Planning a Garden for Native Pollinators

A companion piece to the cover story in the January 2020 edition of  The Wren, SVT's member newsletter.

Every small garden can be part of a network of good habitat that spans your neighborhood, your town, your county, and the state. By adding just a few native plants to your garden, you can help native pollinators thrive.

Several online sources list native plants for our region. Here are some of our favorites:

When planning your garden, please keep these tips in mind:

Choose native plants, preferably "straight" native species

To provide the best habitat for native pollinators, choose "straight" native species, not "cultivars."

Straight native plant species and our native pollinators evolved together, so they have a symbiotic relationship.

Certain straight species provide the nectar and pollen required by certain species of insects. Those insects have the right length tongue to reach the plant's pollen and spread it to other plants of the same species, thus pollinating them and allowing the plants to reproduce. 

For example, the yellow-banded bumblebee feeds on plants like goldenrods, while the two-spotted bumblebee feeds on plants like lobelias.

Cultivars were created by people in order to yield new colors or larger blossoms. Cultivars don't harm our native pollinators; they just don't provide the necessary food and habitat.

How can you tell the difference?  When you visit a garden nursery, look at the tag with the plant's name. A straight native will have a simple Latin name, such as Achillea millefolium, which is the name of the native white yarrow. In contrast, red yarrow, which is a cultivar, has a descriptive addition to the Latin name: Achillea millefolium ‘Red Velvet.’  A fun, fancy addition to the Latin name is a sign that you are looking at a cultivar.

SELECT PLANTS THAT ARE APPROPRIATE FOR YOUR YARD

It's easy to be dazzled by the beautiful blossoms on the native plants at your local nursery. But before you add a plant to your shopping cart, determine whether it will survive in your garden and provide pollinator habitat year after year.

Is your yard sunny, shady, or a combination? Is your garden soil wet, dry, clumpy, or sandy?

A plant's information tag will tell you whether it will thrive your yard's conditions, and you can also consult the nursery staff for advice.

Select A Variety of plantS that bloom at different times

Different pollinator species are attracted to different colors and shapes of blossoms. They also feed throughout the year, so our gardens need native plants, trees, and shrubs that blossom in spring, summer, and fall. 

No one garden can meet every need, but if everyone plants a few varieties of natives, we can build a network of good pollinator habitat.

If you have space, choose a variety of native plants that offer blossoms of different colors and shapes and that bloom at different times.

Cluster Several Plants of the Same Species

You can help insects find the plants they need by planting a cluster of a single species.

Insects seeking the yellow blossoms of the black-eyed Susan, for example, will find it easier to spot a cluster than to see several individual blossoms scattered around your yard.

Look for plants that help declining species of bees

While it's helpful to provide habitat for all of our native pollinators, it's crucial to provide habitat for species of native bees that are in decline.

Through his Beecology project, Dr. Robert Gegear is identifying species of bees that are in decline, and he is compiling a list of plants that can help them. The Beecology website describes his research; scroll down the page to find the photos and names of plants that can help bees with different length tongues.

Avoid buying plants that have been treated with neonicotinoids

Neocotinoids are a class of long-lasting pesticides that have been linked to declining bee populations. Ask the staff at your garden nursery if their suppliers treat plants with these pesticides. If they don't know, please seek out another nursery that can vouch for the safety of its plants.