Plant a Pollinator Garden

Spring is in the air! If you’re like most home gardeners you’re making a list of which flowers, herbs or crops you want to grow. You’re picturing a centerpiece of colorful flowers and that first summer bite of a juicy tomato. 

Besides reaping the fruits of nature, it can also be rewarding to turn the table and consider how you can benefit nature. The small act of caring for our environment helps us get closer to nature. One way is by cultivating the right plants that will attract pollinators to your urban rooftop of container plants, suburban yard or stretch of meadow.

Pollinators—including bees, butterflies, moths, wasps, beetles, bats and birds–are essential to our ecosystem because they help plants make fruit and seeds by transferring pollen from flower to flower. (Most of those insects don’t sting but if you’re allergic to stings, you need to be careful.) Unfortunately, habitat loss, fragmentation and chemical pesticides are threatening these creatures around the world. Native pollinators are among the most sensitive because they require specific plants to survive, which are also threatened by habitat loss and invasive species. 

Fortunately, even the smallest native garden can help. Here are tips to help you on the path to creating a successful pollinator garden. 

Location Location Location. Flowering plants can grow in shady and sunny spots, but butterflies and other pollinators prefer the sun and some of their favorite wildflowers grow best in sunny spots. 

The Dirt. Is your soil sandy and well drained, claylike and wettish? Consulting a soil mapper for your county can help determine which plants would do best in your dirt. 

Seeds vs. Plants. Both options are good, but consider how much time, money and patience you want to spend getting your garden going. 

Do Your Research. Find a nursery near you that is knowledgeable about the native plants that grow in your area. Native wildflowers and milkweed are best because they require less maintenance and are heartier. Be careful to choose plants that have not been treated with pesticides, insecticides or neonicotinoids. You can save yourself some work next year if you plant perennials. 

Diversity Works. To attract a variety of pollinators, choose some flowers that are rich in nectar and some rich in pollen. Each pollinator has its own techniques for getting at the nectar and pollen. Goldenrods, milkweeds and Joe Pyes are some plants that attract a diversity of pollinators.  

Consider the Caterpillars. Without host plants for butterfly larvae (yes, they are caterpillars) to feed on, there won’t be butterflies. And those larvae are picky eaters. For example: monarch caterpillars will only eat milkweed; black swallowtail caterpillars depend on plants in the parsley family; spicebush swallowtail caterpillars demand spicebush and sassafras. 

TLC. While you’re watching your garden grow and enjoying the pollinator visits, don’t forget to water and weed on a regular basis. Never use weed killers, chemical fertilizers or pesticides. 

As an incentive to plant for pollinators this spring, the Academy will send you a free packet of Showy Northeast Native Wildflower and Grass Mix from Ernst Seeds. And you can enjoy our April Spark Change Event Series for both adults and kids. To learn more, visit the Small Actions Spark Big Changes page here. For more information and resources about planting a pollinator garden, visit our SPARK page here.

By Carolyn Belardo. Insect images by Isa Betancourt, garden compliments USDA 


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