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Why Pollinator Gardens

Uncategorized Apr 29, 2022

Why Pollinator Gardens?

I had a friend once who wanted to try container gardening, but she was nervous, so she started with just one tomato plant in a pot. She grew a beautiful plant that reached up a trellis and produced perfect flowers, but no tomatoes grew, and she wanted to know why. The reason was she never put her tomato plant outside; she grew an indoor tomato plant, so it was never pollinated by insects!

Most of our veggies and fruits need pollination to produce fruits (think green beans, peppers, cucumbers, tomatoes, okra, melons, strawberries etc.!). Think of it like birthing a baby… you need to fertilize the embryo to grow the baby! And unless you want to go out with a little brush or q-tip and pollinate them yourself (which some very particular growers do) I would recommend using nature as it was intended! That is why a pollinator garden is the perfect companion to your edible garden. 

So what is it exactly? A pollinator garden consists of flowering plants that attract beneficial insects (pollinators) to your garden. This increases your plants likelihood of success, supports our pollinator ecosystem, and it makes the garden come alive with activity! (Not to mention that beneficial insects can prey on pests).

How to Make Your Own Pollinator Garden

The first step to a natural pollinator garden is to find plants that are native to your area because the plants will be the most beneficial and attractive plants to your native pollinators. You want to have a good diversity in your garden so that you attract a variety of pollinators and so that they have a buffet to choose from. 

If you live in Kentucky here are some plants to consider:

  1. Spotted Bee Balm (Monarda Punctata) has pinkish white flowers and flowers all season long from May to September attracting bees and butterflies. This flower can grow up to 3 feet and the flower stalk makes a statement in the garden.
  2. Cleft Phlox (Phlox bifida) has a range of flower colors with white, light blue, and pink. It flowers early in April to May attracting bees and butterflies as well. The flowering season isn't long, but the early flowering can be very helpful. This flower is also low to the ground and mounding, making it wonderful for along borders or filling ground space.
  3. Jacob’s Ladder (Polemonium reptans) is one of my favorites for its delicate foliage and flowers that are light blue. It blooms May to June and attracts bees, butterflies, and moths. It is a medium sized mounding plant and so is a great filler for a garden.
  4. Green Milkweed (Asclepias hirtella) this medium sized plant grows a unique green flower from June to August and is also the only host for monarch butterfly caterpillars which are native to Kentucky and declining in numbers yearly! By planting milkweed, you can create a special place for them in your garden.
  5. Cutleaf Coneflower (Rudbeckia laciniata) is a classic pollinator in the garden with its distinct yellow and brown flowers that last from June to September. It stands all above most other flowers and can grow anywhere from 3 to 12 feet, giving your garden height and attracting bees, butterflies, beetles and wasps. 
  6. Heath Aster (Symphyotrichum ericoides) will put out a multitude of little white flowers from August to October taking your garden into fall. The plant grows 1 to 3 feet tall and is another great mounding flower willing in space in your garden. It attracts a whole range of pollinators like the Coneflower it attracts bees, butterflies, beetles, and wasps.

As you research and pick your flowers it is important to remember to think about the guests you are trying to attract and aesthetics. You should try to pick a range of flowers that also have different flowering periods and differing heights so that your garden looks full and flowers the whole season long. You can also look into flowering trees and vines to fill out your space and look here at the UK extension if you need more plant ideas for the Kentuckiana area!

 Because we are trying to attract pollinators, we also want to be careful about how we set up the garden just like how we are careful what we use when growing our own food.

Some tips and rules to create a welcoming pollinator garden:

  1. Try to avoid using any kind of weed suppressant, mulch or landscaping fabric. Instead make sure that you plant densely and by using plants with a variety of heights you can create a natural weed suppressant, a dense canopy of beautiful foliage. You also want to avoid any kind of pesticides. This may seem obvious, but people don’t always think about the fact that the pesticide they got to get rid of their aphids can also harm their bees. So as much as you can weed by hand and find natural ways to control the pests you don’t want around. Not using mulch will also help you reduce the number of pests and diseases in your garden!
  2. Plant in groups! Pollinators like to have a good amount of one type of flower, especially bees so that they can come back for more and bring their friends. So, make sure you have a variety of flowers but also multiples of each flowering plant planted together.
  3. Resist the urge to clean house in the fall. Pollinators overwinter in all different kinds of ways and many of them use the plant remains to survive the winter like hollow stems or dead leaves. With that in mind, wait till spring to clean up your garden so that your friendly bugs can stay cozy all winter long.

As you start to plan and imagine your perfect pollinator garden remember that native pollinators tend to be beautiful but not as perfect or showy as hybrid and genetically modified horticultural flowers. Your garden will look a little wild but beautiful, especially as the butterflies, bees, hummingbirds, beetles, and all sorts of other helpful bugs flock to the flowers! 



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