How to Plant a Pollinator Garden for bees, butterflies, & birds20. April 2020
Spring has finally dropped into our laps. So if you haven’t already begun, it’s time to start thinking about planting for your local pollinators. The best way to do this is to think like a bee. Or butterfly. Or hummingbird. Stop thinking like a person who wants to share a bunch of over the top garden pics on the instawebs. That’s not what a pollinator would do. I know it’s fun to get your seed catalogs and order crazy, exotic flower varieties that you’ve never heard of. And then landscape your garden space to the point of a deeply disturbing and unhealthy obsession. Stop that. You have to refocus this enthusiasm into a “What would the butterflies appreciate” mentality.
Special shoutout to our friend Amy Prentice for the bee-utiful photos in this blog post. Amy is a gardening and nature photography buff. She gardens in a small suburban backyard in Northeastern Oklahoma (AKA Green Country). Follow Amy on Instagram and read some of her guest blog posts on our website.
HOW TO START PLANNING YOUR FLOWER GARDEN
Begin with looking locally. It only makes sense that you would plant varieties native to your region to attract local species, right? These species have all evolved to rely on these specific plants. The plants are acclimated to your soil and climate conditions, so it takes less effort to keep them alive and healthy (in theory). It is also best to avoid the “onesie-twosie” planting method, and instead work on planting in clumps. You want your pollinators to take notice of your garden as they go zooming on by. I’m looking at the bees specifically. An additional way of grabbing their attention is to use the colors they love. White, blue, violet, purple and yellow are colors that attract them the most. And speaking of “yellow” and “attracting bees”, you can always throw up a couple big ol’ sunflowers to draw them in. They’re sure to please.
Speaking of color, more reds are your friend if you want the hummingbirds to hang around. They recognize red flowers as a great source for their nectar needs and will seek them out above others. Here are some fine choices of flowers to plant for our tiny, zippy friends:
Trumpet vine (aka, hummingbird vine) and trumpet honeysuckle are also strong favorites, though the vine may be something to carefully consider before planting. They can easily dominate EVERYTHING if not kept in check. So be prepared, unless you’re already an ultra-vigilant gardener. And remember, when it comes to color in your garden, “You have red on you” is a good thing! (Sorry, really wanted to wedge in that “Shaun of the Dead” reference).
Read more about choosing the correct plants for attracting hummingbirds for your location on Hummingbird-guide.com.
If you want to attract butterflies, you're in luck! Their goal is the same as our friend the hummingbird: nectar. The list above comprises great choices for butterflies, as well. In addition to those:
Read more about choosing the correct plants for your location on the North American Butterfly Association’s website. They have a list of plants chosen by butterfly gardeners specific to your location.
And if you want these beautiful butterflies, you need to plant for their other phases too. Oh that awkward teenage larval stage! Caterpillars need a place to flourish and thrive so they came become beautiful butterflies. To do that, just as every parent knows, they need to eat. And EAT they will! Among the faves of caterpillars:
The host plants you put in will be munched upon (if not completely decimated) by the caterpillars. But you can roll with it. What, do you want emaciated caterpillar larve? Let ‘em eat! By the way, if you are hoping for Monarchs to show, milkweed is the only thing that Monarch caterpillars will eat. Picky like that.
And on that topic, it is helpful to find out who your regional pollinators are. This is who you are planting for. There’s no point in preparing a place at the dinner table for a guest who is never gonna show, correct? Reasonable expectations go a long way in a pollinator garden you’ll enjoy. On the plus side, the majority of North America is within the Monarch butterfly’s migration zone!
Have you ever considered being a landlord? Specifically to a lovely group of hard working pollinator ladies? It’s easier than you’d think. All you have to do is leave a dead tree standing. Dead, decaying trees make a great nesting location for native bees. If a whole tree is too much to swing, a large dead branch, a small brush pile or even a bundle of twigs will suffice. The bees will thank you for putting a roof over their wee-tiny heads!
If your bees don’t mind living in a rotten tree stump, that’s because they have no taste. Literally. Bees have very few taste genes. And that’s a perfect segue into talking about supporting your local bee's search for nutrients. Despite their lack of taste genes, bees know the minerals that the hive is deficient in. This can vary throughout the year, dependent on what they are taking in from their current floral selection. Consider placing a dish or birdbath basin on the ground and have some compost, turned soil, and sea salt mixed into the dirt surrounding. This should give the bees a nice variety of micronutrients. Plus the bees will have a reliable source for water. Don’t worry if the water isn’t completely clean, bees can cope with that. Just make sure it doesn’t stand too long during mosquito season. Also, make sure there are edges or items floating in the water (corks, wood pieces, etc) for the bees to perch on as they drink. Don’t want these ladies drowning, do we?
Another thing to consider regarding your bees would be “double” flowers. These are flowers that have been genetically modified to look bigger and more robust. They achieve this feat by converting the stamens into additional pedals. This is great if you love to look at flowers, because the flower is now tricked into staying open longer waiting for pollination. If you’re a bee, though, this sucks. The stamens are where the bees collect their pollen from. While there may be a couple stamens in a double flower, they’re so obscured by petals that it is impossible for the bees. And that’s the same problem that butterflies and hummingbirds would encounter too. The nectaries (where the nectar is produced in a flower) are buried underneath petals so these pollinators don’t stand a chance. Play it safe, and stick with the heirlooms.
These are just a few of things to consider when constructing your pollinator garden. Don’t get bogged down following every rule or trying to construct the ultimate environment. If you have limited funds, space, or time, consider planting a handful of mixed wildflower seeds. Use whatever ground space is available to you. Every bit of help for our hard-working and dwindling pollinator population receives is appreciated. They are vital to our healthy ecosystem, and least we can do is say “thanks” with some flowers.
Pollinators are great for your vegetable and fruit gardens too. Plant flowers for your pollinator friends and reap more rewards in your garden. And if you decide to preserve some of your garden fresh produce, adorn your jars with our new custom Watercolor Butterfly canning labels. These vibrant mason jar labels have bees, butterflies, and flowers, oh my! Floral stickers print with your text and make great gifts for canners and gardeners.
These pollinator-friendly labels also come in a blank version so you can handwrite your own text. A large monarch butterfly is the focal point of these bee-utiful floral mason jar stickers. These labels add a nice handmade touch to jam and jelly jars or herbal remedies in your apothecary.
The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation helps protect many species including pollinators by providing research and resources. Their Pollinator Conservation Program has many resources for conservation and establishing pollinator habitats. Their Endangered Species Conservation has information on species including identification guides. Learn more about Reducing Pesticide Use & Impacts to protect our vulnerable pollinators.
Learn more about protecting pollinators with the Pollinator Partnership. This non-profit is dedicated to the protection and promotion of our pollinator friends and their ecosystems.
Read our other Honey Blog Posts including Printable Honey Bee Coloring Pages, The Honey Laundering Scandal, & our Book Review for “Robbing the Bees: A Biography of Honey”.