As you plan your garden for next spring, keep the birds, butterflies and other pollinators in mind.
We depend on insects and other wildlife to pollinate 80% of the world’s crops. Habitats for butterflies, birds, and other wildlife are being wiped out by development, pesticide use, and increased lawn growth. Pollinator populations are declining in abundance and diversity — especially for bees, butterflies, bats, songbirds and hummingbirds. They need our help.
It’s relatively easy to provide a pollinator buffet by incorporating a few additions to your yard. Pollinators need food, water, and shelter to thrive in an area.
First, select a sunny spot for your garden as most plants that attract pollinators require at least six hours of full sun per day. Next, vary your plant selection to include a range of colors and that will bloom from early spring into late fall. A palette of native plants is far more likely to invite pollinators to your garden than non-natives. They provide the nectar that our local insects have adapted to over many years. You may include hybrids of these plants for their physical qualities, but they often do not provide as much nectar as the straight species. Many double flowering varieties contain almost no nectar at all. Flowers planted in masses or drifts are easier for the pollinators to seek out and they provide more nectar in one area. Aside from native plants, many insects also seek out herbs like thyme, dill, fennel, and parsley, all of which make a lovely, edible addition to any garden. If you are looking to attract butterflies, it is important to know that some of them require a native host plan for survival: monarch caterpillars eat only milkweed leaves; spicebush swallowtail caterpillars feed mainly spicebush and sassafras; black swallowtail caterpillars feed mostly on plants from the parsley family.
Water is an important element of the pollinator garden as it provides many insects a place to drink and to reproduce. Incorporating it into your garden is as easy as adding a shallow pool or birdbath. Ideally, the water level will be less than three inches, and it should be changed frequently when mosquitoes are breeding. Add a few flat stones that rise above the water, and you’ve created a perch for birds and butterflies.
Providing overwinter shelter for our beneficial insects is as easy as delaying your garden clean-up until late next spring. The insects take shelter in the hollow stems of perennials and grasses, in leaf litter, and in dead wood. Many bumblebees nest in the ground so leaving some bare patches of soil will aid in their taking shelter.
Adding annuals and perennials to your garden will also help to attract butterflies and bees. Annuals to consider are zinnias, marigolds, cosmos, and sunflowers. Some good perennials for nectar sources are Verbena bonariensis, Russian sage, Liatris, Columbine, black-eyed Susan, and coneflowers. Common milkweed and butterflyweed are perennials that provide both nectar and food for butterflies and their larvae. Many of these plants will be available at our annual Master Gardener Plant and Geranium Sale on the Saturday before Mother’s Day, in the 4-H Building at the Fayette County Fairgrounds. Plan now, buy later.
As you plan your garden for next spring, choose native plants that provide fruit, nectar, and seeds. The birds, bees, and butterflies will find your garden simply irresistible.
For more information about pollinator gardens, visit go to https://extension.psu.edu/catalogsearch/ result/?q=pollinator+ gardens.
Martha Alexander is a Penn State Master Gardener. More information about the program is available at extension.psu.edu/programs/master-gardener.