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Make your garden pollinator friendly

Updated: Dec 5, 2022

Pollinators provide a whole new aesthetic layer of color and interest to your garden as they flit about helping your plants. Having a pollinator garden requires providing certain elements - food, water, and shelter. Any type of setting will do. It is just as possible to have a working pollinator habitat in the context of a formal rose garden or on a patio as in a wide open setting - if the basics are provided.

Lets get you started!

Fresh water next to the ocean

Step 1. Water

The first - and easiest - thing to do to attract birds, butterflies and the other insects that pollinate your garden, is to provide them with fresh water. The garden shown here was surrounded by water - but it's the ocean, so not drinkable.

When we put in the fresh water feature the bees showed up almost to the minute we turned the water on, and began nesting nearby. We've even had a pair of ducks come by for a few days in Spring to check out the site.

You don't have to do anything this grand. On a small property a bird bath works just as well. (Just keep it clean and fresh.)

A formal rose garden with birdbath - the pollinators love it!

Step 2: Match Your Plant to Your Guests

"Host Plants" are specific plants that a "guest" pollinator needs in order to lay their eggs. Newly hatched caterpillars will then feed on the leaves. You may have heard that Monarchs like Milkweed. In fact, they need a member of the Milkweed family (Aesclepias) in order to reproduce and cannot live without it. Aesclepias is their "Host Plant". What you might not know is the amazing variety of the Aesclepias family. They are not all the common 5' tall Milkweeds with large leathery leaves.

This photo is a smaller variety, Aesclepias tuberosa (Butterfly Weed) with a Monarch caterpillar on its seed heads. Butterfly Weed is about a foot high with bright orange flowers and delicate leaves, and will grow in difficult locations. This one is in full sun with no irrigation. There are white, pink, and purple blooming Aesclepias, so pick one that suits your palette if you want Monarchs to hatch in your garden.

A different butterfly than a Monarch will not hatch on Milkweed. If you want to host a Pipevine Swallowtail, for example, you must plant its host plant, the Aristolochea Vine (Dutchman's Breeches), as we have done at the Homestead. Sulfur Butterflies - which brighten the garden with every flash of their iridescent wings - need Legume family plants on which to hatch. Lupine, peas and wisteria are all in the Legume family. You could choose a relaxed style and just adding clover to your lawn, leaving some of it unmowed (commercial lawn seed mixes once included clover) or you could keep it formal and plant a Baptisia in your rose garden. I recommend cultivating red clover. Every time I see the beautiful white markings on its leaves, they stop me in my tracks, so I finally put one in my garden where it drapes luxuriously over an obliging Hosta.

Step 3: Provide Food for Adults

Adult butterflies and moths will feed on nectar and pollen from a wide variety of flowers, including some exotics. Zinnia and Cosmos are not natives, but they provide a constant source of food with their non-stop blooms. Buddleia (Butterfly Bush) sometimes gets a bad rap because people confuse the function of Host and Nectar plants: You will not see a chrysalis on a Butterfly Bush, but it will be swarming with nectar-seeking adults.

Buddleia "Grand Cascade" is a great nectar source. Photo by Mary Kocol

Siting your food plants and choosing the right variety is important in providing food for as much of the year AND as much of the day as possible. Early spring bulbs and shrubs are important nectar sources. Quince is a favorite nectar source for hummingbirds, both because its blooms typically coincide with the end of their migration - and because it provides hundreds of blooms in one spot: the newly arrived hummingbirds don't have to expend a lot of energy finding the next flower to fill up on. Your favorite continuously blooming annuals can help provide abundant late season nectar and pollen up until a killing frost, and will fill the gaps between the times when your perennials are blooming.

Umbel style flowers are good nectar sources.

An "umbel" (like the underside of an umbrella) has a main stem with a lot of smaller stems branching out at the top, each of which has a mini flower/nectar source at the top. We see it as a single flower but it's really not. A butterfly landing on the umbel heads of Queen Anne's Lace or Yarrow has multiple nectar filled flowers in reach, without spending energy flying around.

Bees in the first light of dawn photo by Mary Kocol

How a bee can fly at all is one of nature's miracles, so it's no wonder they have a lot of prerequisits for flying: it can't be too windy, too cold, or too wet. Like most pollinators, bees prefer sun. You can extend their feeding time in a single day by making sure you have blooms in sunny areas from dawn til dusk. My lavender is always covered with bees in the morning, the first spot the light hits. As the sun moves across the yard, the bees move on to other plants.

Most pollinators prefer flowers with a single row of petals because the nectar is easier to get to. A rose with five petals is much easier for them than a fancy English Rose with a hundred petals. That doesn't mean you can't have English Roses. It just means that you shouldn't rely on them as nectar sources for your pollinator guests. Plant the English Roses for you and some Phlox for the bees and hummingbirds!

Some plants don't provide food at all. A Mop-Head Hydrangea is entirely sterile whereas a Lace Cap Hydrangea has a ring of showy sterile flowers surrounding a center of nectar filled ones. You will find bees and butterflies on every flower of a Lace-Cap, but if you look at a Mop-Head, you won't see a single one.

One way to help pollinators is by not using pesticides: The birds will become your army to take care of unwanted bugs if you don't poison them first. We found a sick owlet in one garden who fortunately recovered from the rat poison it had ingested. Poison doesn't work right away, so the owls were eating vermin laced with it. (It is more humane and sustainable to set traps that kill the vermin mechanically.) The same will happen to smaller bug-eating birds if you spray their supply of bugs with pesticides. Without the poison in the environment, the birds will take care of pests.

Sedum Autumn Joy and Kousa Dogwood in winter

Another way to help out is by providing food for birds in the lean months. Plant some trees and shrubs with winter berries (most evergreens fall in this category). Go for a relaxed look and leave seed heads up until spring clean-up, or do a bit of "editing" and create a really amazing seed head garden for the winter.

If you start paying attention to plants in seed you will find a lot of beauties and the birds will thank you. One caveat to remember is that most perennials go through an ugly stage as the petals die and turn black, and seeds form. If you like primping, you can hurry this process along by gently pulling off the offending dead petals, but mother nature will get you there if you can wait for her.

Step 4: Provide Shelter

Most bees live in the ground. If your beds are covered with three inches of mulch, they won't be able to find a home. Planting ground covers is a great substitute for mulch, and you only have to invest in it once, where as mulch is a lifetime commitment. In woodsy areas consider using natural leaf litter instead of mulch. Shade loving plants like ferns and hosta have evolved to live in or at the edge of woods and are quite happy finding their way up through the leaves. A leaf cover will help overwintering pollinators, and also keep plants like Heuchera protected from frost heaving.

Some insects make their home in the dry stems of dead plants. If you want to clean up early in spring, consider leaving the stems in a pile on site, so you don't remove any beneficial pollinators. They will wake up and move on when it warms up, and you can toss the debris then.

Many birds and insects thrive on dying trees. If you have a tree that is ready to be taken down, think about leaving the bottom 10 feet and letting the bugs and woodpeckers make use of it. You could dress it up with clematis or climbing hydrangea as was done in this dramatic Philadelphia garden.

There are so many creatures with whom we share our homes - let them inspire your garden!



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