Pollinator-friendly gardens

What are pollinators? When many hear the word pollinator, they immediately think of bees. While bees are major pollinators, so are birds, bats, butterflies, moths, flies, beetles, wasps, and small mammals. They all contribute to an ecosystem that is responsible for 1 of every 3 bites of food you take, and one that adds $217 billion to the global economy. 

Pollinators not only play a crucial role in the habitats and ecosystems wild animals rely on for food and shelter, but they are also responsible for the survival of about 35% of the world’s food crops and three-fourths of the world’s flowering plants.

Local pollinators have evolved alongside native flora; many have adapted to and depend on these plants to continue their life cycle. A pollinator-friendly garden includes a diversity of plants native to the region that will thrive without much additional help or resources, and will provide plenty of pollen, nectar, and shelter for local pollinators. 

If you want to create a space to feed local pollinators in your yard, here are a few guidelines. First of all, this does not need to be a massive undertaking. Even a small area or flower bed can benefit your local ecosystem. 

  • Make sure to include a variety of native plants. Pollinators have different techniques for sourcing nectar, so the greater variety of pollinators you aim to attract, the greater variety of flowers you will need. Plan your garden so you have flowers blooming spring through fall to accommodate pollinators that emerge at different times throughout the growing season. 
  • Avoid cultivated modern hybrids if possible. Many garden plants have been manipulated for more aesthetic features and in the process some have lost their ability to produce nectar or pollen. 
  • When gardening for the benefit of pollinators and the ecosystem in general, it is a good idea to stay away from pesticides, herbicides, and non-organic fertilizers. Most native plants will thrive in their region’s soil and climate with little help from us, and being left mostly alone can improve the soil over time. That being said, if your soil is extremely nutrient deficient, it certainly will not hurt to amend with composted organic matter or worm castings. 
  • Try to leave leaf litter and garden clean-up until spring. Many pollinators overwinter in various life stages in hollow stems, attached to plants, and in leaf litter. Leaving leaf litter also acts as a natural mulch that feeds the soil as it decomposes and keeps it from drying out. 

At Wellfield, we put many of these practices into action. If you have been to the garden this spring you have likely seen us hard at work, cutting down and cleaning up last year’s plant debris. We also have an abundance of native plants at the gardens. For instance, the Spicebushes, Lindera benzoin, are getting ready to bloom here. This is a favorite larval host plant and food source for the aptly named Spicebush Swallowtail. 

There are many benefits to planting a native, pollinator-friendly garden. Even the smallest plot is a step toward supporting an ecosystem that supports us and more sustainable gardening practices. For more resources on native plants and pollinators, check out your local Native Plant Society or Purdue University Entomology Extension.

Kyle Strain, Lead Horticulturist