Though I’ve hit a bit of a wall this year, it’s little secret that I love gardening. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that I’m also “celebrating” Pollinator’s Week, and wanted to spread the word about it!
As a gardener, I’ve long understood and appreciated the help I get from my little garden “assistants”, and confess that watching them go about their business in my gardens is one of my ideas of real fun (a wolf spider did get a little too close to me last year, but we both survived). Not only are these creatures interesting, they can be unintentionally silly—I’ve seen bumblebees fall out of flowers onto broad leaves below and am regularly buzzed by neighborhood hummingbirds when I wear flowers (fake and real!) in my hair, which is often.What can I say? It’s cheap entertainment, and clean to boot!
Though I am firmly of the mind that the planet can take care of itself, I am not a fool, and able to recognize a matter for real concern when I see one. Also…again. I just plain love bees, particularly fuzzy bumbles and masons, and want to do whatever I can to draw them to my garden by providing food and shelter.
Started by the Pollinator Partnership several years ago, Pollinator Week began as an attempt to draw attention to the declining populations of pollinators—bees, butterflies, bats, beetles, moths, hummingbirds, wasps—and their disappearing habitats; more recently it has (happily) become a celebration of these creatures, their activities, and how we enjoy the fruits of their fluttering, meandering labour.
Personally speaking, I think focusing on the great things pollinators do is the better way to get people’s attention than constantly hand-wringing; once educated, folks are far more likely to have an interest in seeing what they can do to help, and everyone knows how vital pollinators are to our own well-being. Besides, helping out native pollinators is actually pretty easy—and has its benefits for us, too, in the form of less demanding gardens, better pollination of our own flowers and gardens, and the simple joy seeing butterflies, hummingbirds, and fuzzy bees go about their business in your yard. (If you can’t tell…the bumblebees and mason bees are my favourites!) If people understand how simple it can really be to assist these creatures, they’re more likely to take action than if guilted or scared into doing so.
Moreover, ladies, tiny flies known as “midges”? They provide us with all of our chocolate. Let’s not mess with this. Let’s help the pollinators out!
First of all, though, many people are concerned that having all of these pollinators buzzing about means they’re at greater danger for bee stings, which are unpleasant whether you’re allergic or not. The truth is, native American bees (my international readers should be able to find local guides with a quick internet search) are pretty easygoing and will not be bothered by you if you leave them alone as well; in fact, I’ve petted bumblebees on occasion and gotten nothing more than an irritated buzz from my tomato-gardening buddies (they’re so FUZZY! I couldn’t resist!).
Honeybees—which are European invaders—are a bit more aggressive than the native, “solitary bees”. Still, every morning, as I work in my gardens, I encounter all sorts of bees, and they are all happy to let me do my thing as they do theirs. I don’t advocate bothering the pollinators…though, yes, I have petted bumblebees. We all have our crazy, dear reader.
What can you do to draw pollinators to your garden? In addition to not using pesticides and herbicides (poison is poison, and most pesticides are highly toxic to bees), your best bet is to start growing native plants instead of hybridized and imported plants.
Native plants developed here in the States (or wherever you happen to live), and thus naturally attract native pollinators. Additionally, because they’re meant to grow here, they’re much easier to care for, requiring less water, fertilization, or pest control once they’re established. Unlike horror-show plants like English Ivy or vinca, they’re unlikely to become invasive—and unlike hybridized and commercially cultivated plants, natives offer nectar and pollen for pollinators. As I’ve learned while studying up to create my pollinator’s garden, hybridized/commercial plants more often than not offer no food at all; in fact, most of these plants are genetic clones. Yes, I absolutely included that fact because I know it’ll freak a few of you out. 😉
Development, roadside spraying, and our affection for exotic plants has, unfortunately, led to the loss of a great deal of habitat, some permanently, some temporarily; for example, there is much concern over the huge loss of milkweed, which is necessary for Monarch butterflies to live. But as more people learn about scientists’ concerns about the decline in pollinator populations, they are becoming more interested helping the pollinators as they can. (This is one of those human qualities I don’t think we ever give ourselves credit for.)
Happily, these days finding easier-to-care-for and wildlife-friendly natives is easier than ever. And I’m going to give you a few ideas you can use even if you don’t have a big garden, only a patio or balcony (been there)!
The easiest, though not always most accurate, way to go is to simply start going for old-fashioned cottage garden favourites like crocus, hyacinth, borage, lavender, snapdragons, cosmos, love-in-a-mist, zinnias, bee balm, asters, foxglove, sage, violets, forget-me-nots, echinacea, and milkweed, all of which I’ve had fabulous success with; snapdragons do nicely in containers. Also, whatever these firework-like fuchsia flowers in the photo above are; bees were going nuts for those!
