Tips for picking pollinator-attracting plants for your garden
Pollinators need our help. From birds and bees to butterflies and other crucial insects, pollinators’ numbers are declining as loss of habitat, weed pressure and climate change chip away at delicate ecosystems. The myriad ways they support the planet include helping to create one out of three bites of food we take.
But there’s good news — homegrown habitats can make a difference. In “Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation,” ecologist Douglas Tallamy calls for homeowners to convert their lawns into conservation corridors of wildflowers – and people are answering the call. You can start with a patio pot, the strip of land between your street and sidewalk (aka “hellstrip”) or the back 40 — but you can’t just use any packet of wildflower seeds. It’s crucial to pick the right plants to entice local pollinators.
Some pollinators are generalists, some are species-specific. Local natives are the perfect option for native pollinators — you can find some specific choices for your area on lists here.
However, many pollinators will happily dine on multiple plants. Some popular families are the vast Aster (sunflowers, coneflowers), Salvia (sage and rosemary) and Mint (mint, lavender, basil, hyssop, monarda) botanical families, which offer abundant choices. Here are some local experts’ favorite choices and tips for selecting pollinator-friendly plants for your garden.
Shooting Star Nursery in Central Point, Oregon, hosts several beehives on the property and offers preplanned pollinator collections for either sun or shade. Co-owner and landscape designer Christie Mackison says while they have been focusing on pollinators for over 10 years, more customers are asking for pollinator-friendly plants on the shelves and in home designs.
A year-round buffet
It’s especially important to include food sources that flower and fruit in fall and winter when food is scarce, not just the warmer seasons.
Mackison recommends early flowering plants like natives Mahonia repens, a ground cover, and M. compacta, a shrub topping out at 2.5 feet. Manzanitas are another early, drought-tolerant favorite.
Ron Guilford, manager for Blooming Junction in Cornelius, Oregon, favors vanilla-scented Sarcococca ruscifolia, a shade-tolerant, evergreen shrub for early spring pollinators.
For summer, Mackison suggests heathers (Calluna vulgaris cultivars) and catmint like Nepeta racemosa ‘Walker’s Low’, which provides flowers and sustenance over a long season. Rhamnus californica, or coffeeberry, is another favorite. “It’s just a good wildlife plant all over,” she says. The nondescript but nectar-filled flowers draw legions of bees and flies, and then birds feast on the berries.
In fall, she recommends perennial sunflower Helianthus ‘Lemon Queen’, and flowering buckwheat (Eriogonum umbellatum v. aureum ‘Kannah Creek’). That cultivar is low-growing, adaptable to many conditions and doesn’t go dormant.
Guilford’s summer and fall choices include Agastache ‘Blue Boa’, a bee haven, and black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia spp.), which attracts bees and butterflies, including the endangered Monarch. He especially likes towering R. laciniata ‘Herbstonne’ for its regal presence. Fragrant (and mildew-resistant) summer Phlox paniculata ‘David’ adds clusters of white flowers. Lastly, Gaura lindheimeri ‘Whirling Butterflies’ attracts bees, butterflies and hummingbirds all the way through October.
Leigh Geschwill, owner of F & B Farms and Nursery and the retail Happy Bee Garden Center in Woodburn, echoed all of our experts’ love of herbs for feeding wildlife (and humans, too) — many are fragrant, long-blooming, perennial and drought-tolerant. She loves Calendula (a half-hardy annual with edible flowers) and compact lavender ‘Thumbelina’.
But Geschwill also says you can welcome the birds, bees and butterflies with annuals in your windowboxes and summer containers — especially if you look for compact varieties. A few of her favorites include easy-to-grow zinnias, tidy and heat-proof ‘Shamrock™’ lantana, Salvia Salgoon® and a new compact yellow cosmos, Cosmos sulphureus ‘Limara Lemon’. “You always find bees sleeping in cosmos in the morning,” she says.
Then there are some annuals gardeners typically deadhead that can benefit pollinators and beneficial insects. Consider leaving a few blooms on your coleus — with newer varieties, she says, bolting is less of a concern. And in the veggie patch, if your brassicas do bolt, instead of reaching for the trowel, go take a well-earned nap — the bees will thank you for those acid-yellow flowers.
More tips for creating a pollinator-friendly space
In addition to picking the right plants, key strategies can help make your yard a thriving ecosystem and a pollinator powerhouse, Ellen Egan of Salem, Oregon’s Egan Gardens suggests.
- Plant in groups
Pollinators will have an easier time finding your flowers in groups of three or more rather than singles dotted around the garden. Think runway versus helipad.
- Collect a mix of shapes and colors
To attract the richest biodiversity, weave a collage of umbels, spikes, globes, bells/trumpets and daisies. For example, hummingbirds need tubular flowers, which range from native Mahonia to Salvia and petunias. As a bonus, the contrast makes for dynamic designs, too.
- Avoid pesticides
Even natural pesticides can negatively impact pollinators. You may need to accept a few chomped leaves until beneficial insects take care of unwanted ones. If you use a pesticide such as neem oil, do so in the late evening or early morning when pollinators are less active.