For years, we’ve all been hearing that some pollinators- most notably the honeybee and Monarch butterfly populations- are under threat. Destruction of natural habitat, overuse of pesticides, and changes in climate are among the suspected causes; other causes are still unknown. This threat is a big deal, as pollinators are responsible for the successful production of approximately 75% of ALL the plants we eat! So, unless we want to survive on a diet of potatoes (I mean, I know it sounds like heaven, but I think we’d get bored), we all have to do our part! Fortunately, there’s something every single person can do- planting a single pollinator-friendly flower is still a contribution!
The easiest way to make a difference is to create your own pollinator friendly garden, which I did for the first time last spring! To be honest, I always thought gardening sounded lame- like something retirees do when they have way too much time on their hands. Once I learned about the struggling Monarchs, however, I decided to grab a few milkweed plants for them (more on that later), and before I knew it, I was a dirt-covered, flower-obsessed perennial plant expert who spends way, way too much time in my yard. As someone who grew up with an extreme phobia of bees, I can’t tell you how weird this is for me. Fast forward a year, and here I am still obsessed with watching last year’s plants start to green up and produce again. I feel like a proud plant momma! My point being, if you don’t think gardening is for you, you might be totally wrong.
I’m far from a professional or an expert, but I’d love to share some simple tips and strategies I’ve picked up through trial and error over the past year! Because I was a newbie so recently, I remember many of the questions, dilemmas, and epiphanies I had. I hope these will speak to those of you who are just diving in! If you’d like to create a habitat that helps support your local pollinators, please consider keeping some (or all!) of these ideas in mind:
*Please note: I’m gardening in Denver, CO. My recommended plants might not always be relevant to your area, so be sure to double check!
#1: Don’t let yourself get too overwhelmed.
Once you start Googling “how to plant for pollinators”, countless articles will pop up, all with different advice about soil types, planting diagrams, companion planting, etc. Don’t discount this information, it’s likely correct, but don’t let perfection be the enemy of progress. Personally, I have no idea if the soil in my yard is well drained or high in nitrogen or abundant in iron. I’m sure that information would be helpful, but so far my “just throw it in the ground” technique has served me pretty well.
If you want to get super science-y about it, more power to you, but if you’re just getting started, prepare to learn as you go. What I’m trying to say is, don’t use “that sounds too hard” as an excuse to avoid starting! If everything you’re about to read sounds too complicated, feel free to just throw a handful of zinnia seeds in the soil and you’re already making a difference.
#2: Just Say No To Pesticides & Neonicotinoids
If our goal here is to help the insect population, it seems logical that we shouldn’t be poisoning them while we do it. Unfortunately, many gardeners are still using toxic chemicals to preserve the flawless appearance of their flowerbeds rather than the lives of the pollinators that visit them. Big box stores like Home Depot and Lowes are *sort of* getting on board with eschewing or at least labeling neonicotinoids (due to the growing consensus that they’re harming bees), but pesticide-free plants are still hard to come by. In my experience, the average employees at these chains aren’t always informed and sometimes just make things up.
If buying plants, your best bet is to find a local nursery with staff that can give you some solid assurances. My local garden store has signs all over proclaiming their pesticide-free policy!
#3: Prioritize Native Perennials over Tropical Annuals (exceptions do apply!)
Don’t know the difference between perennials and annuals? That’s okay, I didn’t either until last year. Perennials are typically native to your region and thus are built to survive your local climate. This means (if established properly), they will return year after year. This saves you the time and energy of replanting your garden each Spring! Annuals die after one season (occasionally two), so as the name implies, they must be replanted annually.
Native perennials should be the foundation of your garden- plan around them, as they are here to stay. Native flowers also have the advantage of attracting more local pollinators, as these flowers are more familiar to them. Last year we invested in a gorgeous tropical hibiscus bush solely because I thought pollinators would love the huge blooms. Alas, I didn’t see a single bee or butterfly visit the bush, leading me to conclude that they just didn’t recognize it as food.
