At the height of summer, a healthy garden vibrates, hums, whistles, buzzes and flashes with color. Morning light reveals dewy spider webs stretched between tall grass, hummingbirds careening through the air and chattering testily at one another, caterpillars nearly double in size from the day before still noisily leaf-munching, a praying mantis rigid with her elbows poised to seize an unsuspecting beetle and flowers unfurling with bees still asleep inside their petals.
I’m obsessed with plants and flowers, but for me, the true personality of a garden is the multitude of bright little critters it gives life to. And, give life it truly can.
With the right plants, thoughtful design and proper maintenance practices, our gardens make animals possible. Most butterfly species, for example, can only exist with access to certain plants during the caterpillar stage of their lives (butterfly host plants). When we plant milkweed, our gardens can create monarch butterflies; when we plant pawpaw trees, they’re making zebra swallowtails; or when we grow hackberry, we’re supporting the lovely hackberry emperor moth. These particular species, as caterpillars, can only eat this type of plant to enable them to grow into butterflies.
The more small critters we help create with our gardening choices, the more birds, salamanders, toads and other wildlife we’re feeding in turn. And, since bee pollination is required for about one-third of the food we eat, creating a habitat garden for pollinators is really feeding us, too.
Amid widespread decline in pollinators, taking steps to make our properties more pollinator-friendly can be truly meaningful on so many levels, and is also just a fun project! Here are a few guidelines to enhancing pollinator habitat at your own home or garden.
Nourishing Plants, in Every Season
Not all plants are useful to pollinators. There’s a gorgeous flowering quince cultivar that I inherited in my yard, for example, that no bee ever goes near when it’s in full flower—ecologically, it may as well be made of plastic. Sometimes when plants are bred for certain ornamental traits like double flowers or darker leaf color, their benefit to pollinators declines in the process. For pollinator gardens, opt for native plants and straight species when possible. Native plants are particularly important to supporting butterfly populations in the caterpillar stage, with native tree and shrub species being especially valuable.
When planning a garden, try to include combinations of perennial plant species that bloom at different periods so there are always flowers for pollinators to forage on. For example, to feed hummingbirds throughout the season, a useful plant combination might be beardtongue (Penstemon sp.) for spring flowers, native coral honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens) for early summer, bee balm (Monarda sp.) and salvia for mid-summer, and cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) for late summer/fall.
Diversity Creates Diversity
There are thousands of interesting pollinator species out there. In fact, there are more than 4,000 bee species in North America alone. Each have their own unique requirements for nutrition, breeding habitat, hibernation, etc. The more diverse plants and habitats we include on our properties, the more pollinators we’ll support. Including a variety of flower sizes, shapes and colors is an easy way to start if you have a small garden space. For larger areas, aim for a multi-layered garden: Trees, shrubs, perennial flowers and grasses, and groundcovers.
Leave the pesticides and herbicides aside! Spraying chemicals often kills untargeted beneficial insects and can make its way up the food chain to birds, amphibians, reptiles and mammals. If a particular plant always seems overrun by pests, try replacing it with a different plant rather than regularly spraying. For weeds, hand-pulling or flame weeding are healthy alternatives. If chemicals must be used on invasive plants, a targeted approach like cut-and-paint is less harmful to nearby critters than spraying.
Get Creatively Messy
The more your garden resembles the natural world, the more beneficial to pollinators it will be. Rather than a fall clean-up routine of cutting back spent stems and grasses to the ground, leave some standing through the winter to provide important hibernation habitat for pollinators and food for birds. Many butterfly and moth pupae overwinter among fallen leaves, while dead wood and bare soil are widely used by native bees for both nesting and hibernation. Find creative ways to incorporate these “messy” elements into your garden as a feature and you’ll discover that they have their own unique beauty throughout the year.
Features for Water and Shelter
Everybody needs a drink and a place to hang their hat. A shallow water basin with stones in it makes a great pollinator drinking station, or fill a large bowl with wet sand to create a butterfly puddling area. Bee hotels (nesting and sheltering habitats for native bees) can be made by drilling various-sized holes into a log or packing bamboo, sticks, spent stems and other natural materials into a wooden box. Examples and building instructions are easily found online.
Look Closely and Enjoy the Garden!
There are so many beautiful and fascinating creatures to be discovered all around us. Take a few minutes to look closely at the underside of leaves, in the cracks of tree bark and the inside of flowers – you’ll find so many critters. Then, you’ll want to figure out what they are and learn all about them. Eventually, you’ll be planting a bigger pollinator garden so that you can find more! Trust me, nature is addictive.
Below is a list of pollinator-friendly plants that you can use to help build your own pollinator haven at home.
Favorite plants picks for the pollinator garden:
Shrubs and Small Trees:
- Serviceberries (Amelanchier species)
- Chokeberries (Aronia species)
- Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis)
- Hawthorns (Crataegus species)
- Witch Alders (Fothergilla species)
- Witchhazels (Hamamelis species)
- Spicebush (Lindera benzoin)
- American Plum (Prunus americana)
- Native Shrub Roses (American Rosa species)
- Willows (Salix species)
- Blueberries (Vaccinium corymbosum)
- Viburnums (Viburnum species)
- Hyssops (Agastache species)
- Dogbanes (Apocynum species)
- Milkweeds (Asclepias species)
- Asters (Aster species)
- Coneflowers (Echinacea species)
- Blazing Stars (Liatris species)
- Lobelias (Lobelia species)
- Bee Balms (Monarda species)
- Beardtongues (Penstemon species)
- Phloxes (Phlox species)
- Mountain Mints (Pycnanthemum species)
- Salvias (Saliva species)
About the Author
Sarah Coury is an Adult Education instructor at The North Carolina Arboretum. She co-owns Saturnia Farm in Clyde, N.C., a specialty nursery focused on perennials, grasses and sedges, willows, native butterfly and moth host plants, and cut flowers.