As any gardener will tell you, our gardens are much more than a collection of plants. Imagine stepping into your garden on a late June morning when the poppies are at their peak and the summer vegetables are just taking off. Look closely and you’ll notice you’re not alone – honeybees congregate around the flowering herbs while hummingbirds dart about the bean poles, and butterflies perch atop the fennel.
These busy creatures not only bring our gardens to life, they bring the harvest to the table! Around 75% of flowering plants need help from pollinators to set seed and produce fruits. All our juicy peaches, our zucchinis and strawberries are thanks to a visit from a pollinator friend. Without pollinators, both our kitchens and our gardens would be sparse indeed.
Fortunately, it’s not hard to attract pollinators to your garden. If you plant it, they will come! But there are a few things you can do to draw a crowd. The single most important thing a gardener can do to encourage pollinators is to refrain from using pesticides. Even those pesticides targeted at a specific insect can have a broader effect – for example, chemicals used to eliminate the caterpillars snacking on your brassicas will also eliminate the swallowtails and monarchs – and broad spectrum pesticides wipe out all creatures indiscriminately.
Next, consider the habitat requirements for your pollinators. Just like us, pollinators require food, water and shelter. Food is provided by your flowering plants in the form of pollen and nectar, which most gardens have in ample supply. A water source can be as simple as a shallow dish set out and refilled regularly, or as elaborate as a flowing water feature. A bird bath does dual duty, offering refreshment for birds and insects alike.
Shelter does not have to be a fancy, store-bought contraption. Most critters are happy sheltering among your plants, in the cavities of trees or nestled in the soil. Leaving a small section of your garden un-mowed or only lightly tended will suffice for many pollinators. Consider also leaving a patch of soil uncovered by mulch or vegetation to provide homes for ground nesting bees.
Some pollinators have developed a specific relationship with a plant family, using them as food, shelter and breeding grounds. These plants are known as host plants and along with flowering plants, they are the backbone of any pollinator garden.
Perhaps the best known host plant is milkweed, which hosts the monarch butterfly. Monarchs lay their eggs on the stems and leaves, eventually hatching distinctive black and yellow caterpillars who feed on the foliage. Toxic compounds in the plant are imparted to the caterpillar, making them less susceptible to predators.
At LVS, we offer several different milkweed varieties suitable to different regions. Common milkweed, Asclepias syriaca, may be the most recognizable with its rosy umbels born on tall gray green stems. Native to the southern Great Plains region, it is now widespread in disturbed sites, showing great adaptability to different soil and moisture conditions.
Showy milkweed, Asclepias speciosa, does well throughout the central and intermountain US, as well as the west coast. As the name implies, the showy pink blossoms are a beautiful addition to the pollinator garden. For those in wetter regions from the Midwest to the East coast, give Swamp Milkweed, Asclepias incarnata, a try. This plant tolerates seasonal flooding and boasts spicy scented blossoms.
Orange butterfly flower, Aclepias tuberosa, is another adaptable milkweed that does well in myriad conditions. This one is available singly, or as part of our Garden Mix for Monarch Butterflies, which includes a wide variety of nectar plants that bloom throughout the year.
A staggered blooming season is ideal for many pollinators, providing different food sources for as long as possible. Try planting early, mid and late season bloomers to keep bees and butterflies well fed through the year. Some early blooming varieties include: violas, snapdragons, candytufts and sweet peas. Mid-season: take your pick! Poppies, calendulas, milkweeds, cornflowers, zinnias and larkspurs are all blooming now. Late season, look for: sunflowers, black eyed Susans, asters, coneflowers and cosmos.
To take the guess work out, our pollinator mixes include flowers from each season. Sweet Temptation Mix Butterfly Meadow starts the season with candytufts and pinks, moves through showy milkweed and cosmos, and ends the summer with a dash of purple asters (in addition to many more, this mix contains nineteen varieties!). Or try our Wildflower Honey Bee Mix, which includes pollinator favorites like coreopsis and cosmos.
If you’re looking to attract a specific type of pollinator to your garden, pay attention to your flower shapes. Butterflies appreciate the wide, soft landing pad provided by umbel shaped flowers (think umbrella!). Flowers like yarrow, milkweed and bishop’s flower (found in our sweet temptation mix) all have umbel blossoms perfect for a butterfly perch.
Looking to entice more hummingbirds to your garden? Try planting tubular shaped flowers. These long, tube shaped flowers allow plenty of room for a hummingbird’s long beak. Penstemons, snapdragons, foxgloves and salvias are all great options for hummingbird lovers.
Bees are a bit more happy-go-lucky when it comes to flower shapes. They visit them all! When planting for bees, look for prolific bloomers like cosmos, zinnias and rudbeckias. And like us, bees are attracted to fragrant flowers such as alyssum, lavender, salvia and sweet peas. Fragrant herbs are another honeybee magnet if allowed to flower. Try planting an abundance of thyme, oregano, basil and mint with enough to harvest and to let bloom for the pollinators.
The herb garden is truly a pollinator haven and not just for the bees. Umbel flowers can be found on many popular herbs like fennel, dill, cilantro and parsley, all of which are members of the carrot family. If you’ve ever let your carrots bloom, you’ll recognize the flower! This family is an important host for swallowtail butterflies, who lay their bright yellow eggs on the underside of leaves.
A final consideration for your pollinator garden is to plant for native insects. Although the European honeybees receive most of the credit as pollinators, there are thousands of species of bees native to North America responsible for a significant amount of pollination. Some of these bees are specialists, having developed a specific relationship with a plant or plant family over time, becoming expert pollinators! Plants like squash, gourds, pumpkins and sunflowers all have dedicated native bees who pollinate them even more efficiently than honeybees.
The majority of native bees, though, are generalists so they visit many different flowers. And because they don’t produce honey, they aren’t limited to nectar rich flowers. Look for tiny, metallic green sweat bees visiting coneflowers, or fuzzy leaf-cutter bees on blanket flowers. By planting flowers native to your region, you help support your local pollinators and keep those important relationships intact.
Unlike honeybees, most native bees are solitary meaning they do not form hives. Some will nest in the soil, while others will find homes in dead tree limbs or homemade “bee hotels.” You can provide habitat for native bees in much the same way as for other pollinators by refraining from pesticide use and planting many diverse flowering plants. And then have fun observing all the many shapes, colors and sizes of the wide array of pollinators!