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Pollination occurs when an insect, bird, mammal, or even wind takes pollen from the male part of a flower to the female part of a flower, fertilizing the plant. The pollination process is necessary for crops that sustain all human and animal life. In fact, living pollinators are responsible for 75% of our food supply.
Unfortunately, habitat destruction is hurting and destroying pollinators. But we can help by planting pollinator gardens. This guide will cover how to start and maintain a pollinator garden to add benefit and beauty to your yard.
What Is a Pollinator Garden?
A pollinator garden includes plants designed to attract and support pollinators, including bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. These plants include annuals, which only live for one season before dying, and perennials, which come back every year. Shrubs and bushes can also act as pollinator plants.
Many plants require cross-pollination, meaning they need pollen from different plants to bloom and produce. Apples are one example of cross-pollinators—for example, a Honeycrisp tree may pollinate a Pink Lady tree but not another Honeycrisp tree.
Pollinator gardens benefit the entire ecosystem, including humans, wild animals, and insects. As a bonus, they’ll attract beautiful creatures to your yard.
6 Types of Pollinators and Their Importance
Several different types of insects and animals are responsible for moving pollen between plants to facilitate fertilization. Below are common types of pollinators.
This may not be one of the first pollinators to come to mind, but bats are responsible for pollinating more than 500 plant species. While plants with bright flowers attract bees and butterflies, bats tend to pollinate those with more pale-colored flowers, such as agave, banana, eucalyptus, guava, and mango plants.
The first species that typically comes to mind when thinking about pollinators is bees. Many types of bees act as pollinators, including bumble bees, honey bees, squash bees, and sweat bees.
While butterflies are less efficient at moving pollen compared to bees, they can reach deep pollen levels in flowers that other pollinators cannot. Butterflies are especially helpful in fertilizing cotton plants.
Hummingbirds can visit thousands of flowers a day, making them one of the most prolific pollinators. Plus, they’re a fun visitor to watch in your garden.
Although wasps and hornets can be bothersome pests at a picnic, these insects act as important pollinators. Some flies also act as pollinators, although others are destructive to crops and plants.
Moths also play a valuable role as pollinators. Moths are nocturnal butterflies that pollinate flowers and plants at night. They’re often attracted to white plants that reflect the moonlight, such as morning glories.
7 Steps to Create a Pollinator Garden
Pollinators are vital to our food sources, but unfortunately many of the pollinators mentioned above are in danger. In fact, insect pollinator populations have experienced a 20% to 40% decline in recent years. One way you can help is by planting a pollinator garden at your home.
1. Research Local Pollinators
Every area has its native pollinators, and it’s best to choose plants designed for your region. Start by determining your local hardiness zone, which you can find using the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map.
Your hardiness zone will inform you what kind of plants survive best in your area. For example, if you live in Zone 6a and choose a plant geared for Zones 3–5, there’s a low chance it will survive. Once you know your zone, you can research which pollinators grow best in your climate.
2. Choose an Appropriate Garden Site
The best spot in your yard for a pollinator garden is an area with lots of sunshine.
“A lot of pollinator plants have flowers that like the sun,” says Alex Kantor, owner and president of Perfect Plants Nursery. “Ninety percent of the things that bloom like sunshine.”
However, some pollinator plants can also tolerate partial shade, so don’t despair if your yard isn’t completely sunny.
You’ll also want to make sure you’re planting at the right time of the year. Kantor suggests starting the process in the early spring or summer, especially if you’re starting from seeds.
“Fall is not a good time for seeds,” he says. “It’s a good time to plant your other plants that are properly zoned for your area.”
3. Select Native Plants
If you’re still unsure which pollinator plants are native to your area, contact or visit a local nursery. They should be able to answer your specific questions and make recommendations based on your garden. Kantor recommends visiting a local garden store instead of a major chain, as their plant selection may be larger and more pollinator-friendly.
Try to pick a variety of plants, including ones that bloom at different times of the year. That way you’ll better support bees and other pollinators by giving them food for as long as possible.
You can start a pollinator garden with established plants or from seeds. Starting from seeds is more difficult but is typically less expensive than buying full-grown plants.
4. Prepare the Soil
If you’ve had trouble growing plants in your selected garden patch, consider getting your soil tested. A soil test may help you determine whether you need to add specific nutrients, such as more nitrogen or potassium.
If you’re building a raised garden bed, buy soil for flowering plants.