Recommended Perennials for Pollinators:
Having read dozens of blogs and experimented with quite a few species last year, these are the perennials I found that attracted and sustained the most pollinators:
- Coneflowers: I can’t emphasize strongly enough how popular the coneflowers were, especially with larger butterflies! I’m pretty sure I overdrew my bank account last year trying to buy more to satisfy my hungry visitors. Coneflowers are actually echinacea plants, meaning you can use their leaves for medicinal purposes (I have not tried this). If growing from seeds, I’d get these giant Echinacea Purpureas. If ordering full plants online, get these potted tray plants.
- Milkweed: Milkweed is essential to the survival of Monarch butterflies, so no pollinator-friendly garden is complete without it. I’ll get more into that in the “host plants” section below. I recommend finding out which species of milkweed are native to your area and trying to plant only those kinds. The science is still out on this, but many think that choosing non-native milkweed (especially tropical) can confuse migrating Monarchs and make them think they’re in a different area or time of year. Here in Colorado, I’ve had great success with Swamp Milkweed, Butterflyweed, and Common Milkweed. For seeds and whole plants, I recommend Prairie Moon’s selection.
- Salvia: We have a bunch of salvia in our yard, which I’m grateful for because it’s already blooming again this year! These are extremely popular with bees and butterflies. If starting from seed, I recommend these Blue Monday Salvias. If wanting to plant full plants, either order these potted trays or visit your local nursery.
- Wild Bergamot (“Bee Balm”): As the name implies, these are a huge hit with bees. We only had one or two in our garden last year, but they were very popular. If growing from seeds, try these Purple Wild Bergamots. For full plants, order these potted trays or visit your local nursery.
- Purple Giant Hyssop: I didn’t have any luck finding these last year, but pollinator junkies rave about them. Shorter species of Hyssop are popular with bees, but only the Giant Hyssop attracts bees and large butterflies. Grab seeds and/or potted plants here, or look around your local nursery.
- Goldenrod: Goldenrod gets a bad reputation because it’s often confused with allergy-inducing ragweed. However, it’s actually an extremely beneficial plant that provides late season pollen and nectar to pollinators preparing to hibernate. Fall sounds like a long time away, but if you plan for it in advance by planting some Goldenrod, you’ll have very happy visitors in your garden. Start from these Solidago Goldenrod seeds or choose from a variety of Goldenrod plants here.
- Joe Pye Weed: These were my final plant purchase last year, as I prepared my garden for fall visitors. We planted ours in poor quality soil and they still survived and are already back and growing this Spring! These are popular with all pollinators, but butterflies find their height especially attractive. Find seeds or whole Joe Pye plants here.
Recommended Annuals For Pollinators:
While perennials have numerous benefits, they do typically have shorter blooming periods. Many of them only produce blooms for a couple months, rendering them somewhat useless for the rest of the pollinating season. This is where strategically chosen annuals come in. They often grow quickly (they only have one year to show you what they can do!), and bloom longer.
Choose annuals that are known to attract pollinators. You can, of course, buy them already grown, but it’s far more cost effective to start from seeds so long as it’s still early in the season. Based on last year’s experience, these are my favorites:
- Zinnias (avoid double-bloom varieties as butterflies sometimes avoid them): There are many kinds of zinnias on the market, but when it comes to attracting pollinators, the taller the better- especially for attracting butterflies. Some can grow up to 5 feet! I recommend California Giant Zinnias, Zowie Yellow Flame Zinnias, and Tall State Fair Zinnias.
- Cosmos: Cosmos are universally appealing to pollinators, and they grow very quickly! Plant a big patch to really attract the visitors. I recommend the Crazy Cosmos.
- Mexican Sunflowers: I was too late to plant these from seeds last year, which was a bummer because they were pretty expensive to buy as full plants. This year, I’m starting early with these Outsidepride Mexican Reds.
