uses. Animal-pollinated plants in turn create habitat for untold other species.
The first step in making a pollinator garden is planting flowers that produce pollen and nectar for them. Different pollinators are adapted to different kinds of flowers. Some have long tongues or beaks that can reach into tubular flowers like salvia, monarda, agastache, and penstemon. Others need disk-like flowers like coreopsis, daisy, and coneflower. Nighttime pollinators like moths prefer pale flowers and those that open at night like datura and evening primrose.
To attract different kinds of pollinators, choose a wide assortment of flowering plants, and repeat each type in clusters of 3 or more so their pollinators can easily find them. Also, most flowering plants prefer sunny or partly sunny locations, so make sure your pollinator garden won’t be shaded all day by trees or buildings. Look online or check with your local nursery for lists of pollinator-friendly plants for your growing zone. Choose a variety of native plants for your region, and make sure the plants you buy have not been treated with pesticides.
Caterpillars gotta eat too
Butterflies also need plants they can lay their eggs on and that will feed the caterpillars when they hatch. Ironically, caterpillars are often seen as plant-munching pests by gardeners who love butterflies. Gardening for pollinators, however, means accepting a certain amount of tattered leaves and defoliation as caterpillars grow to adulthood. Try to look at a stripped plant as an incubator of future butterflies. Many gardeners enjoy growing milkweed specifically to provide larval food for monarchs, which eat milkweed and nothing else. Other caterpillars eat different plants, like fennel. Include some larval food plants along with your nectar- and pollen-making plants.
Aside from food for adults and larvae, pollinators need shelter from the elements. A lawn gives them nothing. Carve away portions you don’t really use and convert those to a mix of flowering plants and shrubs that offer shelter from harsh weather. Many native bees, which are solitary, nest in holes in the ground or in hollow stems, so consider making a native bee “hotel” out of bound pieces of bamboo, drilled logs, and other materials. You’ll find instructions online. And don’t forget water for your thirsty pollinators. A shallow dish of wet gravel or a flat rock at the waterline of a pond gives small creatures a safe place to drink.
In winter, leave frostbitten plants standing to give overwintering insects a place to hide. And in spring be slow to tidy up until the weather warms enough to wake pollinators up.
Don’t poison your pollinators
Finally, remember that spraying for mosquitoes or other insect pests will kill pollinators too. It can also poison the beneficial creatures that prey on insects and caterpillars, like songbirds feeding their chicks. Use organic pest control treatments sparingly, overlook occasional plant damage, and get to know your beneficial bugs like ladybug larvae and praying mantises. They’ll help you manage your garden pests without resorting to harmful chemicals.
Pollinating insects and birds bring their own beauty to the garden and are a joy to watch. Plant for your pollinators and enjoy the buzz.