How to Plant an Excellent Pollinator Garden
Whether you think of the charismatic fuzz of a bumblebee, the thrum of a hummingbird, or delectable treats from honeybees, the approximately 200,000 species of pollinators come in all shapes and sizes, and all have different habitat needs. That’s where a pollinator garden comes into play. Growing plants that provide nectar and pollen is one of the best ways to support pollinator species.
What Is a Pollinator Garden, and Why Does It Matter?
A pollinator garden attracts the critters that pollinate flowering plants. As a quick review, pollinators are animals that support plant reproduction by transferring pollen between flowers. Because of pollination, new seeds develop and new generations of plants can grow. About three-quarters of the world’s plants rely on pollinators, including over 30% of crops. In other words, you have pollinators to thank for one in every three bites of food you eat! Along with playing a critical role in Earth’s ecosystems, pollinators are responsible for keeping a diversity of tastes and nutrients in our meals. Between disease and habitat loss, pollinators around the world are facing declines in population. Planting your own pollinator garden can help reverse these declines. By growing diverse plants to support the equivalent diversity of pollinators, we keep both delicious food on our plates and our local ecosystems thriving.
How to Plant a Pollinator Garden
As you start building your pollinator garden, there are a few key things to keep in mind. Beyond these tips, the design of your garden is up to you! Follow along to learn which plants to grow, when to grow them, and other ways you can spruce up your pollinator habitat.
Step 1: Choose the Right Spot
All About the Sun
Though flowering plants can grow in both sun and shade, the target is attracting pollinators. Insects rely on the temperature of their environment to regulate their body temperature. In warmer areas, insect pollinators have more energy to eat, find mates, care for their nests, and pollinate! In cooler spots, pollinators will be less active. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t get much sunshine – a shady pollinator garden is better than nothing. But if possible, plant your pollinator garden in a sunny spot.
Big or Tiny
Whether you are a farmer with acres of land or live in a tiny apartment, you can plant a pollinator garden! There are plenty of resources for designing pollinator gardens that fill up larger spaces, including this aesthetic one that emulates hexagonal honeycomb. With more space, you can provide extra resources for pollinators to create a more inclusive habitat. Find more tips on providing nesting and resting habitat below.
If space is the limiting factor, the Pollinator Partnership created an easy way to design window box pollinator gardens. This tool provides guidance on plants that attract local pollinators along with ones that flourish in a window box.
Step 2: Native Plants
Native Bees = Native Plants
While we often think of honey bees when prompted with ‘pollinator,’ they were brought across the Atlantic in the early 17th century by European settlers who wanted to continue beekeeping. North America boasts about 4,000 native bee species, not even counting the butterflies, beetles, flies, birds, and small mammals that pollinate! Often, only these native species are able to pollinate native plants and are two to three times more efficient than honey bees. In fact, squash, tomatoes, apples, and blueberries can only be pollinated by native bee species.
However, that’s not to say honey bees don’t play an important role. As domesticated animals, beekeepers often ‘follow the bloom’ as they take their hives on the road, traveling to farms and orchards that need their pollination services. Additionally, our tea and toast would be much less appealing without the sticky golden nectar we can harvest from them.
However, in the words of Mace Vaughan, the co-director of the Pollinator Program at the Xerces Society, “Keeping honey bees for pollinator conservation is like keeping chickens for bird conservation.” With most of the attention on pollinators being directed at honey bee conservation, the native species often go unnoticed. When designing your pollinator garden, planting a diversity of native plants will ensure that the native bees, butterflies, and other pollinators have the resources they need to thrive.
What to Plant
- Find plants native to your region. Use this helpful guide from pollinator partnership to inform your plant choices for your pollinator garden. To learn more, just enter your zip code, and receive a free PDF with a guide to the local pollinators in your region, which plants to grow, and when to grow them.
- Inspire yourself from the plants you see. Use a plant identification app to recreate a pollinator garden with the plants you see around your home.
- Plant a variety of shapes and sizes. Different species of pollinators prefer different colors, patterns, shapes, and sizes of blooms. The table below provides some general guidance on what flower attributes will attract different types of pollinators.
|Pollinator||Flower Color||Other tips|
|Bees||Blue & purple||Plant flowers with Bilateral Symmetry|
|Butterflies||Yellow, orange, pink, & red||Plant host plants for the caterpillars|
|Flies||Pale, dull browns||Plants flowers that are funnel-shaped|
|Beetles||White||Plant fragrant flowers.|
|Bats||White||Plant fragrant, night-blooming flowers.|
|Moths||White||Plant fragrant, night-blooming flowers.|
|Hummingbirds||Red, pink & fuchsia||Plant tube-shaped flowers|
- Keep flowers blooming. Different pollinator species are more active at different times of the year. Plant flowers in your pollinator garden with a variety of bloom times. Consequently, this practice will maximize the number of pollinators you can support.
- Plant in groups. Pollinators find plants more easily if they grow in groups with similar colors. Cluster a few plants of the same species close together and section your garden into color groups.
What Not to Include
- Avoid hybrid plants. Plants that are bred to grow more appealing flowers for the human eye often sacrifice nectar and pollen resources that support pollinators.
- Avoid pesticides. Pesticides can be extremely harmful to pollinators, especially for bees and caterpillars. If you must use pesticides, read the labels carefully to find one that is less toxic like the biological insecticide Bacillus thuringiensis.
Step 3: Beyond the Flowers
In addition to growing flowers that provide food for pollinators, you can spruce up your garden with other features that support pollinators’ entire life cycles.
- Leave an area with downed tree limbs or brush to serve as nesting habitat for native bees.
- Grow host plants for butterfly caterpillars.
- Placing rocks in sunny spots give pollinators warm places to rest and re-energize.
- Provide water, either a pool or drip, for pollinators to drink and collect minerals they need for reproduction.
Not only will a pollinator garden attract and support native pollinator species, but the benefits carry outward and upward. Pollinator gardens create habitats for predator invertebrates (like spiders) that will help control yard pests. Entire ecosystems benefit from pollinator gardens because they provide food for native bird species, filter stormwater, and restore topsoil. Your backyard can become a haven for all types of wildlife!
Build a Bee Hotel
If you want to really go above and beyond with your pollinator garden, build a native bee hotel. Because most native bees are solitary bee species, they don’t live in social colonies like honey bees. Instead, they build their nests underground, in trees, and in fallen logs. Consequently, building a native bee house increases pollinator habitat by providing shelter and nesting areas. In addition, they are pretty inexpensive and simple to build. Modern Farmer and the Honey Bee Conservancy provide some great tips to get started on a DIY bee hotel.
To sum up, building a pollinator garden can be as simple as planting a few flowers in a window box or as grand as creating an entire ecosystem in your backyard. Climate change, disease, and habitat loss threaten pollinator survival. Growing your own pollinator garden can help provide these hard-working species the resources they need to survive.
Have you ever grown your own pollinator garden? How did it go? Let us know about your pollinator garden experience in the comments below!