28 June 2013

Planting for the Pollinators

It was hugely, bitterly ironic that last week was National Pollinator Week in the USA; the same week in which thousands of bees were killed when public trees in an Oregon community were sprayed with a pesticide deadly to bees. Others were saved by quick action from the community and from the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, and the catastrophe has generated a lot of awareness and dialogue about what we can all do to protect and enhance our pollinators--not just the cute butterflies and hummingbirds, but the bees, flies, beetles and others that do yeoman's service in pollinating plants that we all eat. 
 I have been going on about pollinators and protecting them for as long as I have been gardening, so I'm  pleased to see more and more pollinator awareness happening. My column in our provincial newspaper this weekend is about bees and other pollinators, and I indicated I'd be putting up a list of plants that are great for pollinators here on bloomingwriter.

The thing to remember is that some bees awaken and are active early in the spring, before many plants are flowering. Shrubs like witch hazels (Hamamelis: 'Arnold Promise' is shown above) and willows, early bulbs like chionodoxa and crocus, are vitally important to those early bees. Other plants that are important to them are dandelions and coltsfoot--wild plants to us, 'weeds' to some, but providing crucial nutrients early in the season.

 It ought to be a no-brainer, but it has to be said: avoid using pesticides in your garden, especially at times of the day when pollinators are active. Many scientists feel that all cosmetic pesticide use should be banned, and I am with them on that. Always have been. Dandelions in your lawn will not kill you, but if the bees disappear and many foods can't be pollinated and thus disappear, you could be a whole helluva lot thinner.
(Photo: Astrantia, or masterwort, probably the variety 'Florence', an excellent pollinator plant)
 Plant a variety of perennials, annuals and flowering trees and shrubs to attract pollinators in your garden. I was putting new plants in the ground yesterday, and realized that everything I was planting in one bed, from the rugosa type rose to the honeysuckle to the reblooming lilac to the bee balms (above, Bee Balm 'Pink Lace') was for the bees, butterflies, hummingbirds and other pollinators.
 Butterfly bush is a delightfully fragrant flowering shrub that is beloved by many types of pollinators. I realize that in some parts of the world, it has a tendency to become invasive; here in Nova Scotia, it tends to arbitrarily die off after a harsh winter, so it has never become a pest. There are also new hybrids that are sterile.
 The spicy sweet fragrance of pinks (Dianthus, various species and cultivars) has always been an important part of my plantings, and I like to share them with the pollinators. Some may worry about being stung by bees, but really, most bees are placid creatures that only want to collect their nectar and pollen. You're more apt to be stung by a wasp or hornet than by a bee, unless you disrupt a bee nest or hive. In all the years I have gardened, I have been stung exactly once, and that was when I stepped on a bumble in clover while in my bare feet. I deserved to be stung in that case!
 Pollinators like different types of flower shapes as well as colours and species. Bumbles and other bees will crawl inside the flowers of foxgloves (shown here, Digitalis grandiflora, a truly perennial foxglove) and monkshoods to collect the nutrients they want.
Sea hollies (Eryngium, various species) are one of my top three perennials, with their striking flowers and long season of bloom. They are also high on the list of many pollinators. A few years ago I located a type of rare bumblebee, Bombus terricola, the yellow banded bee, on some of my sea hollies. That was enough to ensure I would always grow sea holly in any garden I have. 
 There are asters and then there are asters...some have been reclassified into other genera, some are wild, some are cultivated--they are all great food sources for pollinators. This bee is feasting in a late-summer aster, possibly 'Jenny'.
 As many readers know, echinaceas are my top perennial--I am obsessed with them in all colours, forms, species and cultivars. In talking with coneflower breeders for an article upcoming in Garden Making magazine, I learned that the double flowered varieties also contain nectar and pollen, but it may be harder to reach than in the single-flowered forms. I plant lots of both, so we should be good!
 Catmint is another terrific plant for pollinators, PLUS it is deer and drought resistant. I love the catmints because they bloom for a long long time--shear yours back by a third or so when it has a pause in blooming and it will flush again, and go til frost. This is 'Walker's Low', but I also have a great one from Hillendale Perennials called Candy Cat, which has pink flowers.
If you read my previous post, you know that Lantana is one of my favourite annuals. Now that I am in a warmer area for gardening, with less fog, the lantanas in my containers are doing splendidly. Butterflies and bees find these flowers irresistible. 
 Planting a pollinator garden in the right location is important. It should be in as full sun as you can find on your property, and in a somewhat sheltered location so that heavy winds don't blast at the plants or their visitors while they are feeding. You'll notice most of the plants I've recommended are for full sun or light shade. Including the sedums.
There are many different sedums, some of which bloom earlier in the season (Angelina is flowering now, for example), and some which come on in late summer and autumn, like 'Autumn Joy'. All of them are very good for pollinators.
 Depending on where you live, Gaillardia may acts as a short-lived perennial or as an annual. I've never had success getting it to overwinter in the past, but I'm hoping for better things this year. This variety is called 'Oranges and Lemons', and it is very striking.
 Scabiosa, or pincushion flower, is a long blooming perennial with flowers in pink, blue, white or yellow, depending on species. There is another delightful perennial also called pincushion flower, Knautia. Both are excellent, longblooming choices for attracting pollinators.
 Like the digitalis above, some of the penstemons have tubular flowers that bees can crawl into when seeking nectar and pollen. This variety has small flowers, but I've seen hummers and butterflies at it, so it must be a good thing too.
Milkweeds are crucial for monarchs, as almost any schoolchild can now tell you, thanks to a lot of monarch butterfly awareness education happening in the past couple of years. But Asclepias varieties are appealing to many other types of pollinators including bees and pollinating flies. I just hope we can keep busy-body highways departments from spraying or mowing the wild milkweeds growing along roadsides, destroying monarch butterfly habitat. I like to keep optimistic.

