There's nothing better than walking around the garden and seeing all the different pollinators flying from one bloom to another. Not only does this mean you have a healthy, thriving garden, it also means these important creatures are happy and active, too.
Pollinators like bees, butterflies, moths, and even flies play an important role in our ecosystem.
Most people are aware of the declining Monarch butterfly and bee populations, and are happy to do their part by growing plants that will specifically support and feed these beautiful, hard-working creatures—but there are other types of pollinators that are important, too.
Knowing the local pollinators in your area is a great way to plant gardens that will specifically support and nourish them. While most flowering plants are beneficial in some way, adding distinctively pollinator-friendly or host plants will be an even better way to amplify their food sources.
Here are some easy ways to start a pollinator garden, as well as some tips on how to keep them thriving.
Role of Pollinators
Pollinators are responsible for the food we eat, about one out of every three bites! Without them, plants would not be pollinated, and food sources would not flourish.
They're the connecting force of the entire food system, not just for humans, but all of nature's creatures.
By simply carrying pollen on their bodies from one plant to another, plants are able to reproduce, in turn creating a healthy ecosystem in more ways than just providing food sources.
Strong plants also mean erosion control, nutrient-dense soils, biodiversity, and carbon sequestering. As climate change looms large over the future of our planet, promoting the health of our local pollinators is a wonderful way to combat these negative effects.
Pollinator populations are in decline through the loss of habitat and food sources. Monoculture farming and agriculture, the use of pesticides and chemicals, urban sprawl, human activity, and climate change are all responsible for this decline.
Types of Pollinators
While honey bees and butterflies are the most well-known (and beloved) pollinators, a wide variety exist, all of whom need support and nutrition if we are to really promote biodiversity.
Birds, bats, hummingbirds, moths, flies, wasps, and beetles all take part in various forms of pollinating, which is why a variety of plant types is the best way to ensure everyone is fed and housed.
Almost 20 percent of butterfly and moth populations are at risk of extinction, including the Monarch butterfly. Many of these types of pollinators need specific types of habitats and food sources to keep them alive.
Honeybees are the most well-known bee species, but they only make up a small portion of the overall population. The majority of bees (90 percent) are solitary—the female makes her own nest without need of any help.
These stingless, non-aggressive bees carry out the majority of all pollination, and the only human intervention they need is a gardener planting more flowering species for them to flock to. Otherwise, we need to leave them "be."
It's also important to note that some pollinators feed on other things besides nectar.
Hummingbirds, bats, birds, wasps, and beetles all eat other insects, so cultivating a garden full of beneficial bugs is another great way to support your local pollinator community—in fact, many of these creatures will happily dine on the bugs you don't want like aphids, mites, thrips, and whiteflies, or keep beetles and caterpillars in check.
While it can be difficult to identify between the good bugs and the bad, a garden that's healthy will start to self-sustain itself. Much like our immune systems, the healthier the garden is, the better it will be at warding off disease, unwanted pests, and other stressful conditions.
Plant a Variety of Flowers
Since pollinators need plants and flowers for habitat, as well as food, the best way to get a pollinator garden started is to focus on plant diversity.
Variety is the spice of life! The saying goes for pollinators, too. Certain species are drawn to particular shapes and colors, since different pollinators have different tongues, mouths, and legs - and even different color recognition!
Flowering annuals, perennials, shrubs, and trees are all beneficial sources of nutrition and habitat, and while you can start to plant more specific host species as you go, anything that blooms is a good choice for the garden, as long as it's not invasive or noxious.
Choose brightly colored, tubular flowers that are easy for pollinators to feed on. Bee balm, salvia, coneflower, black-eyed Susans, lavender, columbine, Joe Pye weed, nasturtium, zinnias, goldenrod, and asters are all beautiful flowering plants that pollinators love to visit.
While annuals are short-lived, they provide some of the longest bloom times, aka food sources, but you want to plant alongside perennial flowers, shrubs, and trees to ensure there are no gaps at any point of the season and to give your garden structure.
Plant for All Season
Fall, winter, and early spring are some of the most important times that pollinators need food and shelter, either to stock up during the cold weather, or to have once they wake up in early spring.
Spring perennials like trout lilies, snowdrops, crocus, blue hyacinth, and bluebells are all native flowering species that will give pollinators a much needed meal when they first emerge.
Many flowering trees like dogwood, lilacs, and Eastern redbuds provide essential habitat and nutrition early on, as well.
During the active growing season, focus on plants that will bloom at different times so that food sources are available from late spring to early fall.
A variety of daisies, coneflowers, yarrow, irises, as well as fruits, vegetables, herbs, and wildflowers will provide a bounty of blooms at varying times of the season.
Milkweed is particularly important for Monarch butterfly populations, but don't forget to check what other native butterfly and moth species you have in your area, and add a host plants, bushes, or trees specifically for them.
Goldenrod, aster, and calendula all provide nectar into late fall, and winter-blooming or berry-producing trees and shrubs will provide food as well as important shelter during the coldest months.
If you've read anything about pollinator gardens, one of the first things to come up is the emphasis on including native plants. There are many different reasons for why using native plants in your pollinator garden is beneficial.
Native plants are already accustomed to your climate, and thrive under the natural conditions that exist. Rainfall expectancy, soil composition, amount of sunlight, and temperature are all important aspects of plant health, and native plants will prefer these site conditions of your garden.
That said, you still want to plant according to the plant's individual needs. A native plant that prefers shade and moist soil will not do well in a full sun location and expectations of being drought-tolerant.
Secondarily, native plants tend to be the best sources of food and shelter for native pollinators. While it's still a good idea to check what types of pollinators are specific to your region, you can bet that planting native plants will benefit the majority of local pollinators that flock to your garden.
