Pollinator Gardens (How They Work & What To Plant)


You’ve heard about the plight of the poor bees and butterflies. Hundreds of millions of native pollinators are dying every year because their habitat is being developed and food sources are getting harder to find. Fortunately, you can take action to save the bees by growing a pollinator garden this season.

A pollinator garden can take a lot of different shapes and forms, but it is essentially a space designated for pollinators. Usually planted in native plants and wildflowers, the goal of a pollinator garden is to attract native pollinators like solitary bees and migratory butterflies to a safe space where they can find food and habitat.   

Who Are Pollinator Gardens For?

Bees might be the most well-known pollinator, but they’re far from the only ones. Honey bees actually aren’t even native to North America (they were brought over from Europe).

honeybees
Honeybees are a pollinator that is not native to North America.

However, North America does have over 400 native species of bees – most of them solitary bees like leafcutter bees and carpenter bees. 

Bees aren’t the only pollinators responsible for fertilizing flowers and allowing plants to make the delicious vegetables and fruits that we all know and love. Butterflies, wasps, beetles, flies, moths, hummingbirds, and even bats have evolved to make a symbiotic relationship with many native plants and wildflowers over the years. 

blue morpho butterfly
Butterflies also act as pollinators for your garden, along with wasps, beetles, flies, moths, hummingbirds, and bats.

The best way to preserve habitat for native pollinators is to return a portion of your lawn or garden to nature. If you can help it, refrain from mowing a portion of your lawn, or even better – return some of your yard to a wildflower meadow or forest. 

How To Build A Pollinator Garden

If you want to be a little more intentional in building pollinator habitat, you can design a pollinator garden that includes pollen-rich and nectar-rich flowers that pollinators love.

broccoli flowers bee
Bees and other pollinators may come for the flowers on broccoli and other plants, but you can sweeten the deal by planting a dedicated pollinator garden!

Most wildflowers and native plants prefer sun and poor soil, so choose a planting site that receives at least six hours of sun each day. Make sure the soil is well-draining, and add compost and soil amendments if necessary. 

When choosing plants for the pollinator garden, it’s easy to get wrapped up in what’s beautiful, but remember – you’re building this garden for the bees. Look for seeds and plant starts that are native to your area, and try to avoid any hybrid varieties – since hybrids aren’t typically open-pollinated, they’re not as desirable to pollinators. 

raspberry flower monarch butterfly
Add native flowers to your pollinator garden to attract butterflies, bees, and others.

You aren’t limited to flowers in a pollinator garden – pollinators love herbs, shrubs, and trees just as much! 

Another important thing to consider in designing a pollinator garden is determining which pollinators your garden will serve. Penn State has identified two kinds of pollinators – generalist and specialist – and elaborates on these definitions in this article:

Generalist pollinators can visit a wide variety of flowers. Others, referred to as specialists, need a very different diet and may only be able to feed from one or two kinds of plants. Gardeners should strive to provide plants for both generalists and specialists.¹

https://extension.psu.edu/planting-pollinator-friendly-gardens

Essentially, generalist pollinators (like blue bottle flies) are opportunistic feeders that will get nectar whenever and wherever they can. Specialist pollinators are the purists with the dignified palette, feeding on very specific flowers and plants.

An excellent example of a specialist pollinator is the bat, which feeds on moonflower and other flowers that actually open in the evening and bloom through the night. 

Moonflower
Bats feed on moonflower and other flowers that open in the evening and bloom at night.

Whatever plants you decide to include in your pollinator garden, plant them in clusters – it’s easier for pollinators to find flowers that are planted in groups, versus singular flowers. (And who’s going to complain about huge drifts of color in the garden?)

If there’s an abundant supply of nectar, pollinators are likely to keep on coming back to a food source that they can count on.  

While landscape fabric is a helpful tool to use for weed suppression, you’ll want to refrain from using it in the pollinator garden. Turn as much of the pollinator patch over to nature as you can stand – including a few weeds – to create a living ecosystem that benefits the pollinators, the planet, and ultimately, you. 

dandelion weeds
It’s ok to let a few weeds grow in your pollinator garden.

Finally, don’t be tempted to tidy up the pollinator garden come fall. It’s good practice among gardeners to cut back plants in the fall and pull the annuals up at the onset of winter.

However, by doing so, you’re removing potential habitat to house pollinators through the winter. Clean up your personal garden, but leave the pollinator patch to decompose naturally. At the very least, wait to do your spring cleaning until the last minute, so that more pollinators will survive winter. 

10 Plants To Include In A Pollinator Garden

Finally, the fun part! The best part about planting a pollinator garden is choosing as many of the following beauties as you have room to grow.

