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    Garden Planning: How to Build a Pollinator Garden

    Authored by Leah Chester-Davis

    Butterflies are charming visitors to any garden and always seem to bring delight to young and old alike. This is one insect, known as a pollinator, that is beneficial to your garden. Add some plants and a bit of a natural habit to your garden and it is likely you will attract not only butterflies but other pollinators such as bees, moths and hummingbirds. That is a win-win for our environment. After all, we need pollinators for most of our food crops and flowering plants. 

    Pollinator gardens vary, from large sweeps of landscape consisting of a variety of plants that pollinators love, to a small corner or border in your yard that has a few favored plants. Even if you have a small space, it is worth adding a few plants that can become a waystation for endangered pollinators. 

    Planning your pollinator garden location

    Pick a sunny location

    Plants that pollinators love grow best in plenty of sun. Pollinators love the sun as well and need the sun to warm their bodies so they can fly. Avoid windy areas or provide some type of windscreen with a flowering shrub.

    Prepare the ground

    Work your soil. Remove weeds or any grass. Add a two-inch layer of humus or rich compost and work it into the soil. Even if you do not have space in the landscape, pollinator plants can be grown in a raised bed or a large container on your patio.

    Provide a water source

    Pollinators welcome a water source such as a bird bath or shallow bowl or container with water or even a puddling area for butterflies. Place a few small rocks or stones in varying sizes in a bird bath or shallow container. Do not completely submerge the rocks but position to give pollinators a place to land and sit.

    Avoid pesticides

    Reducing the use of pesticides is important when considering pollinator gardens and habitats. Even if you don’t spray a pesticide directly on a beneficial insect, the residue that is left behind can harm them when they ingest contaminated pollen or nectar.

    Cut down on your use of pesticides by using native plants. Another way to build a healthier garden is by building healthy soils, which can contribute to healthier plants and less need for chemicals. See our article on Garden Soils

    Select a variety of pollintor-friendly plants

    A selection of plants that bloom from spring and throughout the summer will contribute to a habitat that will keep pollinators happy. There are numerous plants to consider but native plants are particularly desirable. They hold up well to your local climate, often needing less water than other ornamental plants, and are often favored by pollinators. Place a few of the same plants together to create large clumps or masses, rather than having a single plant.

    Get colorful

    Not only are bright colors and a sweet fragrance delightful in a garden, they are like magnets to pollinators. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) provides this guide to plant colors that a few pollinators love. There are several species of each of the following pollinators and most are important contributors to our ecosystem.

    Butterflies prefer red, purple, yellow, orange or pink flowers.

    Bees prefer blue, purple, and yellow flowers.

    Hummingbirds prefer red-colored flowers but will feed on any flower with nectar. They seem to be drawn to tubular-shaped blooms.

    Sphinx moths prefer pale or white flowers that open in the evening.

    Find the best plants for your growing region

    Some of the more readily available plants for a pollinator garden include asters, bee balm or monarda, butterfly weed, Black-eyed Susan, coreopsis, cosmos, lantana, milkweed, phlox, purple coneflower, sunflower, and zinnia.

    According to the Xerces Society, which is an international nonprofit that works to protect the natural work through conservation, and was named for the now-extinct Xerces blue butterfly, native plants are the most desirable for any pollinator garden. The Xerces Society shares that native plants have been found to be four times more attractive to pollinators than non-natives and many butterflies only lay eggs on native species. 

    Native plants may vary from region to region across the country. A couple of ways to find out great choices for your garden is to check with a horticulturist at a local arboretum, botanical garden or local extension office. An excellent online source is the region-by-region plant list compiled and available from the Xerces Society.  

    When selecting plants, a mix of nectar plants and host plants is desirable. Nectar plants such as Black-eyed Susan, rosemallow, and Joe-Pye weed support many pollinators with nectar. Host plants are the ones on which butterflies will lay their eggs. These plants then become a food source for caterpillars.  Food sources will keep pollinators around your garden longer. A couple of examples are butterfly milkweed and lanceleaf coreopsis. 

    The Xerces Society’s list of plants for each region of the country includes helpful information on the bloom period, the common and scientific names of plants, the flower color, height, and moisture needs. 

    Southeast:

    • Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta)
    • Wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa)
    • Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium fistulosum)
    • Narrowleaf sunflower (Helianthus angustifolius)
    • Wrinkleleaf goldenrod (Solidago rugosa) 

    Southwest (specifically Albuquerque and Santa Fe Region):

    • Bee balm (Monarda fistulosa)
    • Common sunflower (Helianthus annuus)
    • Firewheel (Gaillardia pulchella
    • Purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea)
    • Horsetail milkweed (Asclepias subverticillata)

    Northeast:

    • Blue vervain (Verbena hastata)
    • Spiderwort (Tradescantia virginiana)
    • Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)
    • Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis)
    • New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae)

    Northwest (Maritime):

    • Bigleaf lupine (Lupinus polyphyllus)
    • Meadow checkermallow (Sidalcea campestris)
    • Showy milkweed (Asclepias speciosa)
    • Hall’s aster (Symphyotrichum hallii)
    • Puget Sound gumweed (Grindelia integrifolia)

    Midwest: 

    • Cream wild indigo (Baptisia bracteata)
    • Smooth penstemon (Penstemon digitalis)
    • Pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida)
    • Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)
    • Missouri ironweed (Vernonia missurica)

    The Xerces Society further breaks the country down into 13 regions, including the Northern Plains, Mid-Atlantic, and Florida. It also includes a list of Monarch Nectar Plants for about 15 regions from coast to coast. 

    In addition to native plants, butterflies seem to be attracted to a variety of herbs as well such as chives, dill, parsley, fennel, and catnip. Trees and shrubs also provide important habitat and can be both nectar sources and host plants for pollinators. 

    Expand your pollinator knowledge

    In addition to the Xerces Society, another helpful source is the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service, which lists numerous other resources for those wanting to take a deeper dive into creating pollinator gardens. The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center provides a National Suppliers Directory for those looking for native plants and seeds by region, along with landscape professionals and environmental consultants.