Today kicks off pollinator week and I teamed up with my mom, Lauren Jello-Pitkin, a Master Gardener, to share some tips to support pollinators in your garden area, whether you have a patio space or acres of land.
What are pollinators? Most people think of bees as pollinators, but there are other beneficial insects like ladybugs, spiders, and butterflies that are not only pollinators, but can also help keep your garden safe without use of chemicals or pesticides (Ladybugs eat aphids!). Pollinators are animals such as birds, bees, bats, butterflies, moths, beetles etc. that help transfer pollen from flower to flower or within flowers to ensure fertilization and successful seed and fruit production for plants. Pollination is a critical step in our food system.
Butterflies and bees are common pollinators, although their natural habitats and food sources are rapidly declining due to land clearing, pesticide use, and commercialization. Incorporating flowering plants, shrubs, and trees that offer pollen and nectar to bees and butterflies helps keep them fed and can provide shelter and respite. The monarch butterflies for example, migrate to warmer climates just like birds do, and can travel thousands of miles to reach their final destination. Having flowering plants along their journey helps ensure safe travel and survival.
Now that we know what pollinators are, how can we help? Well, having native flowering plants throughout the spring-fall seasons is ideal. Some of the first food sources for bees are dandelions. Please think twice before pulling them out as “weeds” or spraying with chemicals. Bees rely on dandelions until the spring flowering trees, shrubs, and plants start to bloom. Clover fields are also super popular bee spots, so if possible, keep an area of your yard “wild” and dedicated to wildflowers and clover. In terms of flowers, there are two types: annuals and perennials. Annual plants only live for one growing season, while perennials regrow every spring. It’s good to have a mix of annuals and perennials, but if you only have container plants, annuals are the way to go. It is best to choose native plants for your region, as native plants are the lowest maintenance and are more disease/pest resistant than their exotic counterparts.
Annuals such as sweet alyssum, lantana, and single flower petunias are great options! Note: double flowered petunias are harder to get pollen from so are not the best option. Herbs are a great choice as well – dill, coriander, chamomile, fennel, thyme, and lavender. Flowering herbs are great and if you’ve ever visited a lavender farm they are buzzing with bees! If possible, its good to mix annuals and perennials. Perennials such as yarrow, sedum (stonecrop), verbena, bee balm, anise hyssop, salvia, cat mint, butterfly weed, joe pye weed, and prairie sundrops are all great options.
If you have a yard and are looking to increase your landscape or perimeter with shrubs or native trees, look for larger shrubs and trees such as oregon grape holly, mountain laurel, viburnum, oak leaf hydrangea, and flowering fruit trees. My weeping cherry tree was buzzing all spring to tide the bees over until more flowers bloomed.
These recommendations are based on our New England grow zone, so keep in mind you might need to find a local plant society or visit your nearby nursery for recommendations on native plants and shrubs. My mom always says diversity of plant life, diversity of wildlife. Having a diverse garden supports the pollinator ecosystem.
Pollinators are more than just bees
Container pots can contribute valuable food sources to pollinators
Aim for flowering annuals and perennials that bloom from early spring to fall
Dandelions are great food for bees
Sources of water also help so consider a water feature
Avoid chemical and pesticide use
Diversity of plant life, diversity of wildlife