How to Make a Pollinator Friendly Garden

Planting a pollinator garden is one of the most rewarding things you can do — for yourself and for the environment. Roll out the welcome mat to beneficial pollinators.

Pollinators are in the news a lot these days as people bemoan the loss of Monarch butterfly habitat and question what is contributing to the disappearance of honeybees. Fortunately, there is something the average homeowner can do to help the cause. And it’s nice to know that while you’re providing pollen for pollinators, you’re providing a beautiful pollinator garden for yourself to enjoy.

Why Create a Pollinator Garden

There are lots of reasons to plant a pollinator garden. First, pollinators are fun to watch — most notably, birds, moths and butterflies, but also bumblebees. Second, pollinators are important to your garden, especially if you grow fruits, vegetables or self-seeding annuals.

Third, pollinators are critical to the environment and our continued existence. Without them, much of the world’s food supply would vanish. One out of every three mouthfuls of food exists because of pollinators.

How to Establish a Pollinator Garden

Planting flowers is just the start. You also want to establish an environment that is welcoming to pollinators. That starts with limiting the use of pesticides and herbicides and seeking organic alternatives for a sustainable landscape.  And if you do feel compelled to use chemicals (no one would blame you if you had a patch of poison ivy to deal with), do not apply on a windy day, and follow label directions to the letter.

Another thing to consider is protection from wind. A lot of gardeners don’t think about this, but pollinators will be more active if they’re not fighting a strong wind. One way to diminish the wind is to plant a hedge, a mixed windbreak of trees and shrubs, or a privacy fence.

What About Butterflies?

Admit it: When we said pollinators, that was the first insect you thought of, and the one you most likely want to visit your garden. Well, butterflies have some specific needs that go beyond a menu of tempting flowers.

Provide them a rock where they can perch while drying their wings in the sun. Butterflies also like a shallow puddle of water. One option is to place a plant saucer in the garden, line it with wet sand and carve out a small puddle where they can sip water. Also, consider a food source for butterfly caterpillars. These include dill, fennel, parsley and milkweed.

One other thing. Come fall, allow at least some leaves to remain in the garden, because some butterflies overwinter in leaf litter as eggs, larvae or pupae.

Butterfly Drinking Water Yevhenii Stuzhuk/Getty Images

How to Choose Plants That Attract Pollinators

For starters, consider season of bloom. You want to take care of pollinators throughout the growing season, so it is important to have plants that bloom continually, like annuals, and in various seasons, like perennials that peak in spring, summer or fall.

Consider perennials the backbone of the garden, with annuals filling the gaps and ensuring there’s always something in bloom to attract pollinators. Including a variety of plants not only opens up a bigger window of blooming, it also adds more eye appeal to your garden.

Some Must-Have Pollinator Plants

Look for native plants — they grow naturally in your area, need less care and pollinators are familiar with them. Self-seeding annuals such as bachelor’s buttons, calendula, larkspur, cleome, zinnia, tithonia, sunflower and cosmos are all good candidates, but there are plenty of others.

As for perennials, stalwarts include Russian sage, hyssop, Echinacea, Rudbeckia, aster, daisy, Joe-Pye weed, coreopsis, helenium, salvia and veronica. Many perennials now come in longer-blooming cultivars, which is a plus.

When to Plant a Pollinator Garden

You can plant a pollinator garden any time the ground is workable (that is, not frozen or waterlogged). In cold winter regions, annuals should be planted in spring or summer. But planting in fall is a waste of money, unless they’re cold-tolerant annuals such as pansies and mums. Perennials can be planted spring, summer or fall if they’re kept watered the first year in the ground.

Bonus: Fall is a good time to pick up perennials on the cheap as nurseries and big box stores pare down their inventory for winter.

Caring for Pollinator Garden Plants

The good news is, pollinator plants take no more care than any other plant. Many of them require less maintenance. That’s because a lot of the best pollinator plants are prairie natives, and you know how tough prairie conditions can be. It’s all in a day’s work for black-eyed Susan, yellow coneflower, purple coneflower, daisy and so many more pollinator magnets with a prairie pedigree.

While many of them are tolerant of heavy clay soils and intermittent drought, they will be more vigorous with a better soil mix and regular watering. If you’re planting (or sowing) a bed, amend the soil with compost beforehand and water every seven to 10 days if the weather turns dry.

While it may be tempting to use a fertilizer labeled for flowers because it will have more bloom-boosting phosphorus, the University of Massachusetts-Amherst notes too much phosphorus can have negative environmental impact, and most non-agriculture soils already have enough phosphorus. Nitrogen is more likely to be needed, so do a soil test first, then pick the right fertilizer.

Luke Miller
Luke Miller is an award-winning garden editor with 25 years' experience in horticultural communications, including editing a national magazine and creating print and online gardening content for a national retailer. He grew up across the street from a park arboretum and has a lifelong passion for gardening in general and trees in particular. In addition to his journalism degree, he has studied horticulture and is a Master Gardener.