Spring is almost here and I’m thinking about all things flowers and plants! How about you? After the winter we had, I’m ready to see beautiful little green buds and colorful blooms. If I had my own backyard, you’d best believe I would be planting everything from flowers to veggies in it the minute spring hit. Right now, I have a windowsill (great for container gardening) and a community garden plot, so that’ll do! If you have the space, you should really consider devoting a section of your garden (or front yard!) to the pollinators. Pollinator gardens are truly beautiful and serve a bigger purpose: They’re a haven for bees, butterflies and hummingbirds! Pollinators are essential for a healthy ecosystem and can actually help your other plants flourish too. Here’s how to create a pollinator garden.
How to Create a Pollinator Garden
Why should you create a pollinator garden?
Pollinators are struggling. Biologists fear several bumble bee and butterfly species have disappeared from parts of their range, including the once common western bumble bee.
Habitat loss and pesticide poisoning account for much of the population declines. A good example is what’s happening to monarch butterflies: This pollinator relies on milkweed when it’s a caterpillar. It feed exclusively on the leaves of milkweed – without it, monarch populations decline. Sadly, eradication of milkweed in agricultural and urban areas are the primary reason for monarch decline today.
This matters – if pollinators were to go extinct, people wouldn’t be able to enjoy well-loved foods such as chocolate, apples, coffee, etc. Foods that have become vital, and taken for granted, wouldn’t get pollinated and would no longer be available for consumption. Can you imagine a world without chocolate??
Nearly 75 percent of the food crops worldwide depend on pollinators. There are a few select plants that don’t need pollinators to crop, but our diets would become quite restricted with only 25% of food crops to choose from.
And that’s just food – what about all the beautiful flowers and trees that need our pollinators in order to bloom, live and survive? Truly, the world would go way out-of-wack without our pollinators. So whatever we can do to help them, we absolutely should. AKA, starting a pollinator garden!
What kinds of pollinators are there?
There are so many amazing pollinators out there – some well known and well loved, others maybe not as much. Still, each one plays a very important role in the ecosystem and should be respected and invited into your garden.
Main kinds of pollinators:
- Wasps (not all wasps help with pollination, but the Pollen Wasp does)
Lets go into detail about each a little bit and get to know them!
Bees are probably one of the most well known pollinators. It’s no secret – they love to pollinate! You can spot them going ham on flowers all day long. That’s a good thing! Bees pollinate flowers more than any other group.
Bees gather two kinds of foods from flowers: Sugar-rich nectar and protein-rich pollen. The nectar helps fuel their flight while the pollen helps feed their young brood. Bees use their tongues to lap up nectar from flowers and tongue lengths vary in species.
There are four thousand bee species native to North America, but they can basically be organized into two groups based on their nesting style: Solitary or social. Approximately three-quarters of native bees in North America are solitary nest builders – and often, these are the bees most at risk of extinction.
Social bees tend to stay in a colony (think bumble bees), whereas solitary bees (like green sweat bee, leaf-cutter bee, and orchard mason bee) tend to live alone and nest underground in tunnels. Both solitary and social bees are very important for proper plant pollination.
Overall, there are approximately 20,000 species of butterflies in the world. There’s about 725 butterfly species in North American just north of Mexico, with about 575 of these occurring regularly in the lower 48 states of the United States.
Some well-known, but beautiful, butterfly species include monarchs, two-tailed tiger swallowtail, and silvery blue butterfly. Butterflies are most active during the day and visit a wide variety of wildflowers. This said, they’re less efficient than bees at moving pollen between plants. Still, they are important pollinators regardless.
Moths are often more elusive than butterflies because they’re night-flying pollinators. Sometimes it can be hard to tell a moth apart from a butterfly without a trained eye. But the main thing to remember is butterflies are brightly colored, whereas moths tend to be colored in muted grays and browns. Also, butterfly antennas are a single filament with a club at the tip, while a moth’s antenna can be broad and feathery or tapered to a point. They tend to have “hairy” bodies as well.
