A Pollinator Garden

I am totally sold on the urgent need to make our own landscapes more ecologically friendly.  But I’ve never been particularly curious about the insect part of ecology. Yes, I’m entranced by colorful butterflies and dragonflies, and I do remember the basic insect life stages that I learned in school.  And I appreciate their role in agriculture and the larger ecosystems as the foundation of the food web.  But I have never really wanted to get up close.

So when I began this journey to restore the ecological functions of our property, I didn’t study the pollinator issue deeply, I just assumed that if I planted a variety of native flora, the insects and pollinators would find food and homes, and all would be well.
To some extent that has happened.  There are many more flying creatures around all summer, and it is rare to visit the flowering borders and not see pollinators on the plants:
Monarch on Butterfly weed, Bees on Hydrangea, Goldenrod, and Spotted Beebalm
This winter I decided it was time to dig just a little deeper, to learn a bit more about pollinators (still not too close!) and whether I could do a better job for these critters.  And indeed I learned that there was more I could do.  

The two sources I used to learn more about pollinators were Doug Tallamy’s new book, Nature’s Best Hope, and Heather Holm’s book Pollinators of Native Plants.  I highly recommend both, as they take different angles on the subject.

Tallamy, after painting a vivid picture of the critical need for us to restore habitat for pollinators and caterpillars in our own yards, gives practical advice on how to do this.  If you want to get the short version, go to http://www.grownativemassachusetts.org and under the Great Resources tab select the Our Experts Videos option.  This terrific organization had Tallamy stop in during his book tour, and they filmed this recent lecture – he is fascinating speaker with a compelling story.

Holm focuses on the interactions of specific pollinators with specific native plants.  With an overview of the major types of pollinators to begin, the book lists a wide palette of native plants, grouped into prairie, woodland, and wetland habitats.  For each plant are descriptions of the pollinators that rely on that plant for some part of its life cycle.  Many cross-reference charts and suggested planting plans complete the book.  My only caveat is that some of the species are not native to Cape Cod, although with some research I found there are local counterparts in the same genera.
From these two sources I learned some key lessons:
  • The original thinking that most pollinators are generalists and will visit many flowering plants is proving to be wrong.  New research is showing that most pollinators are specialists, as they have evolved over millennia to adapt to particular native species.  So it’s necessary to pay attention to the native pollinators in your area and plant what they need. It was an “aha” moment for me when Tallamy declared that you could have a garden full of native plants, but not have any food to support the pollinators in your neighborhood.
  • Conversely, there are some species of native plants that serve many pollinator species.  These powerhouses should be a core part of any pollinator-friendly landscape.  On Cape Cod, the top powerhouses are the native oaks (Quercus), any native tree in the cherry family (Prunus), goldenrods (Solidago) and wild strawberry (Fragaria).  Tallamy has partnered with the National Wildlife Federation to create a web tool that will show what he calls “keystone” plants for your area – go to http://www.nwf.org/NativePlantFinder
  • Within a pollinator garden, the way you plant is important.  Larger clumps of plants are more easily found by pollinators.  The more variety in bloom times, flower colors, and flower shapes, the more different pollinators will find food sources.
  • Food alone is not enough.  We need to provide habitat for all phases of the insect life cycle, from egg to caterpillar to pupa to adult.  Much of this habitat is in the messy parts of your yard.  Many species overwinter in dead flower stalks, or in the leaf litter on the ground.  Bees lay eggs in tunnels dug under old branch piles or on bare ground.  The list goes on, and it affects how you take care of your landscape.  I have shifted my garden cleanups from the fall to the spring, after the insects emerge, and I make sure there is a sizable area where I never disturb the ground layer of litter and fallen branches. I hope this will help.
  • It’s not all about honey bees – in fact honey bees are non-native.  The focus should be on our native bees, such as mason bees, as well as wasps, butterflies, moths, beetles, flies, and even ants.

With all this percolating in my head, I decided it was time to extend my pollinator planting.  I already have multiple oaks and native cherries, and goldenrod and wild strawberry are everywhere, so that’s a solid foundation. Last year I replanted a long border into a mini-meadow with grasses and late-summer pollinators.

Agastache, Helenium, Hydrangea, Boneset and Grasses
This year I want to replant part of the cottage garden behind the house.  There are currently several non-native plants there such as sweet autumn clematis, bearded iris and yarrow.  Also growing there is a purple-leaf Penstemon, which is a cultivar of a native species.  I have not seen many pollinators on it, maybe because recent research shows that changing the leaf color of a native makes a plant less attractive to pollinators.  It also self-seeds aggressively, so it’s time to take it out.
To prepare my plant palette for this garden, I opened the Sunny Pollinator spreadsheet I started last year when I replanted the long border. The goal of the spreadsheet is to record what I have planted and to consolidate the many plant lists that are available.  A fun project for a recent winter afternoon was adding to the list and marking which plants are indeed native to Cape Cod (I use Go Botany at http://www.nativeplanttrust.org to do this).
Here’s the list that I came up with.  The circled plants are the ones that I want to use in the replanted cottage garden.

Another fun project was figuring out how to arrange these plants in the 8’ x 12’ space that I have, keeping in mind that I want to keep some of the existing plants.  The result was a planting design that I really like, and that I think the pollinators will enjoy.

Now, if we can get outside sometime in the next couple of months and the nurseries open up, I’ll be ready to go!


  1. Wow! Thanks for doing all that research and summarizing. Its so important.

    The link you provided tells me I should add goldenrod and aster – so that’s my first goal for the garden. Love how it ranks recommendations.


  2. Cathy, I think this is your best blog yet. It’s chock full of excellent info for everyone, not just folks living on Cape Cod. I will definitely check out the link to pollinators in our area. Thanks for ALL the research on this topic. Let’s hope we all can get to the nurseries sooner than later!


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