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Pollinator Gardens for the Rest of Us

You've probably heard by now that pollinators are responsible for 1/3 of the food we eat and that they are in decline because of pesticide use, habitat destruction, and climate change. You've probably also heard that you are supposed to plant a pollinator garden to help save the bees and butterflies. And, if you're like me, you went right out to the garden store and bought some flowering plants, threw them in the ground, and patted yourself on the back for averting a global crisis in an afternoon.

Unfortunately, pollinator gardens are a bit more complicated than that and involve choosing the right plants, putting them in the right places, and a few more specifics. But, unless you are an avid gardener or really enjoy learning complex and often contradictory new information, I would not suggest delving into pollinator gardens too deeply. You'll probably find yourself getting discouraged or, worse yet, giving up. I'm going to give you the basics here and then give some advice on how to best use the money, space, and time resources you have.

Pollinator Gardens 101

Here's what you really need to know...

  1. There are lots of pollinator species. Bees are the most important pollinators, followed by flies. There are hundreds of species of native bees. Most are ground bees that are solitary and don't sting. Butterflies, moths, hummingbirds, and everyone else are great too. Different kinds of pollinators prefer different kinds of plants. Luckily for the rest of us, scientists have figured out which ones they like. They're called pollinator plants.

  2. Native pollinators prefer native pollinator plants. That just makes sense evolutionarily (remember Bio 101). So, if you're buying a plant, buy a native plant (i.e. one that naturally grows here in the Northeast). Also, try to avoid "cultivars" (basically any plant that has a "name in parentheses". They've been bred for their looks and sometimes aren't even recognizable as flowers to pollinators).

  3. Pollinators need food Spring through Fall. So, you'll want to choose at least a couple plants that bloom in each season. That sounds complicated, but it's really not. Other people have already done this thinking for you. You just need to get the plants. Check out these native plant lists from Bagley Pond Perennials in Warner to see which plants bloom when. Or you can check out the chart at the end of this post from UNH Extension.

  4. Vary and bunch your Plants. In other words, if you can, choose several different kinds of plants AND plant several of each kind next to each. So, all your cone flowers will be near each other and all your bee balm will be near each other. This makes life easier for the pollinators to find what they are looking for.

  5. Pay attention to what your plants need. The tag will tell you if your plant wants shade or sun, wet or dry soil. That's not a suggestion - I've learned the hard way that you need to pay attention to those things. Again, Bagley Pond has sorted native plants for you by their sun and soil type, so you don't have to figure that out yourself.

  6. Pollinators need habitat. This has always been a hang up for me because people make it seem so complicated, but honestly here it is... Ground bees like bare earth, so let the bald places in your yard stay bald and wood bees like hollow stems so cut off the stalks of perennial plants and let them stand in your garden.

  7. Chemicals are bad for pollinators. Don't spray your garden or your lawn with pesticides or herbicides. Both can kill pollinator species, their babies, and the plants they love. If you are determined to spray something, please check with the UNH Extension Office about which sprays do the least harm. And use organic fertilizers sparingly, if at all.

Now that you have a basic idea of pollinator gardens, it's time to figure out what time of garden is right for you. Take a moment to decide what category you fit into and go from there...

Pollinator Gardens for those with Lots of Money, Space, and Time

If you are flush with resources and want to really get into it, you can take classes in person or online or you can hire a professional gardener to help you plan and implement your garden. Include lots of trees, bushes, and vines too. And, while you're at it, please come and do my yard!

Pollinator Gardens for those with Lots of Money and Space, but Not a Lot of Time

If you are flush with resources but lack the time to garden, you can hire a professional gardener to come out to help you design and plant your huge, beautiful pollinator garden, complete with all the fixings.

Pollinator Gardens for those with Lots of Money, but Not a Lot of Space or Time

If you lack space, but have the resources, you can make a lot of impact with container and patio gardening. With money available, you can hire someone to do the work for you and/or buy very mature plants which will easily take. You can also plant bushes, vines, or trees as host and pollinator plants. Additionally, if you want to make more of an impact, you can donate money to help people with more time and space to plant pollinator gardens.

Pollinator Gardens for those with Lots of Space and Time, but Not a Lot of Money

You are the perfect candidate for learning to grow pollinator plants from seeds, divisions, and propagations. You can get your plants basically for free and use them to populate your yard. You can also get plants from plant exchanges. You can also learn to plant a wildflower meadow, which takes time, effort, and patience, but not too much money.

Pollinator Gardens for those with Lots of Space, but Not a lot of Time or Money

This is where I fit in. I am growing perennial pollinator plants from seed along with my vegetables this year to save money on the plants I need for my garden. I also like to take advantage of end of season sales. I buy the spring blooming perennial plants after they've bloomed (they'll bloom again next year) and search for deals on native pollinator plants at plant sales. I am also learning how to divide and propagate my plants so I can basically get free plants from my own "nursery". I know those sound like time-intensive activities, but once you've learned how, it's pretty quick.

Pollinator Gardens for those with Lots of Time, Not a lot of Space or Money

If you have lots of time, the best thing you can do is learn as much as you can and use your limited space and money wisely. Buy the most effective plants and take good care of them. You can also volunteer your time at community pollinator gardens. Also, share your knowledge with others! Your influence will be much bigger if you get others to join the movement.

Pollinator Gardens for those with Not a lot of Time, Space, or Money

Having no time, space, or money doesn't get you off the hook, sorry. Your best bet is to buy a few good perennial pollinator species and plant them in containers or in whatever small space you have and take care of them. Spread the word about pollinator gardens on social media if you get a second, and wait for the time when you have more time, space, or money to make your next move!

What I love about pollinator gardens is that they really make a big difference quickly and efficiently, while adding beauty to your yard and happiness to your life. You can't ask for a better project for the summer.

Happy planting!


Flowering Calendar for Perennial Wildflowers

(FYI the color of the bar shows the color of the flower)

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