Hummingbirds love nectar! They feed on any flowers that produces abundant nectar, but have a preference for red colored flowers in particular. As these tiny birds feed, they also help with pollination. They can drink up to two times their body weight per day! Their long bills pick up grains of pollen and help transfer them along to other plants when they go from flower to flower.
Beetles, flies and wasps
These three kinds of pollinators may surprise you – they’re not exactly the first thing you think of when you think “pollinator” – but they do pollinate! Beetles, like the flower beetle, often feed on pollen and even chew on flowers – but doing so also means pollen sticks to them and they indirectly carry it to other flowers. Flies, like hover flies, don’t pollinate as well as bees but still do their part – they’re super abundant too which means good things for your plants. Last but not least, wasps: These are a little more tricky, since they don’t pollinate as much or as well as bees. However the pollen wasp doesn’t bite or eat insects, but seeks out flowers and pollen instead.
Creating your pollinator garden: What you need to know
Now that we know a little more about the main pollinators, lets get into creating a pollinator garden! Here’s what you need to know.
1. Choose your location
First, you have to decide where you want to grow your pollinator garden. Do you want it in your backyard or front yard? Near your veggie plants? In a raised bed, a plot, or in the ground? Also, consider your audience – butterflies and other pollinators love the sun, and several of their favorite wildflowers grow best in full or partial sun. Do you have a spot that will be accommodating for them?
Also, wherever you choose to plant your garden, make sure to analyze the soil. Is it well-drained and sandy, or more clay-like and wet? The soil type and the amount of sunlight it gets will determine the kinds of plants you can grow. You can check out the soil mapper for your county to learn more.
2. Choose your plants
Now it’s time to decide what kind of plants you’d like to grow, which is always fun! Research which varieties of wildflowers and milkweed are native to your area. Pollinators have evolved with native plants, so it’s a really smart move to add some into your pollinator garden. Native plants are best adapted to the local growing season, climate and soils, so they’ll need less upkeep (which is less of a headache for you).
Depending on the kind of pollinators you want to attract, you’ll want to use a diverse amount of plants. For example, hummingbirds like to sip nectar from long, tubular honeysuckle flowers. Non-native plants may not provide pollinators with enough pollen or nectar, or may be inedible to moth and butterfly caterpillars.
Find a nursery that specializes in native plants near you. They’ll be able to tell you which plants thrive in your part of the country. It’s also super important NOT to choose plants that have been treated with pesticides, neonicotinoids, or insecticides. These harmful substances can kill your pollinators!
Another good idea? Focus on perennials to ensure your plants come back each year. These won’t require as much maintenance either. Think about more than just the summer season: Pollinators need nectar in early spring, summer, and even in fall! So be sure to choose plants that bloom at various times of the year – this way you’ll have a colorful garden and happy pollinators year round!
Some plants you should consider growing (but double check what’s native to your region first):
- Milkweed (monarchs)
- Golden currant, serviceberry, chokecherry flower, hawthorn, astragalus, penstemon (bumble bees and mason bees)
- Buttercups and black eyed susans (bees)
- Erigeron, gaillardia, sunflowers and asters (butterflies, green sweat bees and leaf-cutter bees)
- Trumpet Honeysuckle (hummingbirds)
Whatever you decide to go with, it’s a good idea to have a diverse amount of species in your pollinator garden – not just one. So for example, planting asters and goldenrod will work a lot better than just one of those! Plus the colors will compliment each other beautifully.
How to attract specific pollinators:
In general, bees prefer blue, purple, and yellow flowers, and sweet fragrances. Meanwhile, butterflies prefer red, purple, or yellow flowers with sweet scents. They love warm, sunny, and windless weather.
