6 Ingredients for a Superb Pollinator Garden

6 Ingredients for a Superb Pollinator Garden

An Eastern Swallowtail butterfly. Photo by Aaron Grabiak

Pollinator gardens are a “buzz” word these days but they’re more than a trend or fad.

Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis). A shrub that will thrive in a wet area!

Though they are a great way to beautify your landscape, they are ultimately geared at helping pollinators. Pollinators include bees, butterflies, hummingbirds, and many other fascinating insects. They also invite birds into the landscape as 96 percent of songbirds feed their young exclusively insects. Ultimately, pollinator gardens are a great way to give back to the land we live on.

Pollinator gardens aren’t a simple mish-mash of bedding annuals or a messy concoction of perennials; they are an intentional use of space that prioritizes food and habitat. A little planning is required but ultimately is quite easy to do.

1. Meeting Plant Needs

The first step tp having a successful pollinator garden is growing healthy plants. The key to healthy plants is choosing the rights plants for the right locations.

You’ll need to consider how sunny or shady your spaces are.  You’ll need to consider the moisture content and texture of your soil. Consider the temperature of the area and whether you are planting next to the driveway in a sunny location (hot!). Also consider wind which results in temperature fluctuations – often extreme during winter in exposed areas. Deer traffic is another factor to keep in mind.

To give an example, a couple years ago, I planted some morning glories on the side of my house and and they never bloomed. The plants were robust and healthy, but the pollinators couldn’t reap any pollen. It turns out they didn’t get the amount of sun they needed. I thought they would have enough but I overestimated the sunlight of the space.

The flowers of Witch Alder, or Fothergilla gardenii, in springtime.

The key to a successful and easy-to-maintain pollinator gardening is finding the right plants for the right locations. Don’t be overwhelmed. There are plants that will thrive in just about every condition. We can help you select the right ones.

2. Flowering Succession

Decadence® ‘Blueberry Sundae’ False Indigo

To have a thriving pollinator landscape, you need flowers blooming from spring through fall. It’s easy to overload on summer flowering perennials but you’ll want to encourage activity early in the season when pollinators wake up as well as late in the season when most people aren’t even gardening. You’ll also want to be sure to include short-term bloomers. There are lots of flowering plants, such as Wild Indigo (Baptisia spp.) that only flower for a few weeks – but they do so during a window when spring bloomers are finished and before most summer bloomers have started. Folks always want plants that flower as long as possible but there are a lot of wonderful plants that are glossed over when there shouldn’t be.

Since I mentioned it, you should have at least one Baptisia. They’re long-lived, tough as nails, the flowers are dramatic, and bumblebees love them.

Perennials are often considered the workhorses in a pollinator garden but be sure to include woody plants too. Trees and shrubs do a lot of heavy lifting when it comes to a thriving ecosystem. Many trees and shrubs also flower in spring, when food (i.e., pollen and nectar) tends to be most scarce. One of my favorite shrubs is Witch Alder, or Fothergilla (Fothergilla spp.). This east coast native sports neat “pom-pom” like flowers before the leaves even emerge, a springtime delight.

A female Ruby Throated Hummingbird visits a native Trumpet Honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens).

Similarly, don’t forget fall bloomers. There are so many species and cultivars of asters and goldenrod, so it’s unacceptable to not have any. Our native witchhazel, Hamamelis virginiana, often flowers in November.

Be sure to include an ornamental grass or two, such as switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) and Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium). You’d be surprised how important grasses are for pollinators too.

 3. Variety in Flower Shapes

Certain pollinators prefer the shape of certain flowers. Think of the long beak of a hummingbird. It’s no surprise that they prefer tubular-shaped flowers over umbel or corymb (flat top) flowers. While butterflies and moths visit many flower shapes, think about the energy they must expend if they can’t land while they eat. Having some plants with easy landing surfaces such as yarrow (Achillea sp.) and butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) allow them to rest as they fuel up.

Having variety also ensures that smaller underappreciated pollinators have a seat at the dinner table. My lanceleaf coneflowers (Rudbeckia laciniata) are loaded with hoverflies and small, solitary bees this time of year. Flowers like these often provide new experiences to the viewer.

