6 Ingredients for a Superb Pollinator Garden

An Eastern Swallowtail butterfly. Photo by Aaron Grabiak

Want a pollinator garden but not know where to start? This post is for you!

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

Pollinator gardens are a great way to beautify your landscape, make it more interesting, and of course, to help pollinators! Pollinators include bees, butterflies, hummingbirds, and many more fascinating insects. They also invite birds into the landscape as 96 percent of songbirds only feed their young insects!
You have the potential to create a healthy little ecosystem!

1. Meeting Plant Needs

The first step in having a quality pollinator garden is having healthy plants! The key to healthy plants is choosing the rights plants for the right spots! Basic, right? You’ll need to consider how sunny or shady your areas are. A couple years ago, I planted some morning glories on the side of my house and sadly, they never bloomed. The plants were robust and healthy, but the pollinators couldn’t reap the benefits. It turns out that side didn’t get the amount of sun it needed.

Next, you’ll need to consider the moisture content and texture of your soil. Is your soil usually on the dry side? Is it usually marshy? Is it moist but well drained? Is it waterlogged after a rain but drains after a day or so?

Is your soil loamy from years of gardening? Or is it heavy with clay or shale? What’s the temperature usually like? Are you planting next to the driveway or road where heat gets amplified on the plants? Do you have a lot of river rock or a patio that’s heats up in the afternoon sun? Is it an exposed area that tends to get blasted with harsh winter winds? Do you have periodic deer traffic? Or super high deer traffic?

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. Blooming 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 blooming 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 thinking about gardening. You’ll also want to be sure to include short-term bloomers. There are lots of flowering plants, such as Wild Indigo (Baptisia sp.) that only bloom for a few weeks – but they bloom during that window when spring bloomers are finished and before most summer bloomers have started. People always want plants that bloom as long as possible so there are a lot of wonderful plants that are glossed over when there shouldn’t be!

And since I mentioned it, you should have at least one Wild Indigo. They’re long-lived, tough as nails, the flowers are dramatic, and bumblebees adore them!

I think perennials are the workhorses in a pollinator garden but be sure to include woody plants too. Many trees and shrubs bloom in spring, a time ecologists say pollinators are struggling the most. One of my favorite shrubs is Witch Alder, or Fothergilla. This east coast native sports neat “pom-pom” like flowers before the leaves even emerge. They’re so cool!

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

Don’t forget fall bloomers! There are so many species and cultivars of asters and goldenrod, it’s unacceptable to not have at least one. Don’t forget our native witch hazel too, Hamamelis virginiana!

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

 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. And while butterflies and moths visit many flower shapes, think about the energy they must expend if they can’t land to sip up nectar. Having some plants with umbel flowers such as yarrow (Achillea sp.) and butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) allow them to rest as they sip up nectar.

Having variety also ensures that smaller underappreciated pollinators have a seat at the dinner table. My lanceleaf coneflowers (Rudbeckia laciniata) are adorned with hoverflies and small, solitary bees this time of year. Flowers like these allows you to get closer to the beautiful world of unique pollinators!

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. Natives

A pollinator garden with only exotic plants from Europe and Asia is like having candy for dinner. Yes, butterflies love Butterfly Bush (Buddleia sp.) and some can be wonderful additions. In fact, I’m a big fan of the dwarf, noninvasive Lo & Behold series by Proven winners which we carry throughout the year. But butterfly bush shouldn’t be the main course. Let natives be the backbone of the garden!

The good news is native plants are very easy to find, and now a days there are many snazzy 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 traffic is Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum sp.). Mountain mint, nowhere near aggressive as culinary mint by the way, is less showy. But its beauty is in its 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 that 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 if we want to keep seeing these beautiful, winged creatures. For example, you’ve probably seen the iconic Monarch butterfly feasting on a variety of flowers. But their young only eat a single type of plant – milkweed (Asclepias sp.). If we want Monarch butterflies, we need perennial milkweeds.

Most caterpillars are picky eaters with another example being the Spicebush Swallowtail, which similarly prefers spicebush. We carry many host plants, including milkweed, spicebush and others!

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, green foliage is more attractive to caterpillars. If you have the room, I first recommend an oak, and I’ll explain more in a future blog post on oaks!

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 appreciate and use landscape design principles and clean borders. But I also try to incorporate the natural world into the landscape. Water sources are a big help to pollinators, especially during dry spells. Having nearby water allows them to keep foraging for food during these times. I love birdbaths and ponds and enjoy watching their visitors. We carry lots of birdbaths because they’re such a terrific asset to the landscape! Keep them shallow though so they don’t fall and drown!

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

Lastly, avoid hefty fall cleanups. Pollinators, and even larvae of insects such as fireflies, lay their eggs or overwinter in leaves, brush, and inside dried stems. Far too many homeowners scalp their landscapes in the 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 begin to wake up and be gentle in doing so!

Oh – and try to avoid chemicals. I’m not always against them. They serve a purpose and are necessary in some sparing cases. 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 simply need to kill small weeds. We sell some of these products in the garden center here.

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 nook of a traditional yard. But really, I think every landscape should be pollinator friendly! Instead of an “evergreen bushes and rock mulch” landscape with a pocket of flowering plants somewhere, why not make the whole landscape a pollinator landscape? Let’s make our landscapes exciting and beautiful, and with the right ingredients, they’ll be healthy, easy to maintain (that’s right folks, “low maintenance”), and just outright superb!

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