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10 Tips for Building a Pollinator Garden | The Old Farmer's Almanac

10 Tips for Building a Pollinator Garden

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Hoverflies are valuable beneficial insects to have in your garden!

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Supporting Native Plants, Pollinators, and Sustainable Practices in the Home Garden

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Even one pollinator-friendly plant can make a BIG difference. Let’s help the bees and butterflies which, in turn, make our flowers bloom and our food fruit! Discover 10 ways to work with nature to build a more pollinator-friendly garden, including plants for pollinators.

Why Create a Pollinator Garden?

You’re probably well aware that the populations of our native bees, butterflies, and other insect pollinators have been declining for several decades. Perhaps you’ve noticed fewer butterflies and bees in your own backyard?

Why does this matter? First, no insects means no food. About three-fourths of all flowering plants are pollinated by insects, as well as the crops that produce more than one-third of the world’s food supply. Second, insects are the bedrock of our entire ecosystem (birds, lizards, frogs, and other wildlife). Without insects, the birds, fish, and small mammals that depend on them decline; if they decline, the entire food web and local ecosystem is affected.

However, we’ve learned that even one pollinator-friendly plant makes a significant difference! Even regular homeowners can have a powerful impact, namely by planting native flowers, trees, and pollinator host plants, providing pollinator nesting sites, and creating a refuge from pesticides.

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Photo: Add native milkweed to provide food to monarch butterflies and their babies (larvae).

10 Tips for Building a Pollinator Garden

1. Choose Native Plants

Not every plant in your garden has to be “native,” but native plants will establish better and also bring in more pollinators. Native insects evolved alongside native plants, as did native birds and wildlife. It’s one big ecosystem! Exotic, non-native plants can sometimes wipe out native plant and insect species, which may harm the entire food web. 

  • Select native plants for your property. See a list of common native North American plants.
  • Plant in clusters to create a “target” for pollinators to find. Remember that every patch helps – from window boxes to acres of farms to roadsides!
  • Leave small areas for wildflowers and “weeds.” These wild plants are perfect for insects. See our video showing how to grow wildflowers to help pollinators
  • Consider a mixture of plants with diversified sources of nectar (e.g., shrubs, trees, and flowers—ideally, all native varieties). Shrubs and trees such as dogwood, blueberry, cherry, plum, willow, and poplar provide pollen or nectar, or both, early in spring when food is scarce.
  • Select plants for continuous bloom throughout the growing season from spring to fall in order to attract insects from spring through fall.
  • Select planting sites that aren’t windy, offer at least partial sun (4 to 5 hours of sunlight per day), and can provide water for pollinators close by.
  • Consider planting a pollinator strip as a border to a vegetable garden or a wildflower border along the edge of your field. You’ll improve the pollination of your crops and also support bees when the crops stop blooming. It will also attract and support other pollinators, such as hoverflies and wasps, which control crop pests. See our video showing how to plant a pollinator border in your yard or garden!

2. Welcome Beneficial Insects

Many people find insects annoying, but we should really start thinking about the fact that we can’t survive without them (although they certainly survived before our arrival). Pollinators are critical to our food supply. They keep our flowers blooming; they increase fruit or seed quantity in three-fourths of our food crops.

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Photo: See our video that shows you how to plant a bee-friendly garden.

Bees aren’t the only pollinators in the garden, though:

  • Half of the butterfly species studied are in decline, with one-third threatened with extinction.
  • Flies also play an important role! While you may expect butterflies to be the #2 pollinator, flies are actually the ones that hold that position.
  • Other insects—such as praying mantises, ladybugs, beetles, and green lacewings—are fantastic at tackling pests. For example, lacewings and ladybugs eat aphids, which can decimate vegetable crops.

→ Read “Beneficial Insects in the Garden” and see a list of the good bugs with pictures

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3. Go Easy on the Chemicals

All gardens have some pests, but deter them in ways that won’t harm the food that you are growing or the beneficial insects! Remember that chemical fertilizers and pesticides can eventually end up in rivers, oceans, and wetlands. Plus, pesticides tend to kill many more creatures than the one or two bug species that we target, as annoying as they might be. 

  • Instead of spraying with chemicals, consider other options. From diatomaceous earth to neem oil to Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), there are many less-toxic methods available that really work wonders on pests.
  • Here are 5 organic pesticides that are effective at besting bad bugs.
  • If you must use pesticides, read and follow ALL label directions carefully.

4. Mix in “Companion Plants”

Are you familiar with the practice of companion planting? Pair up the right plants to naturally repel pests and attract pollinators. For example, dill and basil planted among tomatoes can protect from tomato hornworms. When paired together, companion plants improve each other’s health and yields. 

Also, mix flowers and vegetables together! You don’t have to choose between growing ornamentals and edibles. Many types of flowers confuse the “bad” pests and help you to grow a healthier garden at the same time.

