The milkweed, asters, salvia, coneflowers and goldenrod in Penny Stowe’s garden are beautiful, but aesthetics aren’t the only reason Stowe chose them: These plants are known for attracting pollinators like insects and birds.
Stowe, 60, planted a pollinator garden in 2011 after taking classes to become a master gardener. While learning about the importance of native plants and pollinators, Stowe, a retiree, decided to give her Pendergrass, Georgia, garden a makeover.
“I used to buy plants I thought were pretty—I’d never even heard the word ‘native plant’ before—and now I’m thinking about bringing nature to my yard,” she says.
Over the past four years, Stowe has noticed a significant increase in the number of birds, bees and butterflies in her garden. “I feel like my garden has come alive,” she says.
Nature Under Duress
News of declining bee and butterfly populations has led to increased awareness about pollinators—even the White House has a garden for them—and spurred more gardeners to transform their landscapes into pollinator havens.
Pollinators are critical to the ecosystem: More than 85% of flowering plants, including two-thirds of food crops, rely on insects and birds to carry pollen from flower to flower. Many pollinator species are at risk because of habitat loss, pesticide use and pathogens such as viruses.
“The easiest way to have a local impact is planting a pollinator garden,” says Vicki Wojcik, PhD, research director for the nonprofit Pollinator Partnership, dedicated to pollinator education and research.
Planting for Pollination
Here are five things you can do to support pollinators in your garden.
Go native: Research shows that pollinators prefer plants that are native to an area for food and habitat. “Native plants have the proteins in their pollen or sugar in their nectar that pollinators need,” explains Wojcik.
There is also an environmental benefit: Native plants are indigenous to a specific region and adapted to the growing conditions, which helps improve soil fertility and reduce erosion. Not sure about what’s native in your area? The Pollinator Partnership publishes regional planting guides on its website, pollinator.org. Enter your zip code to access a comprehensive list of plants native to your region.
Plan your garden: Bees, bats, butterflies and hummingbirds feed on nectar. Selecting plants that provide it—such as bee balm, coneflower and penstemon—provides a much-needed food source for pollinators.
You don’t need a big garden to have a big impact, according to Mace Vaughan, co-director of the pollinator program for the Xerces Society (xerces.org), a Portland-based wildlife conservation group. Even a few potted plants on the patio make a difference. “The more a backyard gardener can do to support pollinators, the more of a collective impact we can have,” Vaughan says.
The best pollinator gardens are in sunny locations and filled with plants that bloom all season long. Vaughan also suggests planting in clumps to make flowers more visible to pollinators and increase foraging efficiency.
Leaving small piles of branches in the garden (for cocoons to attach to) and fallen plant materials, like stumps, for nesting bees is another way to provide habitat for pollinators.
Give up the turf: Replacing some lawn with a wildflower meadow can provide a lower-maintenance boost to the availability of food sources and habitat for pollinators.
Benjamin Vogt tore out the front lawn of his home in Lincoln, Nebraska, and replaced it with several species of native plants. “The boon in pollinator numbers is incredible,” he says. “To me, it’s an ethical imperative to garden with native plants that support the wildlife we’ve displaced.”
To keep the yard from looking unkempt, Vaughan suggests sowing a native seed mix and mowing a two-foot border around the perimeter, which makes the meadow look intentional instead of ignored. If local codes require a manicured lawn, let clover go to flower before mowing; it’s one small action that can help pollinators.
Skip sprays: Pesticides are designed to kill insects and bees are insects. “We know that pesticides harm pollinators,” explains Wojcik. “Your habitat should be as pesticide-free as possible.” In a 2014 study, Harvard researchers linked colony collapse disorder, the inexplicable disappearance of honeybees, to a class of pesticides known as neonicotinoids.
To ensure you don’t accidentally expose pollinators to pesticides, ask whether the plants you buy have been treated with neonicotinoids or other systemic insecticides.
Get certified: You can demonstrate your commitment to pollinators by getting your garden certified. Organizations like Penn State University and the Environmental Education Alliance of Georgia offer such certifications.
Stowe had her garden certified as Wildlife Habitat by the National Wildlife Federation and a Monarch Waystation by Monarch Watch. Signs posted in the garden let the neighbors know that she’s making a conscious effort to attract pollinators.
Stowe says, “You know the saying, ‘Think globally, act locally?’ That’s what I want to do in my garden.”