- Verbena: I planted a bunch of these last year, and they were extremely popular. These are actually perennials in some parts of the country, so you might luck out and see them reappear! Like zinnias, there are numerous varieties of verbena flowers, but I have the best success with the tallest. I recommend these Purpletop Vervain seeds.
#4: Provide Enough Food Sources For Spring, Summer, and Fall:
As soon as winter begins to crawl back into its snowy cave, you’ll start to see some brave pollinators reappear. The first bumblebees, solitary bees, and butterflies to arrive will be desperately looking for flowers to feed from (some have been hibernating since fall!), and often there aren’t a lot of options. For this reason, I always encourage people to leave dandelions alone; they’re one of the first sources of nutrition for hungry bees!
Summer is typically prime feeding time with more plentiful options, as most native flowers are in bloom during the summer months. However, as the seasons change once again and autumn creeps up, the pollen and nectar sources start to dry up again. For me, this was a huge concern last year as I saw my summer blooms fade away while pollinators were still buzzing around. I drove around from nursery to nursery looking for the fall bloomers, but my poor planning meant the selection was pretty bare. This year, I won’t make that mistake!
Try to plan for at least one (ideally many) flowering plant for each season. I won’t list summer plants below, because there are far too many as most perennials fall into this category.
Spring Flowers for Pollinators:
Fall Flowers for Pollinators:
#5: Provide Butterfly Host Plants:
Providing host plants is extremely important if you want to not only attract, but also help butterfly populations. A host plant is a plant upon which butterflies will lay eggs so their soon-to-be-hatched caterpillars can eat the leaves. Most caterpillars will only eat 1-3 types of plants, so providing a variety of host plants is crucial to their transformation into butterflies.
Many species of butterflies use trees as host plants, but I’ll focus on the options you can plant in your garden. These are my personal favorite host plants for helping the local populations:
Milkweed for Monarch Butterflies: Monarchs will only lay eggs on Milkweed, so it is essential to their survival. Milkweed contains toxins that are harmful to most creatures that consume it. Monarchs, however, are immune to its poison, so it accumulates in their bodies making them toxic to predators. This defense against predators is how Monarchs have survived for millions of years. As mentioned in a previous section, there are numerous species of milkweed, and its best to choose a species that’s local to your area. You can find your native milkweed species here!
Dill for Black Swallowtail Butterflies: Dill isn’t just for human consumption! The Black Swallowtail caterpillars absolutely love to devour dill plants as they grow.
Rue for Black Swallowtail Butterflies and Giant Swallowtail Butterflies: Rue is incredibly easy to grow. I know this because I barely paid attention to mine last year, and it’s already back with a vengeance this year! It also attracts some of the largest butterflies, so get your camera ready.
Sunflowers for Gorgone Checkerspot and Painted Lady Butterflies: Sunflowers also make a great food source for pollinators, so you absolutely want these in your garden.
Fennel for Black Swallowtail Butterflies and Anise Swallowtail Butterflies: Fennel is sort of a weird, licorice smelling herb that I’d never want to eat, but I have a ton in my yard. It grows easily and hosts some of my favorite caterpillars!
Parsley for Black Swallowtail Butterflies: I was in awe of how well parsley grew in my yard last year. Like with the rue, I mostly ignored it, and yet it’s already coming back strong this year! Just be sure to grow enough for the kitchen and the butterflies so you don’t have to share.
Hollyhock for Painted Lady Butterflies: Painted Ladies are one of most commonly seen butterflies, but that doesn’t mean we should take them for granted!