→ See our Companion Planting Chart for plants and flowers which deter pests.

5. Encourage Birds

Yes, birds eat bugs. But birds are pollinators, too!

→ Learn more about creating a bird-friendly garden.

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6. Be Water-Wise

Using water thoughtfully is a very important part of a pollination-friendly landscape.

  • As advised above, select your plants with care! If you have a dry area, consider native plants that are more naturally drought-tolerant such as sedum and speedwell (Veronica). If you have a wet area, consider moisture-tolerant plants that don’t mind having wet feet, such as iris, canna, and ferns.
  • Avoiding wasting water. If you must use sprinklers, put them on timers. For gardens, flower beds, trees, and other non-lawn areas, consider installing a drip irrigation system that puts the water right into the soil, where you want it.
  • Harvest your rain water. A rain garden collects rain water from a roof, driveway, or street and allows it to soak into the ground. Rain gardens can also help to filter out pollutants in runoff and provide food and shelter for butterflies, song birds, and other wildlife. See a “sun” and a “shade” rain garden plot plan.
Rain garden
A rain garden, situated at the corner of a parking lot, helps to catch water runoff during rainstorms. 
  • Install a rain barrel to catch water and use it on your plants. See our article about using rain barrels.
  • Organic mulches such as compost and bark mulch help to slow water down, ensuring that more moisture goes into the soil instead of running straight off. That said, it’s always a good idea to leave a little bare ground so that the solitary bees and pollinators have places to nest. Read more about the “Benefits of Mulch.”
  • Finally, consider reducing the size of the all-grass lawn. Perhaps you could stop mowing one section and convert it to a native wildflower border or meadow?

7. Try Composting

Do you have spare room in the corner of your yard? Instead of throwing out vegetable scraps and yard trimmings, dispose of them in a compost pile. You’ll encourage compost-making worms and bugs that will help to create a rich, fertile soil for your garden within months. It’s a great way to use fallen leaves, too! 

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8. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

In general, caring about yourself and nature means being less wasteful. Who could argue with that? If you are a gardener, here are just a few ideas out of many:

  • Buy in bulk when you know that you’ll need a lot of topsoil, mulch, compost, or other materials. This cuts down on plastic bags. Many garden centers will even deliver right to your yard. Also check with your city recycling center or Department of Transportation; they might offer free compost, soil, sand, or other materials.
  • Reuse, recycle, or return old plastic pots and trays. See six ways to reuse pots and containers.
  • Make your own plant pots! See how to make biodegradable plant pots.

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9. Give Grass a Chance to Thrive Alone

If you’re going to grow grass, eliminate the chemical pesticides that you spread on lawns in favor of alternatives that are healthier for you and the environment.

  • Start by checking the soil pH (acidity) of your lawn with a test kit available at most nursery and garden supply stores or at your state’s cooperative extension service. Soil pH affects the ability of plants to absorb nutrients. Spread limestone to raise the pH level; spread aluminum sulfate to decrease the pH level.
  • Grow grass that is suitable to your needs, not just in terms of climate and soil, but also with regard to purpose. Ask your nursery to recommend seed for grass that suits your site.
  • Don’t shave the lawn down to the ground; mow it to be 2.5 to 3.5 inches tall all season. Cut it to about 2 inches in autumn.
  • Leave parts of the lawn unmowed to create important habitat for pollinators and other insects.
  • If at all possible, use a hand mower, instead of an electric or gas model. You’ll appreciate the freedom from fumes and noise and perhaps sleep more soundly after walking your property.

10. Don’t Cleanup Dead Material in Fall or Rush Spring Cleaning

Many insects hibernate for the winter and need a place to bed down. For example, new queen bumblebees are born in the fall. After breeding, they find a place to reside for the cold season, emerging in the spring and starting the next generation. Hole-nesting bees and beetles need things like dead tree trunks or reeds to overwinter in.

So, leave some natural areas of your yard instead of landscaping every inch! Allow material from dead branches and logs to remain as nesting sites, reduce mulch to allow patches of bare ground for ground-nesting bees to utilize, and consider installing wood nesting blocks for wood-nesting natives.

Avoid cutting down everything in the fall, because dead material and hollow stems are lovely homes for pollinators and beneficial insects. Also, do not be in a rush to “spring clean” too early while pollinators like bees and butterflies are still overwintering. A good rule of thumb is to wait until temperatures are consistently about 50°F (10°C) to ensure a healthy pollinator population all season. When cleaning up in spring, if you notice that some old stems have been used for bee nesting, move them to a corner of your property to give bees a few more weeks to emerge on their own. 

Work With Nature, Not Against It!

As we hope you see, you can certainly achieve a great deal with small changes in your own “habitat.”  You’re supporting pollinators—and people!

Did you find this article helpful? We welcome your tips and questions about how to help insect populations below …

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