Want your garden to come alive with bees, butterflies, and birds? A pollinator garden is cultivated specifically to attract those creatures—referred to as pollinators—which transfer pollen from flower to flower. 

Pollinator gardens are beautiful, but they play an important role in the ecosystem, too. As some pollinators, such as bees, face habitat loss, a pollinator garden can help declining and endangered species thrive. 

If you’re interested in creating this type of garden, you probably have some questions—like what insects are pollinators, anyway? In this guide, learn everything you need to know about pollinator gardens, from how they can benefit the environment to what to plant to attract the right insects and animals. 

What Is a Pollinator Garden?

A pollinator garden is a garden that’s planted with flowers that provide nectar or pollen for pollinating creatures and insects. It can be as large or as small as you prefer, so even if you have a small outdoor space—like a balcony—you can plant pollinator-friendly flowers. 

pink flower
Source: unsplash
Certain flowers, such as these coneflowers, attract pollinators like bees and butterflies. 

Why Plant a Pollinator Garden? 

Why would you want to attract bees, wasps, moths, and bats to your garden? Here are just a few pollinator garden benefits. 

Healthier Fruits and Vegetables 

If your garden includes fruit and vegetable plants, you can increase the yield of your garden by creating an inviting environment for pollinating insects. When bees and other pollinators visit your flowers, they transfer pollen, which allows the fertilization of the plants. Some fruits and vegetables, like cucumbers and squash, require pollination to grow. Other plant varieties are self-pollinating, but pollination can enable each plant to produce a bigger bounty.

Control Unwanted Insects 

One of the most aggravating aspects of maintaining a garden is dealing with unwanted pests that can destroy your plants. Tiny predators, like aphids and hornworms, can undo your hard gardening work. However, pollinator insects can keep those pests at bay. For example, ladybugs eat aphids, and tachinid flies can help control some types of moths, caterpillars, and stink bugs. 

Boost Your Chances of Gardening Success 

Ideally, gardening should be a relaxing hobby. However, between common garden pests, unpredictable weather, and plants that simply don’t grow, it can become frustrating. By choosing to plant a pollinator garden, however, you can increase your chances of gardening success. Pollinator gardens incorporate native species of plants for your geographic area, which means they are used to your climate and require little care to maintain. 

Support for Endangered Species

Many pollinator species are endangered or in decline due to factors including climate change, increased use of pesticides, and loss of habitat. While it may seem like a small effort, planting a pollinator garden can create a habitat for those insects and play a role in building up their populations. Ultimately, a pollinator garden can benefit a wide range of insects and birds. 

What Are Pollinators? 

Pollinators are insects or animals that fertilize plants by transferring pollen from the male part of a flower (the stamen) to the female part of the flower (the stigma). But what insects are pollinators? When you think of pollinator insects, you probably think of bees, but there are other types as well, including butterflies, moths, birds, and even bats. 

Bees and Wasps

Bees pollinate as they buzz from flower to flower to collect nectar. When they land on a bloom, some of the pollen from the stamen sticks to the bee’s fuzzy body. When the bee comes in contact with another flower, that pollen rubs off onto the stigma. Wasps, on the other hand, aren’t usually active pollinators. However, certain types of wasps with hairs on their body do unintentionally carry pollen from flower to flower. 

To attract these pollinators, consider planting a bee garden full of native wildflowers, herbs, and berry plants—and include plenty of sources of water. 

Butterflies and Moths

Butterflies and moths also pollinate flowers. They generally aren’t as efficient at pollinating as bees, since they don’t have body structures specifically made to collect or deposit pollen. However, they do unintentionally collect pollen on their bodies and legs as they move from flower to flower collecting food. 

To create a butterfly garden, make sure to include nectar plants and other flowering plants including verbena and milkweeds. 

butterfly
Source: unsplash
Bees aren’t the only type of pollination insects—butterflies, moths, and wasps also pollinate. 

Hummingbirds

Hummingbirds are known for their long, narrow beaks, which allow them to pollinate flowers. As they drink nectar from a flower, their beaks collect particles of pollen. Then, when they visit another flower, they transfer some of that pollen. 

