How to Create a Pollinator-Friendly Garden

Plant wisely to bring all the birds, bees, and butterflies to your yard.

<p>Kim Harrington/Getty Images</p>

Kim Harrington/Getty Images

A gorgeous garden can do more than add curb appeal for your home. It can help local wildlife—especially bees, butterflies, and birds—thrive by providing a habitat, and all the food and water they need to survive.

If you focus your garden design on plants that'll benefit your local pollinator population, you'll get to enjoy not only gorgeous flowers and plants, but watching the wildlife enjoy it as well.

Be Cautious About Pesticides and Herbicides

You'll want to be careful when you're in the midst of plant selection, as many plants are pretreated with neonicotinoids, a pesticide that can kill not only pests, but butterflies, bees, and other helpful insects, says Zolene Quindoy, head horticulturist at online landscape design company Yardzen. These can even be applied to seeds, so you'll want to double check your seeds before you plant to ensure your garden is safe for pollinators. If the plants you're interested in aren't marked, ask before you buy.

When you're treating a pest issue, be conservative. "Use treatments with a narrow scope—ideally affecting only the pest species," Quindoy says. And avoid using herbicides that kill weeds, as they often kill plants that are valuable to pollinators.

Rethink Your Lawn

That expanse of emerald green lawn doesn't do much for your pollinator pals. "Lawns offer virtually no habitat value, and their maintenance contributes to air and water pollution," Quindoy says. "It's okay to hang on to a little lawn where there's a functional need for it, but replacing your lawn with a native-rich planting design will offer far more value to your local ecosystem." Consider creative alternatives to your lawn to bring a richer variety of plant life for pollinators.

Try to go longer between mowings to allow growth that can help support wildlife—especially in early spring—and don't be so quick to remove weeds. "Dandelions can be an important early-season nectar source for bees, as they often begin blooming before other flowers are available," Quindoy says.

Related:How to Make a Rain Garden

Focus on Native Plants

Using native plants for your landscape provides the exact types of plants and flowers that local wildlife eats and nests in—so you'll give them everything they need to thrive. "The majority of birds and insects require native species to get the resources they need to survive." Quindoy cites sagebrush, goldenrod, and sunflowers as key habitat plants, but you can use the National Wildlife Foundation's Native Plant Finder to find plants that belong in your zip code, or the Xerces Society's detailed regional guides to find pollinator-friendly plants, including information on bloom time, flower color, and water needs.

Don't worry about ripping out non-native plants you already have—they can still be helpful. "You don’t have to use native plants exclusively, but the more you use, the more you’ll support your ecosystem," Quindoy says. If you're choosing non-native plants, look for ones from a similar climate, so they'll thrive well without needing extraordinary help like lots of water.

Choose a Variety of Plants

You'll need more than flowers to help pollinators thrive. "It's important to provide food and shelter for their youngsters as well," Quindoy says. Plants with leaves and soft plant tissues can be food and shelter for caterpillars, and some bees will spend the winter in twigs.

Ground cover plants, especially if planted beneath trees, provide a perfect home for caterpillars. And the trees themselves are essential. "Trees offer tons of benefits to local ecosystems, particularly keystone species like oaks, willows, and species from the Prunus genus like native plums and cherries," Quindoy says. "They provide food, nesting sites, and resting spots for migrating species."

Related:Yes, Trees Can Boost Your Property Value—Here Are 10 Varieties to Consider

Also, try to choose plants that bloom at different times of the year, not only to keep your landscape looking gorgeous, but provide food for pollinators all season long.

Research What Your Target Audience Wants

If you're hoping to provide a bee-friendly feast or see more butterflies in your garden, you can choose plants that can specifically target your preferred visitors. "Plants like Russian sage and lavender appeal to generalist pollinators, but the majority of birds and insects require native species to get the resources they need to survive."

Look for large, flat-topped flowers or flower clusters that'll provide an ideal landing zone for pollinators, and consider colors and flowers that are particularly attractive to them, Quindoy says.

For Butterflies

Colors: Red, yellow, orange, pink, and purple

Flowers and plants: Zinnia, arrow, lantana, bee balm, dill, fennel, and milkweed

For Bees

Colors: Purple, yellow, and orange

Flowers and plants: Lavender, coneflower, asters, borage, foxglove, black-eyed Susan, and lupine

For Hummingbirds

Colors: Red, orange, pink, and yellow

Flowers and plants; Salvia, petunias, columbine, daylilies, lantana, and fuchsia

Add a Water Feature

Providing a wildlife-friendly water feature will make your yard a pollinator oasis. "Water is even more critical to their survival than food sources," Quindoy says. While a standard-issue birdbath is fine, a better option is a shallow, rock-bottomed water feature that's low to the ground and recirculates the water, to avoid stagnation (and creating a breeding ground for mosquitoes). "Boulder bubblers and micro-ponds are cost-effective and easy to construct, and can be a real boon to wildlife."

Leave the Dead Leaves

Don't be too meticulous about raking out every dead leaf or fallen branch in your backyard in the fall or spring, as many pollinators find a home there, including bees. When you're cutting back perennials, try to keep at least 12 inches of the plant to provide a place for pollinators to hang out.

If you're dead-set on having a totally neat yard, find an out-of-the-way place where you can stash a little bundle of plant clippings and leaves to serve as a pollinator habitat, Quindoy says.

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