The Basics of Pollinator Garden Design

The Basics of Pollinator Garden Design

Butterfly pollinating a pink echinacea flower.Butterfly pollinating a pink echinacea flower.

Pollinators are an essential part of the complex ecosystems that make up our gardens. Even spartan gardens are teeming with life above and below the soil, including species of plants, fungi, insects and animals. You can strengthen your connection to that natural world — and better support it — through a solid pollinator garden design.

When I dig into a project, I ask myself the "five Ws" and one "H" learned in grade school: Who? Why? What? When? Where? How? The "who" is you! You can easily create a pollinator garden, and you may already be closer than you think. Here's what you need to know to get started.

Why Do I Need Pollinators in My Garden?

When you think of pollinators, you likely think of bees. But pollinators also include critters such as butterflies, moths, birds, flies and even bats. Each of these animals is on the hunt for pollen and/or nectar to sustain themselves.

In turn, each plant species has its own need for pollination. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 75% of all flowers require pollinators, including most fruits and vegetables. When you add pollinator-friendly plants to your garden, you help expand the pollinators' food sources and breeding range. Many pollinators use plants' flowers, stems and the soil around them for breeding and protection. Expanding your garden can create a refuge for these essential workers to continue to thrive outside of their shrinking native habitats.

What Plants Do Pollinators Like?

Pollinators have certain food preferences. If you're looking to attract bees, you'll want to design your garden to include plants that bees like: flat, bright-colored flowers that grow in full sun. If you're looking to attract hummingbirds, you'll want to include the tube-shaped red, orange or pink flowers that long-billed hummers favor. Plants such as moonflowers are night-blooming with large, white flowers that bats stick their heads into in search of nectar. To attract insects, you'll want to focus on diverse plants that bloom throughout the growing season in a wide range of colors, shapes and sizes.

When Are Pollinators Active?

Many popular pollinator plants such as echinacea (aka coneflower), liatris, asclepias (aka milkweed), rudbeckia and annuals such as zinnias or cosmos don't begin to bloom until June, then continue through late summer. Pollinators, however, often appear much earlier in the spring and well into fall after many plants have ceased blooming. To attract pollinators during these times, consider planting early-blooming bulbs such as snowdrops, crocus, creeping phlox, species tulips and anemones, and late blooming plants such as asters, sedum and goldenrod.

Where Is My Garden Located?

What's your growing zone? Make sure the plants you choose for your native pollinator garden are well-adapted to your climate and the pollinators in your area. The Xerces Society lists recommended native pollinator plants by state or region to help you make this decision.

After you've pinpointed your region, pay close attention to where the sun hits the areas you'd like to plant. If there's shade in the morning but blazing sun in the afternoon, focus on full-sun plants. If there's full sun in the morning but shade in the afternoon, focus on shade plants. Don't worry, even shady spots can attract plenty of pollinators.

How Do I Approach My Pollinator Garden Design?

Each year in late spring before you cut back last year's growth, identify spots in the garden that aren't currently filled with evergreen perennials or dead stems. These spots should be your go-to fillers for the upcoming season. Take note of how you can fill those gaps from all viewpoints in the garden and across the growing season.

Sketch out your space and create a list of pollinator-friendly plants you'd like to feature. It's easy to underestimate how many plants comfortably fit into a well-grown garden — and for pollinators, the more the better. However, be sure to space plants out according to their needs. While some plants may thrive living close to each other, letting you create a "living mulch" that blocks weedy species, others might get overcrowded, which could reduce their bloom. Focus on varying plant heights, with taller plants toward the back of your garden and shorter plants in the front. Layering is pleasing to the eye and provides ample space for pollinators to access their preferred flowers. Also, be mindful of leaf textures, shapes and sizes. Mix up clumps of large-leaved plants with grasses and fuzzy-leaved plants with smooth forms. Create textures in your yard for visual appeal even when your plants aren't at peak bloom.

Here's an example of a plant combo that attracts pollinators from spring through fall: 'Blue Fortune' agastache and red 'Solar Flare' echinacea grow throughout the summer, and birds favor them for their post-flower seed heads. These plants can add height to your garden. For texture, planting annual fernleaf dill creates a compact habitat for swallowtail butterfly caterpillars, and the prairie native orange 'Butterfly Weed' asclepias is a magnet for monarchs. 'Purple Dome' aster will bring cool autumn color to the mix and is an excellent late-season food source. Finally, add a crocus mix along the front edge for early spring flowers.

Avoid any potentially harmful chemicals in your pollinator garden as they could hurt the creatures you're trying to attract; even some organic pesticides can be risky. With a diverse selection of hardy, disease-resistant plants and a multitude of beneficial creatures heading your way, you'll be one step closer to creating a sustainable ecosystem that takes care of itself.

Check out Burpee's resources on pollinator gardening if you're craving more guidance.

Written by Derek Carwood, Greenwood Horticulture

Derek Carwood, a native of Northern California, currently resides in the Upper Midwest and has been involved in horticulture for over 30 years.  Derek holds a Bachelor's Degree in Environmental Sciences and a Master's Degree in Sustainability Education & Policy.  He has been heavily involved in education throughout his professional career and has volunteered and worked across the Americas, Europe, and Asia.  Most recently, Derek started Greenwood Horticulture focusing on both indoor and outdoor horticultural consultation, education, and design.

July 12, 2021