There’s a new—and very exciting!—trend emerging among home gardeners. It’s called pollinator gardening, and its mission is to create habitat that’s adept at supporting all sorts of pollinators, including native bees, butterflies, beetles, flies and other pollen-moving insects. As the author of a book titled Attracting Beneficial Bugs to Your Garden: A Natural Approach to Pest Control (Timber Press, 2014), you might have already guessed that I’m really excited about this particular trend. I love hearing about the huge numbers of homeowners, Master Gardener groups, farms, schools and communities now integrating pollinator-friendly habitats into their landscapes. Heck, even the Illinois Tollway Authority and the National Resources Defense Council are working together to create a network of pollinator/monarch gardens throughout the Illinois toll-road network. It’s exciting stuff!
Although you might think it’s difficult to create a pollinator-friendly garden, it isn’t. There are several great books written about the topic, including two personal favorites Attracting Native Pollinators: Protecting North America’s Bees and Butterflies (Storey Publishing, 2011) by the Xerces Society and Pollinators of Native Plants: Attract, Observe and Identify Pollinators and Beneficial Insects with Native Plants (Pollination Press, 2014) by Heather Holm. Both books offer important information on identifying native pollinators, as well as how best to invite them to your garden by providing them with plenty of suitable nectar sources and a pesticide-free habitat.
To get you started on creating a pollinator garden of your own, I’d like to tell you about a few plants that are particularly good at attracting and supporting a broad range of pollinators. As you plan your spring garden, be sure to include these terrific plants on your must-have list. They, in addition to a trip to the library or bookstore to pick up one of the above mentioned books, will set you on the path toward a bright future for the thousands of pollinating insects that call North America home.
1. Asters (Symphyotrichum spp.)
Our many species of native asters, including the New York aster, the New England aster and the heath aster, provide pollen and nectar to foraging native bees late in the season, a critical time for insects that are soon to enter winter dormancy. Asters also serve as a host plant for several species of butterfly larvae and are extremely tolerant of less-than-ideal soil and sun conditions.
2. Hyssop (Agastache spp.)
This is a pollinator magnet in my own garden I grow anise hyssop (A. foeniculum). On any given day, I can find upwards of two dozen different species of pollinators foraging in the blooms. The plant thrives in dry to average soil across most of the U.S., except for the extreme Southeast. The purple, white, yellow, blue or orange flowers occur all summer long.
3. Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum spp.)
If ever there was a plant that is abuzz with pollinator activity, this one is it. I grow two different species of mountain mint (Virginia and big-leaved), and both are absolutely smothered with scads of tiny native bees, flies and beetles from July through the first autumn frost. These easy-to-grow plants are beautiful, and unlike true mints in the Mentha genus, they are not overly aggressive. I will never garden without them.
4. Sunflowers (Helianthus spp.)
Sunflowers are not only lovely plants, they’re also super good at supporting tons of pollinators. Perennial varieties, such as H. divaricatus, H. petiolaris, and H. salicifolius, are reliable, hardy bloomers, and annual types (H. annuus) come in nearly every color, shape and form. Avoid the double-petaled types and pollenless varieties, as the former have nectaries that are hidden or absent and the latter lack the protein-rich pollen many insects need to reproduce.
5. Purple Coneflower (
This large-flowered group of perennials is already quite common in many gardens across North America, and deservedly so. It’s a tough-as-nails genus of plants that includes such beauties as the purple coneflower and the narrow-leaved coneflower. Every year, my coneflowers are alive with bumblebees, sweat bees and lots of butterflies. The checkered fritillaries seem to enjoy it more than any other plant I grow in my garden. I caution you against planting the new varieties of double-petaled coneflowers in an attempt to lure in pollinators. They are beautiful to look at, but they lack the exposed nectaries of “plain” coneflowers and therefore cannot support pollinators nearly as well.