1. Asclepias

More commonly referred to by its common name, milkweed, and often called by its nickname, “butterfly weed,” Asclepias is a must in any pollinator garden. Asclepias is native to eastern North America, but will happily thrive in a range of climates and soils.

milkweed Ascelipas
Asclepias, or milkweed, has flowers that will help to attract butterflies and other creatures to your pollinator garden.

Asclepias flowers in bright shades of yellows and reds that catch the attention of more pollinators than butterflies, although they famously feed migrating monarch populations every year. 

2. Echinacea

These daisy-type flowers in a myriad of colors are renowned for their medicinal properties, but they are a favorite among pollinators, too.

Purple Coneflower
Echinacea or coneflower tolerates drought and makes a good addition to a pollinator garden.

Also called coneflower for their cone-shaped spiky seed heads, echinacea is a North American wildflower that thrives in full sun and poor soil. This drought-tolerant perennial will return year after year, and the pollinators will count on it. 

3. Lavender

This fragrant culinary and medicinal herb has been cultivated by civilizations for centuries, but pollinators have been enjoying it for far longer. This bushy plant with its delicate foliage and fragrant purple flowers is excellent for drying, even after the pollinators have had their fill.

English Lavender
Lavender has a fragrant scent and adds regal majesty to your pollinator garden.

Make a scented bundle for some home aromatherapy to induce better sleep. A low-maintenance perennial plant that you plant and then cut back once a year, lavender is a staple in the pollinator garden.

4. Mint

Mint is a fun herb to grow in the pollinator patch, and beneficial insects enjoy it! Take your pick of spearmint, peppermint, apple mint, or any other flavor – the bees love them all.

Spearmint
Spearmint is just one type of mint you can add to your pollinator garden.

Lemon balm, a citrusy strain in the mint family, seeds to be a favorite among pollinators and is an excellent garnish for salads or drinks. Bee balm, or monarda, even has it in the name – it’s another member of the mint family that pollinators just can’t get enough of. 

Any one of the mint varieties can be harvested, bundled, and dried for homemade tea. One note of caution when growing mint – you might consider growing the herb in a container or some area of the garden that you don’t care to be overtaken.

Mint will happily spread out to fill any available space. Cut mint roots back yearly to avoid having the herb completely overtake your garden. 

You can learn more about the many different types of mint here.

5. Calendula

A heat-loving annual and prolific bloomer, calendula is an excellent flower for the pollinator garden, with mutually beneficial properties for insects and humans alike. The daisy-like flowers are deliciously edible – if you can harvest them before the bees do!

calendula marigold
Calendula, sometimes called marigolds, love heat and make a fine addition to a pollinator garden.

Calendula is a no-fuss plant, making it the perfect flower for beginning gardeners and seasoned gardeners without much time. A vigorous reseeder, calendula volunteers are sure to reappear season after season, gracing your garden with lovely pops of warm color. 

6. Salvia

Essentially another name for ornamental sage varieties, salvia is another fun herb to grow, process, and share with native pollinators.

Sage
Salvia, or sage, is an herb that produces brilliant flowers for your pollinator garden.

Salvias are known for their rich colors and lengthy bloom time, providing food for pollinators in the shoulder seasons, well after most annual flowers have started to die back. Another drought-resistant perennial that will reward you with blooms year after year, even with minimal maintenance. 

7. Borage

A unique plant boasting star-shaped, azure-colored blooms atop fuzzy foliage, borage is yet another edible herb that pollinators enjoy just as much as we do. Top your garden salads with cucumber-flavored borage blossoms, but don’t forget to leave some flowers for the bees, too!

Borage
Borage is an edible herb with unique flowers that is perfect for a pollinator garden.

Borage is an annual plant but tends to reseed itself, so be prepared for volunteer borage seedlings to pop up for seasons to come. 

8. Zinnia

Who doesn’t love zinnias and their bold and beautiful flowers? Bees and other pollinators certainly seem to adore these multi-petaled branching flowers.

Zinnia
Zinnia seeds can be saved to renew your flowers for next year’s pollinator garden.

Another bonus of growing zinnias in the pollinator patch is that at the end of the season, you’ll have your own unique blend of zinnia seed! At the end of the season, when the flower heads start to turn brown and crispy, cut the heads and allow them to fully dry out.

Separate the petals from the seed by rubbing the dried flower heads between your fingers. Plant your zinnia seeds out next year in the pollinator garden to thank the bees for their generous gift! 

9. Yarrow

Also called achillea, yarrow is a lovely wildflower that deserves more garden space than it typically gets. Traditionally recognized by its dainty white florets that bloom in tight clusters, pinks, purples, yellows, and chocolate colors have been isolated out for some variety in the garden.

Yarrow
Yarrow has tight clusters of white, pink, purple, yellow, and chocolate flowers for your pollinator garden.

