Planting for Pollinators
Photo by Lynn Coulter
Tiger swallowtail butterflies feed on the nectar of many wild and cultivated flowers. They're often found in parks and deciduous woodlands.
Wonder where the wild things are? Scientists say Monarch butterflies are disappearing, along with honeybees and many other bee species, and cite everything from severe weather to loss of habitat to disease as contributing factors.
Pollinators like birds, bees and butterflies are vital to our food supply, but they also add incredible beauty to the world. We can’t solve their problems overnight, but we can help them by growing plants they need for food and shelter.
Native plants and wildflowers are great choices for pollinators. It’s best to include a mix of flowers, vines, grasses, trees, shrubs and bulbs. Use annuals and perennials for successive waves of blooms and seeds; this will help keep your wildlife buffet open throughout the growing season.
How to Attract Butterflies
Butterflies prefer orange, red, yellow, pink or purple and they’re drawn to flowers with flattened tops or to tubular-shaped flower clusters. It’s best to grow your flowers in masses to help butterflies find them more easily.
Successful butterfly gardens should offer host plants for butterfly larvae (caterpillars) as well as nectar-producing plants for the adults. Leave a weedy patch or two in your landscape, if possible—Monarch caterpillars feed only on milkweed plants, while others munch on clover, thistle, leaves or grasses.
If you’re concerned about caterpillars eating holes in your ornamental or edible plants, try growing extras, and try not to stress over ragged-looking foliage. Tattered leaves are a small sacrifice to make for the colorful, fascinating butterflies they become. And remember: Never use chemicals on plants that pollinators visit. You don’t want to harm or kill the guests you've invited to dine.
Spring Bloomer: Hepatica
Kim Eierman, environmental horticulturist and founder of EcoBeneficial! recommends including some native plants that bloom in spring, summer and fall to attract bees and other pollinators. Hepatica is a tiny, low-growing plant whose white, pink or blue flowers open as early as late winter or early spring.
Fall Bloomer: Aster
Native to almost every area of the U.S. east of the Rocky Mountains, Symphyotrichum novae-angliae, New England aster, grows easily in gardens with full sun and good air circulation. These tall and majestic plants produce deep blue to purple blooms and can continue to flower after early frosts.
Fall Bloomer: Goldenrod
This delightful wildflower makes hillsides look like Impressionist paintings in late summer and early fall, but is maligned because it blooms at the same time as ragweed. Ragweed pollen is what mucks up your sinuses; goldenrod pollen is made to be carried by bees and butterflies, not wind.
Fall Bloomer: Mist Flower
An attractive plant which blooms in late summer to fall, mist flower spreads easily and produces clusters of blue, violet or white flowers, which can grow up to three feet in height. It prefers moist areas in zones 4 to 9. For more recommendations on native perennials that attract bees, visit EcoBeneficial!
How to Attract Bees
Bees are drawn more to single blossoms than doubled types, and seem to prefer blues, purples and yellows. Avoid keeping your garden too neat; like other pollinators, bees like areas that are natural, overgrown and even weedy. As with butterflies, grow plants for bees that will bloom in succession, so there’s a steady supply of food (nectar and pollen). Native species and wildflowers are ideal choices for a bee garden.
How to Attract Birds
Bird watchers don’t need to be encouraged to plant bird-friendly gardens. They already know how much pleasure these winged visitors provide, with their beauty, movement and songs—not to mention how much fun it is to watch birds build nests, raise their young and teach them to fly.
Birds can also be valuable pollinators, carrying pollen on their heads and wings as they move around the garden. Grow plants that produce seeds, nuts and fruits to attract birds to your garden, and don’t be too quick to deadhead all your flowers. Allow some to set seeds, at least by autumn, so the birds will have plenty to eat as the cold weather arrives and other food sources decrease. Orioles and hummingbirds will visit flowers that produce nectar; they prefer tubular pink, red or orange blooms. Tanagers, some warblers, mockingbirds and grosbeaks may also drink nectar.
For best results, grow plants in “layers,” using tall trees or plants, then medium-sized plants, and finally a layer of short plants. Drifts of leaves underneath tress and shrubs will offer worms and other insects for birds to eat. Use hedges, thorny shrubs or patches of brambles to give birds safe places to escape from predators and build nests.
Extras That Encourage Pollinators
- A bird bath, kept clean and filled with fresh water.
- Feeders stocked with a good quality seed mix and/or sunflower seeds.
- A few flat rocks in a sunny spot, so butterflies can bask.
- White or pale yellow flowers; night-bloomers like moonflowers; and flowers with rich perfumes, for nocturnal moths.