butterfly on flower

Gardening With Pollinators in Mind

I’ll Meet You in the Garden with Shellie Wise, Warren County Master Gardener

While you may not be able to dedicate an entire garden plot to a pollinator garden, there are small practices you can incorporate into any sized garden to support our local pollinators. Over 75% of our agricultural crops depend on pollinators. We need to do what we can to support them.

Pollinators include more than just butterflies and honeybees. An assortment of wild bees, beetles, moths, bats, wasps, birds, flies, and other insects all play an important role in pollinating plants. Their needs are as basic as ours – food for themselves and their young, water, safe shelter, and a place to reproduce and raise the next generation.

A diverse planting of native pollen and nectar-producing plants grouped together is a good food source for pollinators. Native plants co-evolved with native insects, birds, and wildlife. It’s important to maintain that ecosystem. Use native plants in your garden. Clusters of plants are easier for the pollinators to spot and feed on than single individual plantings. Group flowering plants together and include different species if possible. It’s important to provide food throughout the entire growing season with plants that bloom from spring to fall. Avoid hybrid double-flowered plants that make it difficult for the insects to reach the pollen. Some hybrid plants have been bred to not produce pollen rendering them useless to pollinators. Instead, choose flowers that have one ring of petals around a central disc. Plant flowers with a variety of shapes, like tubular, bowl-shaped & flat-topped, to appeal to a large variety of pollinators. Alyssum, asters, borage, calendula, coneflowers, foxglove, hyssop, lobelia, marigold, milkweed, monarda (bee balm), nasturtium, scabiosa, sedums, sunflowers, yarrow, and zinnia are just a few pollinator favorites. Allow some of your herbs to flower later in the season. Pollinators are attracted to the flowers of basil, cilantro, mint, oregano, and thyme. Add night-blooming plants like 4 o’clock, datura, moonflower, evening primrose, and nicotiana to benefit the evening pollinators like moths and bats. Butterfly and moth larvae require non-flowering plant parts like leaves of carrots, dill, parsley, and milkweed. In addition to many of the plants listed above, hummingbirds enjoy hyacinth bean flowers, petunias, and columbines.

Water is provided in a variety of ways, like water drops on plants, birdbaths, and shallow dishes of stones. Keep the dish of stones filled with water, especially during the heat of summer.

Having natural material nearby, like small stacks of stones or large rocks, a pile of branches, dead logs, and small patches of bare ground provides sites for resting, protection, and nesting. Remove and trash weeds, diseased plants, and pest-infested material from your garden, but allow some leaf litter and flower seed heads to remain. In addition to food from the seeds, the hollow stems and leaves provide great hibernating sites throughout winter.

Keep yourself and your local pollinators safe by reducing or eliminating your use of herbicides, pesticides, and chemicals. Instead, practice good gardening techniques. Use native plants, clean & remove pest-infested plants, and use pest management strategies. Support beneficial insects and predators, like ladybugs, lacewings, parasitic wasps, toads, and birds, to help control pests naturally. Use barriers and traps to thwart pests. Paper collars and garden fabric are examples of barriers that prevent specific pest damage. Lure plants away from your garden by using trap plants – those preferred by pests – and plant them outside the garden plot. When natural methods of pest control are not enough, opt for less toxic pesticide options, like Bt or diatomaceous earth. When you use pesticides to kill the pests, you also kill beneficial insects, upsetting the balance in your garden. Use as a last resort. Instead of herbicides, remove weeds while they’re young and easier to manage. Use mulches, like newspapers, straw, cardboard, or wood chips, to prevent weeds from sprouting. Fertilize naturally with compost and use good soil management instead of using synthetic fertilizers.

Regardless of the size of your garden, try some of the practices described above to attract and support pollinators in your area. You may not be able to provide everything listed, but even one positive change makes a difference. Every little effort contributes to a lasting positive impact for our pollinators and us.

For more information on garden practices that support pollinators, visit the links below.


Last updated September 27, 2023