Yarrow seems to be a favorite among bees and beetles in particular, but you’ll see more pollinators than those alone in yarrow flowers. Who can resist this colorful, delicate beauty?

10. Goldenrod

A humble member of the sunflower family and regarded by many as a weed, goldenrod is literal gold in the pollinator garden. Really a collection of various closely-related native perennial plants, the clusters of tiny yellow flowers atop tall plants with blade-like foliage are signature markers of goldenrod, and pollinators find it fast.

goldenrod
Goldenrod is a member of the sunflower family and makes a good choice for a pollinator garden.

Be aware, while goldenrod is the perfect addition to the pollinator garden, many see it as an invasive weed, so cut goldenrod roots back regularly to control its opportunistic sprawl in the garden. 

Other Ways To Save The Bees

Building a pollinator garden is a fun and rewarding way to protect pollinators, but there are other ways you can honor the bees, too. 

Build Bee Houses

If you’re feeling extra crafty, take on the task of building a few bee houses! Solitary bees like carpenter bees and leafcutter bees don’t return to a hive at the end of the day but make their own nests in pieces of wood.

Create A Bee Bath

Go the extra mile and place a couple of birdbaths in your pollinator gardens, for the birds, of course, but insects benefit from a constant water supply too. Just make sure to throw a few stones or sticks in the bath so that butterflies and the link have a place to land and rest their weary wings.

bird bath
A birdbath isn’t just for the birds! Pollinators like bees might use them too.

Plant A Tree

Pollinators love the sun, and they need the heat to warm up their bodies enough to move and feed. But in the heat of the day, the insects appreciate some shade as well. Plant a few native trees and shrubs in your bee garden–and the bees won’t be the only ones to thank you for it. 

Plant some fruit trees to give pollinators shade and also flowers to visit in the spring.

Go Organic

Avoid spraying anything in your pollinator garden. When the aphids begin to appear and when powdery mildew begins to set in, it’s tempting to reach for the pesticides and soaps to nip an infestation or an epidemic before it even begins.

But by applying chemicals to plant foliage, you unavoidably endanger the beneficial insects and pollinators as well as the pests. When you have to spray, use organic products, and don’t spray anywhere near the pollinator patch.

Better yet, don’t spray at all – try managing aphids and other pests with beneficial insects like parasitic wasps and ladybugs. Plant a bumper crop so that tomato blight doesn’t hit as hard as it normally would, rather than spraying away the problem. 

ladybug
Use ladybugs as one part of your natural pest control regimen (they like to eat aphids!)

If you have to spray, use all-natural products like Dr. Bronner’s castile soap and baking soda to spray for fungal diseases like powdery mildew, but let it run its course in the pollinator strip.

You can learn more about organic pest control methods here.

Support Local Beekeepers & Pollinator Organizations

The easiest (and most enjoyable) way to advocate for bees is to support local beekeepers by buying local honey! 

If you choose, you can also make a financial gift to local and national organizations that work to protect bees and pollinators. The University of Massachusetts Amherst recommends the following organizations for folks that want to get involved with organizations doing pollinator preservation work:²

Of course, the best way to get involved is to find your local organizations and connect with them first. You may even decide to get into beekeeping yourself! 

Conclusion

If you feel overwhelmed by the state of the world, focus on the small things you can do that make a positive impact. In the grand scheme, planting a pollinator patch may seem like a trivial task–but it’s better than doing nothing. And if enough of us get on board, others will notice the difference.

Rosemary is another classic herb – if you want to grow it, you can learn how cold it can tolerate here.

You can learn more about how to encourage bees in your garden here.

You can learn more about biological pest control in this article.

You can also get some ideas for practical garden projects to beautify your yard here.

While waiting for the bees to arrive, you can pollinate some plants by hand, such as tomatoes and peppers.

I hope you found this article helpful. If so, please share it with someone who can use the information. 

If you want to read some of my most popular posts, please check out the “Best of GreenUpSide” page here. Enjoy! 

~Jonathon

Resources

¹ Schmotzer, Constance, “Planting Pollinator-Friendly Gardens.” Penn State Extension. 26 April 2016. https://extension.psu.edu/planting-pollinator-friendly-gardens

² “Organizations that Protect Pollinator Habitat.” The University of Massachusetts Amherst. https://ag.umass.edu/resources/pollinators/organizations-that-protect-pollinator-habitat

About the author:
When not writing content or growing flowers in her native Virginia, you can find Sarah hiking a long-distance trail deep in the woods. Follow along with Sarah’s adventures at http://sarahcolliecreative.com.

Sarah C.

jonathon.david.madore

Hi, I'm Jon. Let's solve your gardening problems, spend more time growing, and get the best harvest every year!

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