Garden Design

Pollinator Gardens

monarch butterfly

As the weather warms up, butterflies, hummingbirds, and bees are seen busily working in our gardens.  These busy creatures, as well as other pollinator creatures, are extremely important for the future of many plants, as well as our own livelihood.  

Pollinators are extremely important workers in our garden. By designing a landscape with pollinators in mind, you can have a garden that will attract these helpful critters.

Pollination is the process by which pollen is transferred from the anther of a flower to the stigma.  Some flowers require cross-pollination; other flowers can self-pollinate. Pollen from one species of the plant usually only pollinates flowers of the same species; however, there are always exceptions.

Pollination is important because once a flower is pollinated, the seed will be produced to ensure the future of that plant species. Many of the fruits and vegetables we eat are a result of pollination. Approximately one out of every three bites we take when eating is the result of animal pollination.

About 90 percent of the flowering plants in the world need animals for pollination. The remaining 10 percent depends on the wind or rain for pollination. Wind-pollinated plants include corn, oak, pine, maple, birch, pecan, ragweed, and grass.  Many people allergic to pollen are often allergic to plants that are pollinated by the wind.

When a pollinator visits a flower, the animal is in search of nectar, a sugary liquid produced by flowers.  Nectar provides energy essential to the animal’s survival.  In the process of collecting nectar, the animal many times is unknowingly dusted with pollen.  Then, this pollen is transferred to the next flower visited.  Some pollinators, like bees, collect pollen in specialized sacks on their legs to feed as a protein source to their young.

There are many examples of pollinators including bees, butterflies, moths, wasps, flies, beetles, hummingbirds, and bats (bats only pollinate plants in the desert regions of the US).

Here are some important features when designing a garden that will attract pollinators:

Use flowers that will attract different pollinators.

Certain pollinators are attracted to different colors, smells, and flower forms.

Plant a wide variety of flowers to create a long bloom period.

You want at least three different plants flowering during spring, summer, and fall.

Use pesticides minimally.

Many pesticides are harmful to pollinators.  In the case of insect-eating hummingbirds, decreases in the insect population decrease their food source.  Try to implement Integrated Pest Management (IPM), which combines cultural, biological, and chemical controls.  If you must use a chemical, use a liquid (avoid dust) and spray at night when many pollinators are less active.  Try to choose a pesticide that is less toxic to bees and other wildlife.

Provide host plants for caterpillars.

A pollinator garden should provide a habitat for all life stages of the animal. Caterpillars will eat plants as they develop, so place host plants in an inconspicuous place to hide the inevitable defoliation.

Provide nesting habitat.

This includes nesting areas for the various solitary bees that are native to our area.  You can easily make a nesting house for mason bees by drilling holes (1/4 – 3/8” diameter and 4 – 6” long) into untreated wood. Also, plant evergreen shrubs for protection and potential nesting places for hummingbirds.

Provide extra nectar resources for hummingbirds.

Hummingbirds can consume up to five times their weight in nectar per day.  Supplement flower nectar supply by hanging a hummingbird feeder. Make sure the base is red, but do not use dyed sugar water since dye can harm birds.

Stephanie Romelczyk is formerly a Horticulture Agent for North Carolina Cooperative Extension in Lee County.

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