Skip to main content

Here’s how to create your own pollinator garden

black eyed Susans and coneflowers in a garden
Mathew D Sparlin / Shutterstock

Our pollinators need a break. Consider the monarch butterfly or honey bee, or any of our more than 3,600 lesser-known bee species, hundreds of native butterflies, and hummingbirds. They convert flowers into fruits, grains, nuts, and seeds, including those of more than 150 different North American food crops. But they face mounting pressure due to habitat loss and fragmentation. Pollinator gardening reduces that pressure.

What is a pollinator garden?

A pollinator garden is a safe haven for bees, butterflies, moths, hummingbirds, and other creatures that carry pollen. It might be as simple as a large container garden on a balcony, planted with a variety of pollen and nectar bearing flowers. Or it could encompass many acres, with host plants that support various stages of life, a progression of flowers throughout the year, and a source of water. Typically it’s any convenient backyard space that needs a bit of attention.

Most gardeners have enjoyed watching butterflies or hummingbirds as they move methodically through the landscape. By following these tips, creating a dynamic landscape that attracts and supports native pollinators may be easier than you think.

flower garden on a sloped landscape
Kathryn Roach / Shutterstock

How to create a new pollinator garden

Analyze the site

Bear in mind that a pollinator garden is an informal space that may not mesh with some landscaping. Choose a location where the aesthetics will flow naturally. Also, avoid sites where insecticides are regularly required.

While virtually any available space can support pollinators, the growing conditions determine which plants will grow there. Measure and sketch the site for planning purposes. Note how much sunlight it receives during the growing season. If it’s sunny, is it baking hot afternoon sun or early sun and afternoon shade? Also note the soil condition and whether the ground is typically moist or high and dry.

A few concerns to watch out for are the prevailing winds and presence of deer, rabbits, and potential damaging wildlife. If the site is very windy, you may need to incorporate a screen planting into the plan for protection. Plan to protect young plants from herbivores with fence, netting, or tree wraps.

Create a plan to support all life stages

A well-planned pollinator garden should include the full range of resources that pollinators need to survive: food, water, shelter, and security. Include a feature such as a bird bath, garden pond, or small fountain in your garden for a consistent supply of water. Limit mowing and trimming in the area, leaving the extra foliage for cover. Hand pull weeds as needed to reduce plant competition.

Although ornamental flowers like zinnias produce some of the resources that pollinators need, use them sparingly. Instead, choose a diverse range of native plants the insects and birds in your area recognize and need. Remember to include host plants for butterfly caterpillars to feed upon. Don’t use plants that have been treated with insecticides.

Use your site sketch and plant list to create a garden plan. Include pathways, water features, and plant positions. Use the following tips to guide plant layout.

  • Pollinators need pollen and nectar throughout the growing season. Include plants with early-, mid-, and late-season flowers.
  • Spread bloomers from each season throughout the garden for constant garden-wide interest.
  • Plant in masses of five to seven of the same plant to make it easier for pollinators to forage. Repeat multiple masses of the same plant through the garden.
  • Garden design principles incorporate variation in height, color, form, and texture. As you decide on which plants to grow, consider how you will organize them into complimentary groupings.
  • Plants that will grow taller should be at the rear or center. Low plants should be nearest the edges.
  • Plan for one plant per square foot to ensure a full garden that will compete well against weeds.

perennial flower bed beside a brick wall

Prepare the garden site

Use an old garden hose and landscape-marking paint to mark the locations and shapes of planting beds. Then remove grass and weeds from the beds before adding a 3-inch layer of compost. Work the compost into the upper 3 inches of native soil with a rototiller or digging fork. Rake the surface smooth and cover the beds with 2 to 3 inches of mulch. Install any water features and hardscaping before planting.

Plant your pollinator plants

Position the plants, still in their containers, on the planting beds according to your plan. Start at the rear or center and work outward. Leave a buffer of 8 to 12 inches between the outer plant pots and the bed border. The buffer will account for foliage growth so that plants do not encroach on the pathway. When all plants are in place, review the layout and make any adjustments before planting.