To attract hummingbirds, provide them with nectar starting in early spring. They love red and tubular flowers, like trumpet honeysuckle. You could also consider leaving out a hummingbird feeder filled with sugar water for them too.
Most moths tend to prefer pale or white flowers that opening in the evening that have a strong, sweet smell. Adults tend to like columbine and honeysuckle while caterpillars feed on evening primrose.
To attract flower beetles, try growing yarrow and sunflowers. Hoverflies like most of the same flowers bees do, and pollen wasps tend to go after penstemons and phacelias.
Note: Before planting anything, always double check if a plant in native to your region or not. Last thing you’d want is to introduce a non-native species that does more harm than good.
3. Seeds or plants?
Once you know what you want to plant, it’s time to consider if you’ll plant it by seed or start with a small plant. Both are good options, but your choice will depend on budget and timeline. Seeds are much more economical, but they take more time to grow. Seeds are best dispersed in fall or late winter ahead of your summer growing season. It gives the seeds time to germinate. Nursery-started plants are an option if time isn’t of the essence, but they do tend to be more costly. That said, they’ll give a quick return on your investment and bring pollinators to your garden quickly. Don’t forget: Never purchase plants that have pesticides, herbicides or neonicotinoids on them! This will kill pollinators by poisoning them – which is the last thing you want.
4. Prep the garden
Now that you’ve made the big choices, it’s time to get your soon to be pollinator garden prepped! If you’ll be converting an existing lawn, you’ll need to remove grass and current plant cover to turn your soil and loosen it up. For raised beds or containers, consider making your own or buying pre-made options. Just keep it simple. You can see if your neighbors or local Facebook marketplace have anything first to keep waste to a minimum. Make sure you add nutrient-rich compost or soil to the area you plan on growing in. This will improve the success of your garden, as all great plants start with healthy soil!
5. Plant your flowers or seeds
Now’s the fun part, the moment you’ve been waiting for. Planting! Get your hands dirty and start planting your seeds or flowers. If you’re using seeds, make sure to plant them in fall and late winter, as these are ideal times to start the germination process. In fall, disperse seeds, then cover with soil. In late winter, scatter seeds over the snow. The sun will heat the seeds and help anchor them into the snow. Plus, the melted snow will actually provide moisture to help the seeds germinate.
If you’ve decided to go the route of small plants, make sure you wait for the last frost before putting in your plants. You don’t want to put them in the ground and risk killing them! Dig holes that are just big enough to fit their root system in, then cover and reinforce the roots with compost or soil. You can also add some mulch to help prevent weeds from growing.
6. Think beyond nectar
It’s easy to plant a pollinator garden and forget bees, butterflies and other pollinators need more than just nectar. For a pollinator garden to be really successful, it’s a good idea to include several other things, like a water source and spare tree limbs for shelter.
For a water source:
This will allow bees and butterflies the chance to soak up some nutrient-rich water. Since bees are tiny and drown easily, you’ll need a shallow dish to create a water source for them. You’ll need rocks, a shallow dish, and some water. First wash the rocks and dish with a mild soap, then rinse well. Arrange your rocks and fill the dish with just enough water to partially cover them (not completely). Leave the rock tops exposed to dry out – this will make it easy for bees and butterflies to stand on them. Put the bowl in a shaded location near your garden’s flowers. Make sure to check the water level regularly, but it’s okay to let it get dirty – this will actually make it easier for bees to find it.
Remember when I mentioned solitary bees? They need shelter because they don’t have hives like social bees do. By leaving dead tree limbs around your pollinator garden, you’ll provide an essential nesting site for native bees. Just make sure it’s in an area no one will walk over, for the bees safety. You could also build a bee condo if you’re handy like that: Drill holes of varying diameter about 3-5 inches deep into a piece of scrap lumber. Mount it to a post or under eaves.
Are you going to try your hand at growing a pollinator garden this spring, summer or fall?
For more sustainable ways to enjoy spring, check out these zero waste spring activities.
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