In a hummingbird garden, make sure to include tubular flowers, preferably in shades of red, orange, and pink, which are attractive to hummingbirds. 

Other Birds

Similar to hummingbirds, other varieties of birds also pollinate by transferring pollen via their bills when feeding on flower nectar. Bird pollination is more common in tropical regions, where birds play a vital role in pollinating food crops, including bananas and papayas. In non-tropical regions, birds mainly pollinate wildflowers. 

A bird garden should be filled with native plants, including some that provide food for the birds, like blackberries and wild cherries. 

Bats

Bats are one of the few pollinator animals, mainly pollinating flowers in tropical and desert regions. In fact, certain plants, such as agave and the saguaro cactus, rely on bats for pollination. Similar to birds, bats pollinate unintentionally as they move from flower to flower to feed on the plants’ nectar. Because bats are nocturnal, they focus on large flowers that open at night.

What to Plant In a Pollinator Garden

Are you ready to take the next step, but you’re not sure how to plant a pollinator garden? While your garden will be unique to your geographic location and outdoor space, here are a few pollinator garden ideas for what to plant. 

Flowers That Provide Pollen and Nectar

By definition, pollinator garden plants are those that provide nectar and pollen, which attract pollinators like bees, butterflies, and birds. That still leaves a wide range of choices, though, so here are a few tips: 

  1. Select a wide variety of flowers so your garden will appeal to different species of pollinators. 
  2. For larger bees, select flowers with large petals that can act as landing pads for the insects. 
  3. For smaller bees, plant flowers that produce clusters of tiny blooms, like oregano or goldenrod. 
  4. To attract hummingbirds, select plants with brightly colored, tubular flowers, which are the ideal shape to accommodate the birds’ long, narrow bills. 
  5. Plant flowers that are low maintenance, so you don’t have to disturb the garden (or the pollinators) for frequent care and pruning. 

Depending on your location, consider the following pollinator garden flowers: 

  • Calendula
  • Marigold
  • Oregano
  • Aster
  • Dahlia
  • Salvia
  • Lavender
  • Cosmos
  • Snapdragon
  • Milkweed
  • Sunflowers
  • Heliotrope
  • Verbena
  • Zinnia
sunflower
Source: unsplash
Bees are attracted to flowers that provide pollen and nectar, like this sunflower. 

Plants and Flowers Native to Where You Live

When learning how to plant a pollinator garden, one of the most important considerations is choosing plants that are native to your location. These plants are adapted to your local growing season, climate, and soil. They will generally require less water and maintenance, and they will be more likely to provide pollinators with sufficient nectar and pollen. Non-native plants, on the other hand, may not produce enough nectar to sustain those insects. 

How do you know what’s native to your area? The National Wildlife Foundation provides a searchable database. Just enter your zip code, and it will show you a list of native plants—particularly those that serve as host plants for butterfly and moth caterpillars. Or, stop by a local nursery; they will be familiar with pollinator garden flowers that are native to your area. 

New to Gardening? 

Gardening 101: A Guide For Growing & Caring For Plants

Weather-Hardy Plants and Flowers

As you research native pollinator garden plants, you will need to become familiar with hardiness zones. Hardiness refers to a plant’s ability to survive adverse growing conditions—namely, cold weather. 

The zones, developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, specify each region’s minimum average winter temperatures. With an understanding of your zone, you will be better equipped to select the right plants for your climate. 

The zones range from 1 (which includes Fairbanks, Alaska) to 13 (which includes Puerto Rico). To locate your zone, enter your zip code into the USDA Hardiness Zone Map. The color of your zone will correspond to a number and letter (e.g., 9a). Then, you can research your specific zone to find the types of plants that will thrive in your location, as well as whether you should plant year-round or only during particular times of the year. 

Fruiting Plants for Birds and Bats

If you want to attract birds and bats to your garden, make sure to add plants that can double as food sources. For example, species of fruit and berries—such as crabapple and barberry—are appealing to birds, as well as plants that produce large, abundant seed heads, like ornamental millet. 

Plants That Other Animals Won’t Eat

While the pollinators your garden attracts can help control some unwanted pests, you also need to be aware that other animals may find your garden appealing. Rabbits, deer, and squirrels are all common culprits that eat and dig up your plants. 