#6: Provide A Welcoming Habitat:
Okay, so we’ve got the food taken care of. If you really want to attract the bees and the butterflies, encourage them to kick off their shoes and stay a while by providing some of these amenities in your 5 star pollinator-friendly garden:
Water: Everyone gets thirsty in the summer, pollinators included. Whether the water source you’re providing is a dish you fill daily, a running fountain, or a built-in pond, make sure there’s a place for bees to drink safely. This usually means filling the bowl, fountain, or pond with rocks or marbles to make sure they can climb out safely. Bees often use rocks to stand on while they sip from the water next to it. If you’re ready to get fancy, this solar powered fountain looks pretty ideal!
Butterflies are a bit different, they mostly consume water by landing in pools of mud. This helps them absorb minerals from the ground, which they need for healthy egg production. I haven’t yet figured out a system for having a consistently muddy area aside from the splashes that fly out of our fountain, but I try to pour water in some shady areas of the yard whenever I think of it.
Heat Rocks: Butterflies require an elevated body temperature to be able to fly. If they aren’t warm enough (approximately 55º F), their wings don’t move! From what I witnessed last year, the warmer the better (obviously there are extreme exceptions). When temperatures are low, butterflies can often be seen warming up on smooth rocks that have been “pre-heated” by the sun. Think about how hot a rock feels in the summer sun, that’s exactly what butterflies are looking for. If you provide a few of these open, flat/smooth rocks in your garden, they’ll be happy to stay a while.
Tall Grasses: Tall, native grasses provide shelter from predators as well as from wind. On a breezy day, butterflies can often be found hanging onto a sturdy blade of tall grass until the weather improves. Tall grasses also provide shelter and habitat for birds, especially in the fall/winter months. Try to find a few varieties that are native to your area in order to provide the most appropriate accommodations. Check out Prairie Moon’s wide selection here or visit your local nursery.
Bee Hotels: Okay, full disclosure, I didn’t know this was a thing until yesterday, but I’m already very excited about it. Many species of bees are solitary, meaning they don’t live in a hive. They have to find their own shelter, often burrowing into wooden nooks and crannies. You can make their real estate search much simpler by providing housing designed just for this purpose! You could probably DIY a version of this, but I’m not very crafty so I ordered this adorable one from Amazon.
#7: Get The Right Tools:
The gardening section of any big box store or even nursery can be overwhelming, especially if you’re new to this whole thing. It’s easy to majorly overspend and still not get what you need. Having tried and judged quite a lot of gardening equipment, these are the items I find most essential:
Digz Gardener High Performance Gloves (non-leather): The second you plunge your hands into the dirt, you’ll realize how crucial gloves are. Aside from keeping you relatively clean, they also prevent blisters that can pop up. You’ll need at least one pair, but if you’re as absentminded as I am, you’ll need a few. The Digz gloves held up really well over time, which was surprising given their comparatively low price!
Jiffy 42mm Professional Greenhouse 25-Plant Starter Kit: I can’t speak highly enough about these seed starting kits. If you want to get your seeds going indoors, these mini greenhouses are miraculous.
SUNNIOR Soil pH Meter, 3 In 1 Soil Test Kit Tool (Moisture Sensor Meter/Sunlight/pH Tester): I bought this last year and really appreciated how easy it is to use. I mostly use it for moisture sensing, because I have a hard time figuring out when I’m over or under watering.
Zero-G 4001-50 Lightweight, Ultra Flexible, Durable, Kink-Free Garden Hose: I don’t know enough about hoses to tell you why this one is better, but it just is. We’ve probably bought 12 different brands of hoses since buying our house, and this is the only one that’s lasted.
TACKLIFE 7 Piece Stainless Steel Heavy Duty Gardening Kit: You’ll end up needing all of these things, so you might as well save some money and buy them together. Especially because these ones come with a carrier!
That should get you off to a good start! There is obviously much, much more information out there- much of which I’ve read. You’ll find articles that conflict with one another, and you’ll find more advice than you know what to do with. My advice is to just start. Nature is complicated, ever-changing, and somewhat opposed to following rules. We’re just doing out best to help her out!
Good luck, let me know how it goes!