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Communications July 24, 2019

Build Your Own Pollinator Garden

Gardeners face many tough decisions when planning a new garden. Should you plant a formal or cottage garden? Or perhaps you’re torn between tropical and native plants. No matter your style, chances are you can incorporate a few key pollinator favorites into your design.

Not only will these plants add color and vibrancy to your landscape, but they will also provide an important nectar source for insects, including bees and butterflies. Gardens featuring these beneficial insects are likely to experience fewer pests and higher fruit and vegetable yields.

Fortunately, establishing a pollinator garden can be easy and inexpensive. Check out the tips below to learn how to start your own low-maintenance pollinator garden.

Choosing Your Plants

Because nectar plants flower at different times during the year, choose plants with staggered bloom periods for a year-round nectar source. Select flowering plants with red, orange, yellow, pink, and purple blooms to attract butterflies. Add in a few cooler colors in shades of blue and purple to attract bees.

For a healthy garden, be sure to diversify your plant selections to slow the spread of diseases and pests. A mixture of flower shapes and sizes allows for different sized butterflies to visit. Butterfly species with long proboscises need a different shaped flower than those with shorter proboscises.

Host and native plants are also important additions to any pollinator garden. A host plant is a plant that has been incorporated into an insect’s life cycle. Activities such as feeding and egg laying usually involve this plant. For example, milkweed is the preferred nectar source and breeding ground of the monarch butterfly.

Native plants provide a nearly maintenance-free gardening experience. Think of a patch of native plants as an extension of the natural, local environment. Bees, butterflies, and other native wildlife will benefit, and you can take pride in creating your own backyard habitat.

Where to Plant Your Garden

Although pollinator gardens can be nearly carefree in the right environments, poorly placed gardens can fail to thrive. When choosing your site, consider the following conditions:

  • Is it in full sun? Your pollinator garden will need at least six hours of sunlight in the morning and early afternoon for the flowers to bloom. Sunlight also helps to regulate the body temperature of butterflies.
  • Is it windy? Avoid planting your garden in windy areas. Pollinators can struggle when feeding if they are fighting the wind. Consider using large structures or pots as wind breaks.
  • Is the soil soggy? Pollinator plants typically do not like wet, soggy roots, although there are exceptions, like aquatic milkweed (Asclepias perennis). Pollinator plants often require looser soils that allow more air circulation and drainage.
  • Can pollinators roost, nest, feed, and hide? Pollinators will benefit from yards with plenty of trees, understory plants, shrubs, and groundcovers. The more levels of vegetation you have, the more birds and butterflies will visit your garden.
  • Is fresh water available? Make sure your garden includes a water source. A bird bath can provide drinking water and help a bird remove dust, parasites, and debris. Bees use water to cool the hive, raise the hive’s humidity, and dilute honey to feed larva. Butterflies need a puddling place – wet sand or mud – where they can rehydrate and absorb minerals from the mud. Bees and butterflies also need a landing pad near the water source.

Once you’ve chosen the proper location, consider where you want to place your plants. Plants should be close together to provide proper shelter, but not close enough to minimize air circulation among the foliage. If possible, refrain from cutting back all the spent flower stalks and avoid heavy pruning during the winter. Leaving spent plants through the winter can provide shelter during a cold season while seed heads serve as a food source for birds in the winter. Don’t cut grasses back until just before active growth in the spring.

Pollinator Festival

Want to learn more about pollinators? Mercer Botanic Gardens hosts the Pollinator Festival, an annual event at Mercer, on Saturday, Oct. 5, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Learn about monarch conservation, honeybees, and nectar plants. Visitors can also purchase native milkweeds, along with many other host and nectar plants. For more information, visit