While variety is good, prioritize simpler flowers where the center is easily visible. These flowers are easy to extract nectar and pollen from. Horticulturally ornate flowers such as double flowering Echinacea and Dianthus (double the petals) often have less nectar and pollen and require a lot more energy to obtain it.

Short-toothed Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum muticum)

You don’t need any botanical training though, just a simple eyeballing of flowers with different shapes will do.

Sombrero® Adobe Orange Coneflower

4. Native Plants

A pollinator garden with only exotic plants from Europe and Asia is like having candy for dinner. Yes, butterflies love Butterfly Bush (Buddleia spp.) and Lantana but those shouldn’t be the main course. Let native plants be the backbone of the pollinator garden!

The good news is that native plants are very easy to find, and now a days there are many new cultivars that bring increased variety to these plants. Some can be very showy such as red and orange coneflowers. Some are more disease resistant such as ‘David’ Phlox.

But gaudy is not always best. According to Penn State, the plant that attracts the most pollinator diversity is Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum spp.). Mountain mint is not a show plant but there is often beauty in simplicity, and I think that every garden should have some!

Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa).

Native plants are important because they also function as hosts plants.

5. Host Plants

Watching adult butterflies and native moths in the garden are a delight but keep in mind we’re seeing them in the last stage of their lives. Flowers are crucial but it’s also imperative to incorporate plants for hungry caterpillars. For example, you’ve probably seen the iconic Monarch butterfly feeding on a wide variety of flowers. But in caterpillar stage, they can only consume one type of plant-  milkweed (Asclepias spp.). If we want Monarch butterflies, we need native milkweeds – and we have to tolerate them eating our plants.

Most caterpillars are picky eaters with another example being the Spicebush Swallowtail, which similarly prefers spicebush and the humming bird moth which prefers snowberry. Be sure to include host plants.

If you have the space, plant a native tree. An oak, a tulip poplar, a redbud…all are host plants for a variety of pollinators. Stick with green foliage over red though, as green foliage is more attractive to caterpillars.

The dried foliage of perennials and grasses, such as Northern Sea Oats (Chasmanthium latifolium), are a valuable overwintering place for pollinators and their eggs. Cutting this back in fall removes this habitat.

A birdbath in employee Aaron Grabiak’s garden.

6. Habitat

I like an informally tidy garden. I am a proponent of sound landscape design principles and clean borders; but I also try to incorporate the natural world into the landscape. Water sources are a boon to pollinators, especially during dry spells. Having nearby water allows them to keep foraging for food during these times so consider placing a fountain, birdbath, or even a large saucer in the garden. Keep the water shallow so they don’t risk drowning.

When I had to have a sickly tree removed last year, instead of hauling the branches to the landfill, I cut up the branches and leaves and used them as “mulch”. The wild doesn’t have huge swaths of landscape rock, but you sure will find branches and leaves.  This provided excellent habitat.

Be sure to avoid hefty fall cleanups. Pollinators, including fireflies, lay their eggs in fall and their larvae overwinter in leaves, brush, and inside hollow plant stems over winter. Far too many homeowners scalp their landscapes in fall, and all I can think of are the eggs of the majestic Luna moth ending up in a landfill. Do your garden cleanup in mid-spring as the plants and insects begin to wake up and be gentle in doing so.

Avoid yard chemicals too. I’m not always against them but they’re ultimately counterproductive to a pollinator rich landscape. If you must, use products compatible with organic gardening. Bonide’s “Burn Out”, for example, is a good alternative to traditional herbicides if you just want to kill small weeds. We sell some of these products in the garden center.

Pollinator gardens needn’t be a big ordeal. This narrow foundational planting is an excellent pollinator garden.

Every Landscape Should be Pollinator Friendly!

Welcome all pollinators, flies, beetles, you name it. This a hummingbird clearwing moth!

I always appreciate a pollinator garden in a corner of a traditional yard but I propose that every landscape be a pollinator haven. Instead of a “bushes’ n rock mulch” landscape with a pocket of flowering plants somewhere, why not make the whole yard be a pollinator destination? With the right planning and ingredients, they’ll be healthy, easy to maintain, pleasing to the eye, and ecologically productive.

Please, take pictures of your work and share them with us. We’d love to see what you’re creating!