While a fence can be an effective way to keep those animals away, you can also strategically select plants that they won’t want to eat. For example, animals often avoid plants that are extremely aromatic, fuzzy, or have thorns or prickles. Deer, specifically, generally don’t eat flower varieties including coneflower, corydalis, daffodils, lavender, and poppies. By planting these types of flowers, you can keep larger animals away while maintaining an inviting environment for pollinator animals and insects. 

What Else to Know About Pollinator Gardens 

Selecting the right plants for your pollinator garden is an important first step, but there are other things you need to know to take proper care of your garden. Here are a few important considerations and concerns to be aware of. 

Do Not Use Pesticides

The purpose of a pollinator garden is to attract pollinators and provide them with a habitat that allows them to thrive. Like any garden, however, a pollinator garden is susceptible to unwanted pests, rodents, and plant diseases. 

Pesticides—including herbicides, insecticides, rodenticides, and fungicides—are commonly used to control those pests and disease carriers. However, those pesticides are just as harmful to the pollinators that you are trying to attract. 

To ensure your pollinators and their habitat remain healthy, it’s essential to never use pesticides. Instead, focus on natural and sustainable ways you can protect your garden from pests and diseases, like selecting plants that act as natural insect deterrents. Onions and chives, for example, repel aphids and slugs, and lavender repels fleas, flies, and mosquitos. 

Some gardeners also recommend using Epsom salts in place of pesticides. By sprinkling some salts at the base of your plants, you can repel slugs and snails. And, as a bonus, Epsom salts are a magnesium-rich fertilizer for your soil. 

Be Cautious When Purchasing Plants From Nurseries

If you plan to buy plants from a local nursery (rather than growing your plants from seeds), make sure you know what questions to ask. Make sure, for instance, to determine whether the plants have been treated with pesticides. Pesticides can be extremely harmful to pollinators, and even a little bit of residual chemicals can be transferred to the insects through the flowers’ nectar and pollen. If the nursery can’t confirm that the plants were raised without pesticides, it’s better to err on the side of caution and purchase your plants elsewhere. 

Also do a thorough check of the plant before bringing it home. Examine the entire plant, including underneath the leaves and flowers, for any pests. Also check the leaves for any spots or marks, which could be a sign of disease. Healthy, pest- and disease-free plants will be much more likely to survive and thrive once planted in your garden. 

garden shop
Source: unsplash
When purchasing from a nursery, make sure to examine plants for pests and spots that could indicate disease. 

Provide Clean Water

If you have pets at home, you know you need to provide them with water. But did you know you need to do the same thing to care for the pollinators in your garden? Pollinators also need a source of clean water for drinking and a variety of other purposes—for instance, bees use water to cool their beehives. 

Water sources could include birdbaths, puddling areas, a small garden fountain, or even a shallow pie pan. Keep in mind, however, that bees and other pollinating insects can drown in even shallow water. Try adding rocks or corks to your water source, so the insects have a place to land and safely get a drink. 

If your water source is stagnant, make sure to change it out a few times a week during the warmer weather when mosquitoes are breeding. Regularly changing it out for fresh water can keep those insects at bay. 

Don’t Clean Fallen Leaves

It may be habit for you to clean or rake fallen leaves from your garden, but if you want to create a welcoming habitat for pollinators, resist the urge to pick up those leaves. Many pollinators use leaves and other dead organic matter as winter cover and protection from predators, and some species of butterflies lay their eggs on fallen leaves. By picking up fallen leaves and other debris, you remove an essential part of insects’ environments. 

A Garden That’s Good for All 

Relaxing and therapeutic, gardening is good for you. And with the right plants, your garden can be good for your local pollinating insects and animals, as well. By attracting bees, butterflies, moths, and bats, you can support the essential work—and habitat—of pollinators while helping your garden grow more abundantly. So especially as National Gardening Day approaches (it’s April 14!), consider using these pollinator garden ideas to benefit yourself and the insects that are so critical to our ecosystem. 

The Complete Guide to Pollinator Gardens

Gardening to Attract Beneficial Insects

Written By

Katie Wolf

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