Leave the Weeds
When starting a pollinator garden, it's much easier to let your land go a little wild as you start to add perennials, shrubs, and trees to fill in the landscape.
Rather than destroy the land with herbicides, or cover it with plastic, let your lawn or garden bed grow naturally and see what comes up. By late spring you'll have a variety of native plants pop up, and by the end of the growing season, your entire lawn could be filled with native wildflowers and "weeds".
Not only are many of these so-called weeds beneficial to you and your garden, they are great sources of food for our local pollinators. They're often native to the area, meaning they thrive in, and benefit the ecosystem around them.
Some common beneficial weeds that are often eradicated from lawns and garden beds are clover, chickweed, dandelion, thistle, nettle, plantain, comfrey, borage, and goldenrod, to name just a few.
When allowed to grow on lawns in lieu of turfgrass or well-manicured gardens, you may find that these plants are actually quite beautiful in their own right; while also providing natural food and shelter at various times during the growing season.
Get to know the types of weeds that grow around your home, and consider keeping them around. Not only are most of them native, easy to grow, and great for our pollinators, many are edible weeds that are nutritious and medicinal.
Be careful you aren't allowing noxious or invasive weeds to grow, but the list is a lot smaller than the beneficial ones, so a little bit of research can help you identify what to remove.
Alongside the idea of leaving the good weeds in place, tidying is actually detrimental to the biodiversity in your garden. Too much cleanup means you're removing shelter for overwintering pollinators, and any last food sources to boot.
During the growing season, resist the urge to pull up anything you didn't plant yourself: there may be something beneficial that found its way in. Squirrels, birds, pollinators, and wind will carry seeds to and fro.
It's a free and easy way to gather a variety of plants that will thrive in your garden and benefit pollinators. Use the garden center to buy a few specific plants to add here and there, but do your research before you go—unfortunately, there are many noxious and invasive plants sold at garden centers.
Simple dead-heading and pruning is a healthy way to keep your garden looking its best, without having to completely tear out your beds once the growing season is over.
Leave some dead branches, hollow stems, and flower heads for winter interest and to provide shelter and food for overwintering pollinators.
Some of the best plants to leave are elderberry, coneflowers, sumac, sunflowers, and raspberry bushes. Bees and other insects will nest overwinter in their pithy stems, and the dried seeds will continue to feed birds.
Once spring comes around, wait to dispose of these places of shelter until all pollinators have emerged! If you're unsure of the timing, wait to mow the lawn or do any raking until the spring weather has been consistently warm.
Keep Your Garden Organic
There's very little reason to use any kind of chemical fertilizers, herbicides, or pesticides in your garden, and often these products do more harm than good, especially to pollinators.
Allow your garden to take a little time to flourish and nurture it along the way with organic matter like compost, manure, and natural sources of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (NPK).
Leave grass clippings on the lawn, and spread them into beds if you have too much, it's a great source of nitrogen. Compost is an excellent way to get more organic material mixed into garden beds for extra nutrition.
Use natural sources of mulch like leaf litter, and non-diseased plant matter—skip the store-bought stuff in bags that's been dyed and processed.
Try and use rainwater as much as possible for your plants. Rain barrels and other water conservation tactics can collect this natural water source, saving you money, and keeping harmful chemicals from tap water out of the garden.
Keep the garden as natural a place as you can. While outdoor lighting is beneficial for security reasons, reduce the amount when possible, as many pollinators are sensitive to artificial light sources.
Not only does it impede their navigation skills, it can also affect reproduction and feeding habits. Use solar lights that naturally turn off on their own after a certain time, or invest in spotlights that only turn on if someone walks in its path.
Get into the habit of sharing and swapping plants with other gardeners, and consider starting a seed library. This way, you can ensure that healthy, native plants are continuously cultivated and shared, rather than relying on non-native plants from garden centers.
Learn more about propagating and dividing perennials, shrubs, and trees yourself. There are so many ways to get free plants to add diversity to your garden space.
When looking for local resources on native plants and pollinators, skip Wikipedia and check out publications by local Universities, or find independent stores that care about selling only native or beneficial plants, shrubs, and trees.
Local gardening groups and public libraries can also be great sources of information on how what plants to use in your pollinator garden.
Can I start a pollinator garden in a shady location?
You can start a pollinator garden even in shady areas of the garden, as there are many beautiful flowering plants that prefer part shade to shade conditions.
Coral bells, bleeding hearts, ferns, columbine, foam flower, astilbe, hostas, anemones, asters, wild ginger, poke milkweed, clematis, and hydrangeas are just a sample of plants that pollinators love.
How big should a pollinator garden be?
You can start a pollinator garden in as big or as small a space as you have. You can even have pots and planters on a small balcony that will provide some food and shelter for our pollinating friends.
Focus more on creating dense sites of single species so that smaller pollinators like bees don't have to travel far from one flower to another.
How many different types of plants should I have in a pollinator garden?
Ideally, you want at least 8-10 different flowering species in a single site to support a wide range of pollinators. If you want to support specific pollinators, choose host plants that they prefer within the variety of plant species you're adding.
Should I plant flowers close together or far apart?
Always allow enough space for plants to be able to mature to their full height and width without overcrowding other plants. However, the closer they are together, the better pollinators will be at visiting them.
You want to have shelter or nest sites close to food sources, which is another reason to plant flowers closer together to help reduce travel time and energy expenditure.
How much does it cost to start a pollinator garden?
You can start a pollinator garden right now for free by simply letting your lawn go wild and adding flowering annuals, perennials, shrubs, and trees as you go.
Local gardening swaps, seed libraries, cuttings, propagation, and dividing techniques could get you enough free plants to support a variety of pollinators right away at no cost at all.