5. Provide Water Sources
When you’re starting a garden, water it regularly to help the roots take hold in the ground. You can install an irrigation system and program it automatically. If this is out of your budget, you can also manually water the plants.
“If you don’t have an irrigation system and you’re planting in the summer, you’re going to have to hand water plants three or four days a week,” Kantor says.
6. Maintain and Monitor the Garden
In addition to regularly watering your garden, you’ll also need to weed your garden (about once a week) to ensure the weeds don’t kill off your plants.
The best way to manage weeds is to pull them up by the roots. Avoid using pesticides to manage the weeds since pesticides that kill weeds can also hurt pollinators. Visit a local nursery or garden store to get weed-fighting tools like hoes or trowels to make the process faster and easier.
7. Keep Going
Planting a pollinator garden is easier than establishing an English-style rose garden or a perfect row of hedges, but it’s not necessarily foolproof. The key is to not give up, even if something goes wrong.
“Don’t expect your first garden to be absolutely picture-perfect,” Kantor says. “Don’t be discouraged just because something didn’t grow or because your plant died.”
3 Benefits of Adding a Pollinator Garden to Your Home
Aside from helping keep pollinators alive and thriving, adding a pollinator garden to your yard offers a few benefits.
Pollinator plants aren’t just useful, they’re also beautiful. If you can focus on planting pollinators, your garden will turn heads and provide a relaxing oasis to enjoy. Because there are so many different pollinators, you can choose the plants that best fit your aesthetic. Plus, they’ll attract beautiful pollinators, such as butterflies and hummingbirds to your yard.
Pollinator plants come in many different colors and varieties. Kantor recommends mixing various heights and shades to create a lush, colorful garden.
Easy to Maintain
When you focus on planting native pollinators, you’re also making gardening easier on yourself. Native pollinators are designed to thrive in your area, so there’s a better chance they’ll survive your area’s weather patterns than if you choose non-native plants.
Native pollinator plants are often less expensive to purchase than other types of plants.
Because pollinator plants usually do so well, you might even find neighbors or fellow gardeners willing to give away their excess plants for free (or at least for less than what a nursery charges). Many gardeners also save and give away the seeds from their plants, which you can use to start a garden from scratch.
Organizations That Support Pollinators
As mentioned before, many pollinator species are in danger. The following organizations work to protect these important species.
Monarch butterflies represent a huge portion of pollinators, but their numbers are dwindling. Monarch Watch encourages gardeners to plant species that Monarchs love to help them survive and thrive.
National Audubon Society
The National Audubon Society’s nearly 500 local chapters work together to support local bird populations. It also has a native plants database you can use to find the best plants for your area.
National Forest Service
The National Forest Service manages the national forests and grasslands and conducts research in those areas. The service has a thorough website that explains how pollinators work, why pollination is important, and tips on creating your own pollinator-friendly garden.
National Park Service
The National Park Service is in charge of the 63 national parks in the country, as well as the other national areas, including former battlegrounds, natural preserves, and monuments. The service actively supports pollination efforts in those parks.
National Pollinator Garden Network
The National Pollinator Garden Network’s pet project, the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge, is an effort to encourage one million people to build pollinator gardens in their backyards. If you succeed, you can upload your garden to its network. The network also has a list of resources to help you confidently build your pollinator garden.
National Wildlife Federation
The National Wildlife Federation explains that pollination isn’t just important for crops—it’s also vital for the health and prosperity of wild animals. Without successful pollination, deer, bears, and other animals will have fewer food sources.
The Nature Conservancy
The Nature Conservancy is an organization that supports global conservation efforts. It also offers educational videos and PDFs explaining how to begin a pollinator garden from scratch, even if your backyard currently looks like a pile of dirt.
U.S. Department of Agriculture
Pollinators are crucial for agriculture, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) supports crops by making it easier for individuals to build sustainable pollinator gardens. The department offers a native pollinator map with a list of the best plants for your region.
The Xerces Society is an international nonprofit that aids the invertebrate and insect population. The society also has a list of native pollinator plants for various areas, describing when they bloom, their sunlight and soil requirements, and more.
If you’re thinking about beautifying your backyard with a garden, we strongly suggest a pollinator garden. Pollinator plants come in all shapes, colors, and sizes to best fit your yard aesthetic. As an added bonus, you’ll be able to enjoy frequent visits from wonderful pollinators, including bumble bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds.