7 Easy Ways to Help Pollinators

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We gardeners are becoming more aware of our changing world, not just the climate, but the loss of habitat for pollinators. Landscape designers are becoming more aware and responding by incorporating more pollinating plants into designs. How to integrate high-pollinating plants into a mature garden is a major challenge. Here is a short list of simple but effective ways to help pollinators survive and be productive in our gardens:

  • Provide habitat, nest sites and host plants.
  • Provide flowering shrubs, perennials and annuals that attract pollinators, provide them with nectar and pollen, and provide places to raise their young.
  • Watch out for any pesticides or herbicides. Use safe products that do not harm pollinators. Use targeted herbicides, not broadcast herbicides.
  • Apply wildflower pollinator mix to unused corners and spaces.
  • Add pollinating flowers to vegetable gardens or gardens.
  • When something dies in your mature garden, replace it with something that benefits all kinds of pollinators.
  • Plant for 12 months of flowering.

First get to know your local pollinators, then get to know the plants they like.

Before you start adding plants to attract them, you should first familiarize yourself with the different types of pollinators. Many of us think of bees first, but many different types of pollinators work in our gardens: beetles, bees, butterflies and moths, and native bees. But bats, birds and even lizards also serve as pollinators. We will focus on insect pollinators below.

Pollen

Beetroot: In the Pacific Northwest, this magnolia (Magnolia spp., zones 3–9) and tulip tree (Liriodendron spp., zones 4–9) as well as small-flowered cluster flowers such as asters (Easter spp and cvs., zones 3–9), spirea (Spirea spp and cvs., zones 4–8), and goldenrod (Solidago spp and cvs., zones 2–9). If you already have these plants, you have a good start to attract more.

Near the flower of the tulip tree
You may already have some important pollinator plants around your property. tulip tree (Liriodendron spp., zones 4–9) is an important pollinator plant for beetles in the Pacific Northwest. If you have tulip trees, you already have an effort to make your landscape more pollinator friendly. Photo: Daniel Sherry

Butterflies and Moths: They require host plants for their larvae and nectar plants. Certain butterflies often require specific types of plants as hosts. If you don’t already have these plants, they can be added to a vegetable garden or a little-used corner of the property that hasn’t yet been cultivated. That way, if you’re worried about holes in leaves from hungry caterpillars, those host plants won’t be front and center. Many common butterfly flowers have nectar hidden deep within the flower and are either produced in clusters or have lips that serve as landing pads for the butterfly to glide. A good example is bee balm (Monarda spp and cvs., zones 3–9).

Bees: Surprisingly, they are the second most common pollinator in the world. They are often difficult to distinguish from bees because their bodies mimic those of bees as protection from predators. Less picky about flower types, they go about their business with great efficiency.

Bees: There’s no denying how important bees are to the production of so much food, including the edibles we grow in our gardens. Providing attractive bright annuals can attract them to your garden. Adding cluster-type flowers such as sweet alyssum (Lobleria maritimaannual) to the edges of beds can be beautiful and useful for pollinators.

Make sure there is adequate shelter for your pollinators, especially native bees

There are many types of bees. Most gardeners don’t have bee hives, so learning how to attract an existing bee population is a great way to get started. Solitary bees (often native) live in the ground and hollow logs, so it’s a good idea to make sure some of them are scattered around your property (if possible). Social bees, like bumblebees, live together in a colony that overwinters underground and emerges the following spring to start new colonies. This is important when it comes to delaying spring cleaning in the garden. Cuckoo bees are sloths that do not build nests or forage for pollinators, but instead lay their eggs in the nests of other bees and let them raise their young. While I don’t have any specific tips for attracting these parasitic bees, it’s important to know that they also have a role to play in the bee community. Mason bees are an easy way to start the pollinator process, as these colonies can be purchased from reputable sellers. The nesting materials you provide for new visitors to your garden (such as various reed grasses) can also attract native bees to your area.

One thing many gardeners don’t think about is the nesting sites for all those pollinators. A mature garden provides much in the way of habitat for nesting, wintering and food storage. Leaving a pile of debris, especially hollow stems, twigs, and dry grass, is a great way to create this type of habitat. Bees and beetles often use decaying logs for nesting and food storage. Cutting back mature shrubs to create more light and air creates habitat for ground-nesting bees that need warm soil to thrive.

Mason bees can be purchased from reputable sellers and are an easy way to jumpstart the pollinator population in your yard. Be sure to provide them (and other pollinator friends) with enough nesting material to keep them happy and healthy. This is a short clip of mason bees in my garden. Video: Susan Calhoun

The key to getting more pollinators is continuity of flowers.

Once you’ve determined which pollinators are found in your area, what types of food sources you already have, and what shelters/habitats you can introduce. , it’s time to talk to the new plants. There are numerous native plants that are used by our regional pollinators and can easily be incorporated into various locations in the mature garden. When it comes to plant selection, color, flower shape and bloom time should vary widely. Early blooming plants are critical because food sources are thin at this time of year in the Pacific Northwest. Plants such as Mahonia (Mahonia spp. and cvs., zones 2-9) and early spring-blooming bulbs are good options for adding and, in the case of bulbs, are easy to sneak into small spaces in an already full bed.

A fly on a blue pearl crocus
Early bloomers are important for pollinator survival because they provide food at short notice. Small bulbs like this ‘Blue Pearl’ crocus easily peek into empty spaces in an established bed or border. Photo: Susan Calhoun

A little later in the season it can be difficult to find flowers that blend seamlessly into the existing color scheme. common yarrow (Achillea Millifolium, zones 3–9) can be a little weedy, but I’ve found that cultivated varieties like ‘Lilac Beauty’ or ‘Fireland’ can blend gracefully into the garden and the bright colors attract bees and butterflies. Attract. Adding creeping yarrow is also easy (Achillea × Kelly, zones 4–8) is a low-growing ground cover that can fill in gaps within a mature garden. It’s also low enough that beetles can enjoy it. These are just a few examples of helping our pollinators roam our gardens.

A bee closing in on a milkweed flower
Adding some of the right plants, a little shelter, and a few other important—yet simple—things can ensure that your garden becomes a pollinator haven. Photo: Daniel Sherry

Read more about pollinators

Stroll through a beautiful eco-friendly front yard garden with a succession of flowers

Important pollinator host plants

Favorite nectar plants of pollinators

Additional resources

Access Society He has wonderful lists of area-specific plants to help you figure out what to plant.


Susan Calhoun is the owner of Plants Woman Design in Bainbridge Island, Washington.

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