Pull back the mulch before planting each plant, and recover the roots when finished. Water the bed thoroughly. If the garden is near your property border, consider installing signs that say “Pollinator Habitat: Do Not Spray.”

Maintaining your pollinator garden

A pollinator garden is a habitat that seeks to imitate nature. It’s a low maintenance project, but will require some upkeep to become well established and to eliminate non-pollinator-friendly weeds.

In the initial weeks after planting, water the garden well. Begin with daily watering for the first week, then reduce it to 3 times in the second week. Starting with the third week, and continuing through the first summer, check the garden weekly and water as needed.

You may be tempted to remove spent flowers, but try to avoid doing so. Let the plants reseed themselves in the fall and leave the dried stems in place until spring. They’ll provide winter cover for solitary bees and other non-migratory pollinators. When the new growth emerges in spring, cutback the prior year’s dead stems.

Editors' Recommendations

Topics
Mark Wolfe
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Mark Wolfe is a freelance writer who specializes in garden, landscaping, and home improvement. After two decades in the…
Does vinegar kill weeds? How to use your favorite household cleaning product in your garden
Everything you need to know about using vinegar to tackle unwanted weeds
Glass bottle labeled vinegar on table

Whether you're a seasoned or novice gardener, there's a good chance that you've heard about using vinegar as a weed killer. Since many gardeners are interested in using natural alternatives to harsh commercial herbicides, vinegar has become a go-to for removing pesky weeds. But does vinegar kill weeds effectively? Is it really the miracle weed killer that DIY enthusiasts make it out to be? Vinegar can, in fact, help with weed management, but it has both pros and cons as a natural herbicide. Here's what you need to know about using vinegar in the garden.
What makes vinegar an effective weed killer?

Vinegar is essentially a solution of acetic acid with water — the vinegar that you buy at the grocery store is typically 5% acetic acid and 95% water. Acetic acid kills plants by damaging their cells. Upon contact with acetic acid, cell walls break down, which leaks plant fluid and dries out plants. You want to be careful about applying vinegar to your landscape, since it will likely kill any plant tissue upon contact, including foliage that you're actively growing.
How do you create a DIY vinegar weed killer?

Read more
How to grow yarrow, one of pollinators’ favorite blooms
Add yarrow to your pollinator garden with these tips
An orange and black butterfly on white yarrow flowers

When planning an herb and pollinator garden, your mind might jump to rosemary, lavender, thyme, butterfly bushes, and milkweed, but there’s another option you might have missed. Yarrow is a hardy, easy-to-grow flower that pollinators love. With clusters of tiny flowers that can be white, pink, and yellow, these flowers have a simplistic beauty that makes them a great choice for practically any garden aesthetic. If you want to get started growing yarrow plants for yourself, this guide will tell you how.
When and how to plant yarrow

You can start planting yarrow anytime after the last frost of the year, but before the weather gets too hot. Established yarrow plants can withstand heat, but it can put extra stress on a plant that is young or has just been planted. Choose a planting site with well-draining soil and avoid low-lying areas in your garden where water tends to pool. Yarrow plants don't tolerate standing water. Yarrow flowers can tolerate shade, but they thrive in full sun. If you plant them in shade, be aware that you may need to stake them for extra support, as they tend to get leggy.

Read more
What herbs can be planted together? How to plan your herb garden
Keep these tips in mind for arranging your plants when planning your garden space
A crate full of harvested herbs

There are so many useful and delicious herbs you can grow in your garden, but figuring out how to arrange them can be tricky. Companion planting charts can help you choose companion plants if you already have a few herbs picked out, but what if you aren’t sure where to start? This guide will help you decide what herbs can be planted together in your garden. The best companion plants have similar care requirements, so find the section that best matches your garden and get ready to plant.
Herbs for dry gardens

If the area you have set aside for your herb garden is in full or majority sun with dry or well-draining soil, then you’ll likely need some drought-tolerant herbs. Rosemary and lavender are two of the most commonly planted herbs for this type of garden, and luckily, they pair well with many other herbs. Oregano, sage, and thyme make excellent companion plants for each other, as well as both rosemary and lavender.

Read more