There are many, many more plants that will attract and feed pollinators, but these are just a few that area easy to source at almost any nursery. Have fun with designing your pollinator garden, with thanks from the bees, butterflies, and other creatures.


  1. Jodi, Thanks to you and other garden bloggers who have educated me, I am much more aware of all the variety of pollinators. A few days ago, I noticed at least 6 different kinds of tiny insects (ants, bees, flies, beetles) busy on my blooming Goatsbeard; four years ago, I either wouldn't have noticed them or would have worried that my plants were suffering from some kind of insect infestation. -Jean

  2. Great post! Thank you so much. I can tell this topic is very close to your heart. :-)

  3. Yes, the bee situation was horrible, wasn't it? I haven't used pesticides for years. Your photos are lovely! A lot of those plants are favorites and in my garden, too. Still waiting for monarchs in my garden this year. I've seen them at garden centers, but not in my garden yet. The Milkweed is just about ready to bloom!

  4. Terrific post Jodi. If the bees go, we won't be far behind.

  5. A crucial topic. Like you, I too plant for the pollinators and have all of the plants you name above in my garden. The more this topic is discussed and highlighted, hopefully, it will receive the attention it deserves.

  6. Jodi wonderful post...everything I plant is for the pollinators as well...and no chemicals...they are going crazy on the blooms in the garden right now...

  7. My top plant which attracts bees and other insects is heal-all plant (prunella vulgaris) - it's really a number one in my garden :)

  8. Great post. Thank you so much for sharing.

  9. I think most gardeners are aware of the importance of pollinators, now to inform the general population. I didn't hear about that event in Oregon, but haven't we all heard about somebody finding a swarm, and killing it instead of calling a beekeeper? Very frustrating.

  10. I did not know about the Oregon event. I wouldn't have thought such a thing possible in these times. I helped a friend contact our local beekeepers society to collect a swarm that had taken up residence in his wall! But we also have a new organization locally http://pollinatorswelcome.com/ although Pollinators WElcome is NOT just for our local region.

  11. Hi Jodi! I spend a lot of time in my courses at Dal talking to the students about managing the landscape as an ecosystem. A few years back, I took a group to visit Sarah Raven at her garden in the UK. You might find these interesting:




    I direct my students to watch this series on Pollinating insects. It's really very good.


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