Fruits and veggies like tomatoes, tomatillo, squashes, cucumbers, members of the onion family, fruit trees, and berries like blueberry and raspberry provide food for you and our pollinating friends, and many of them can be quite attractive (we had several small blueberry bushes in our last home’s garden, and two apple trees as well). Pollinators are fond of many herbs as well, from mint and chives to basil and dill; in my first apartments, I’d fill containers with herbs ringed by snapdragons for my own cooking and be surprised by the activity on my balcony!
The craziest thing I do? When chopping the root end off leeks or scallions, I don’t toss that away; I plant it, either in the garden or in a container. It only takes a few days for new growth to appear, and eventually I end up with a rather atomic-looking flower. It’s hard to deny the standout appearance of a leek, either. They make quite an impression on style-seekers with their interesting structure—and how many people do this?
Recently, the Pollinator Partnership has come out with a free smartphone app that helps you pick pollinator-friendly plants while you’re at the local garden center or Master Gardener’s sale (for the record: those MGs do NOT always know what they’re doing—I’ve been sold invasives at Master Gardener sales before, so come with a list or the app, and don’t listen to what they tell you!). From trees and shrubs to perennials and annuals, it offers quite a variety of plants native to your geographical location for you to choose from (though not nearly every possible plant) for every type of landscape and condition. It’s really quite impressive, and I’m a big fan.
You can also (of course!) head to the magical internet and peruse websites which will help you choose human- and pollinator-friendly native plants. Some of my favourites (warning: long list ahead):
- The Xerces Society’s Plant Lists, which are available by region
- MonarchWatch.org, which is simply jam-packed with information and will guide you in creating a Monarch Waystation that will attract other butterflies, bees, and probably hummingbirds as well
- The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, which is just *terrific*—the “Recommended Species” page is extremely helpful, and their native plant database has also been optimized for smartphones
- The North American Butterfly Association’s list of Butterfly Gardening Plants of North America
- PlantNative.org, which not only offers landscaping advice, but offers a list of nurseries nationwide that specialize in native plants
- Monarch Joint Venture, a Monarch butterfly-specific organization that has suggestions for creating a Monarch habitat; keep in mind that a monarch habitat will attract other pollinators as well, though no other insect can eat the milkweed’s offering
- OSU’s Butterfly Gardens Fact Sheet, complete with plant list—folks at THE Ohio State University (honest to goodness, everyone around here says it that way!) also have a page dedicated solely to bees
- University of Illinois has a good page on creating a bee-friendly garden
- I’m not sure who, exactly, runs the site, but Native Plant Wildlife Garden is a terrific blog with all sorts of information and advice on native-plant landscaping, with solid guides on attracting native bees, butterflies and moths, and birds to your gardens.
- Pollinator Partnership’s Pollinator Week page, of course! There are factsheets, garden guides, fun projects you can work on with the kids or grandkids, and recipes. P2’s entire website is very helpful, particularly their planting guides—they’re available for free, and there are separate guides for each different landscape you’re likely to encounter in North America.
- The Honeybee Conservancy’s “Plant A Bee Garden” article and the University of Maine’s “Understanding Native Bees, the Great Pollinators” article, which has a nice list of things you can do for pollinators
Once again, keep in mind that if you create “just” a butterfly garden or “just” a bee garden, you’re quite likely to see other pollinators visiting too. To me, that’s all part of the fun! Also, if you’re worried about the appearance of your pollinator-friendly garden, many of these sites have advice on keeping it acceptable to your neighbors—though in my experience, waves of colourful flowers studded with butterflies gets the neighbors interested in growing their own garden.
And a reminder—those with “only” container gardens can still draw beautiful and often entertaining-to-watch pollinators to their flora as well by perusing some of the plant lists I’ve directed you to and growing a few of the plants you like, as well as herbs and veggies. My leek tip will work nicely, too, and add some structure to your containers planted in the back or center (plus: more leek to eat!). Many pollinator-friendly annuals and even some perennials grow beautifully in containers; my neon-orange lilies grew well in a container for several years, and hummingbirds paid it quite a bit of attention despite its balcony location.
Finally, I should direct you to a couple of my Pinterest boards—Home Garden Ideas, which is my own board for our gardens here, but it has plenty of information about native plants and pollinator-friendly gardening (like planting in groups of three or more instead of scattering a variety through the yard—which you can do, of course, but preferably in groups of three or more scattered about the yard!). There is also my For The Birds board, which is really focused on gardening with instead of against nature—you’ll find lists of pollinator-attracting plants, bug identification help, planning tips, and DIYs like birdbaths, mason bee nests, and bird- and bat-houses of all kinds.
Well, as usual, this is one of my “information overload” posts, but I do hope my photos of the bees, bumblebees, and butterflies made it easier to bear—and perhaps encourages you to plant a few pretty things or put out some sort of habitat for our beautiful “garden helpers”. If you have any questions, feel free to ask, and I’ll do my best to answer!