Gardening With Gardner: Pollinator Gardening

Gardening With Gardner: Pollinator Gardening

World Bee Day is May 20th!
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When we think of pollinators, we often think of honey bees and butterflies, but lots of other insects help out, too, including moths, wasps, and flies. Even bats act as pollinators. While wind and water can also assist with fertilizing plants, it’s the animals that do most of the work that gives us fruits and seeds (including coffee and chocolate!).

There is increasing evidence that many pollinators — like monarchs and honey bees — are in decline, resulting from habitat loss (affecting feeding, breeding, and shelter), disease impacts, and the effects of chemicals such as pesticides.

Let’s talk about what we can do to support pollinators right in our own yards and gardens. Like most creatures, these garden assistants need food, water, and shelter. At home, you can plant a pollinator garden, provide habitat for nesting sites, and limit pesticide use.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service has detailed information on Pollinator Gardens, but here are a few tips if you’re looking to create one of your own.

Green Sweat Bee on Strawberries

Let Them “Taste the Rainbow”

While we enjoy fragrant, bright blooms, scent and color are actually key features that plants use to attract the type of pollinators they need. When it comes to selecting plants for a garden, diversity is key, in both color and species. Some insects use particular species for egg laying, which may be different from those that they feed on or prefer as routine shelter. Hummingbirds tend to prefer the bright red and orange flowers, while bees are often attracted to the lighter whites, yellows, and blues in the garden. You might find beetles and flies on white and green flowers, but butterflies on the reds and purples. Try to plan for flowers from spring until frost to provide year-round food in the form of pollen and nectar. This gives you an excuse to let the clover and violets flower in your lawn!

20190908_monarch on zinnias

While you’re starting a planting plan, here are a few to consider:

  • Butterfly bushes are great if you’ve got a sunny spot for a shrub. They’re very tolerant, fragrant, and butterflies really do love them.
  • Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) is perfect for attracting the spicebush swallowtail — give it a try instead of forsythia.
  • Open, flat flowers are easier for most pollinators to reach. These include plants like yarrow, cosmos, zinnias, sunflowers, and even things in your veggie garden that you can allow to flower, like dill, fennel, and carrots. Some viburnum shrubs have spring flowers that are arranged flat and open, and their leaves also provide garden color in fall.
  • Native plants are likely to have the greatest benefit for pollinators in your area. Here in the northeast, that would include things like echinacea (coneflower), milkweed/butterfly weed, and monarda (bee balm). Find native plants by zip code here. You can even start with a Pollinator Garden Recipe Card from or look at one of their guides.
  • Group plants in clumps rather than scattering them so it’s easier for pollinators to find them.


Gimme Shelter

In addition to flowers, remember to include habitat space. You can make or purchase a “bug hotel” or be sure to incorporate a mix of shrubs, tall grasses, and low-growing plants. It’s good to be a little bit messy sometimes! If you have an out-of-the-way space, consider keeping a small brush pile, or a few pieces of decaying wood for insects to use. Some also need a patch of bare ground to burrow into for shelter, so you don’t need to cover every inch of the garden with plants or mulch. 

When you’ve selected your plants and provided some shelter, add a shallow dish and provide fresh water. Place some rocks or pebbles in it for bees and butterflies to land on when they need a drink.

Go Natural

Finally, try to limit the use of pesticides in your garden. Providing a variety of plant sizes, heights, and types will encourage beneficial insects and allow nature to do some of the work in limiting pests. We will always have a small amount of pests in our gardens; after all, if we didn’t have any aphids, the ladybugs wouldn’t stick around! If they do become a problem in your garden, grab some garden gloves and try to pick them off by hand if you can. If you need to use a chemical, try to find one that targets exactly what you’re dealing with, with little effect on non-pest insects. Also try to find something that doesn’t last too long on the plant surface, so that when pollinators do return, they are less likely to be affected or carry it with them. When applying, try to do it in the evening, while pollinators are less active.