More and more popular these days, pollinator gardens are becoming a thing for suburban lawns, urban rooftops, and even designated rural spaces. Largely, this was spurred on by the effort to help honeybees, but these gardens function for much more than that.

Pollinator gardens are great for all sorts of insects and even birds, a few of which are pollinators as well. All bees and several other insects—wasps, flies, moths, butterflies—love a good selection of fresh flowers to visit. And, hummingbirds! Rather than that dyed sugar water in the feeders, pollinator gardens are giving hummingbirds the real stuff: nectar.

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With that in mind, for those interested in pollinator gardens, here’s a bit about how they work, both in terms of flora and fauna, as well as some suggestions for which flowers might help with attracting the pollinators we most want to see.

Native Plants for Native Animals

By and large, the consensus on creating pollinator gardens is to go heavy on the native plants. This isn’t for any kind of elitist, our-plants-are-the-best-plants type statement. Rather, the pollinators that have evolved to be in a certain area have done so to utilize certain types of plants and flowers.

Of course, we aren’t going to import exotic pollinators into our gardens, so we have to serve up what the customers like. We can try to sneak in the odd recipe here and there, but these bees and butterflies know what they want and are creatures of habit.

Building Biodiversity

That said, planting hundreds or thousands of the same native wildflower isn’t going to get the job done well. Part of the problem honeybees is having is that our agricultural systems create such massive monocultures that there isn’t much to feed on when the crops are no longer flowering.

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So, as we plan out what plants to include in a pollinator garden—and do think about trees and shrubs as well as herbaceous wildflowers—we need to keep an eye on assortments. Plants and flowers with different shapes, sizes, colors, and aromas keep the pollinators happier.

Stretching the Season

And, we especially need to include stuff that flowers in early spring, fall, and even winter as opposed to just summer. This means the garden will provide food when it’s scarce. Summertime wildflowers are wonderful, but making sure we have blooms in March and on into November (at least) will help to keep the local pollinator population healthier.

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Redbuds and dogwoods are great trees for early spring, and lilacs, Christmas roses, and lily of the valley are great flowers. Mums, pansies, sunflowers, asters, black-eyed Susans, zinnias, and dahlias are also possibilities for fall blooms.

Include Water Sources

Like any animal, pollinators also need fresh water, so it helps to include some source of water within or near a pollinator garden. This can be as simple as a birdbath or a nearby stream, or it can be a lovely garden pond with shallow spots for the smaller fauna to get reasonable access to it.

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Bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds aren’t creatures that like to plunge into pools. They prefer nice spots where they can rest a spell and take a sip or two to wash their dinner down. Having some kind of accessible water source around makes a massive difference.

Targeting Specific Pollinators

Different pollinators have different preferences and abilities, so when we hope to attract certain guests to the garden, it pays to plant something suitable.

  • Butterflies are attracted to red, orange, and yellow flowers, and they tend to go towards open blooms, where they have space to land whilst feeding on them. Try butterfly bush, coneflowers, milkweed, aster, salvia, zinnias, and black-eyed Susans.
  • Hummingbirds are also wild about red but move more towards the pink-purple palette after that. They tend to favor tubular flowers that are well-suited for their long beaks and tongues. Try cardinal flowers, fuchsia, lantana, petunia, and salvia.
  • Moths and bats are nighttime pollinators; thus, they need blooms that come out at night. Try wild honeysuckle, pinks, evening primroses, clematis, and flowering tobacco.
  • Bees are extremely versatile and varied, so to provide for all of them means basically planting all the flowers we can dream up. Fruit trees and berry bushes are a great start. They love different types of culinary herbs. Coneflower, nasturtiums, and sunflowers are other edibles to plant. Oregon grapes and winter jasmine are good off-season inclusions.

Pollinator Gardens Help Vegetable Gardens and Orchards

Aside from the benevolent act of providing for our friendly bees, butterflies, birds, and bats, planting pollinator gardens is a great thing to do for our own food-producing plants. Most crops require pollinators, so having them attracted by pollinator gardens means they’ll be around to pollinate our crops when the time comes. For that reason alone, it’s worth dedicating a corner of the yard or vegetable plot to a pollinator garden. Plus, it’s a lot of fun.

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