Starting a Pollinator Garden

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Do you love watching butterflies? Do you enjoy seeing hummingbirds? Or would you just like to help the bees? Planting a pollinator garden will allow you to do all of these things.

Laying out the pollinator garden.

Last summer I noticed that we had a few butterflies and even a hummingbird or two. I enjoyed watching them so much that I wanted to attract more to my yard.

I decided to plant a butterfly garden and started researching what to plant to draw them in. Then my neighbor mentioned that she was putting in a pollinator garden and I wondered if there was much of a difference.

After researching both butterfly and pollinator gardens, mostly through my local extension service, I found that there isn’t much of a difference between the two.

What is the difference between a butterfly garden and a pollinator garden?

The only difference I found is what plants you put in the garden. Some plants attract mainly bees. Others attract mainly butterflies. And many plants attract both, with a few attracting bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds.

So, if you want to attract mostly butterflies you would plant those plants that appeal to just butterflies.

Butterfly or Pollinator Garden, which should I plant?

At first, I was just going to do the butterfly garden but then I kept seeing more information about how bees are struggling. And since bees are so important to our food supply, I decided to help them as well.

Since many of the plants attract both bees and butterflies, I decided to just go with a pollinator garden.

If you mainly want to see butterflies, but want to help the bees as well, plant the plants that attract both. For an added benefit, plant a few plants that attract hummingbirds as well.

How to Plant a Pollinator Garden

Since I live in ND, I used the information I found on the NDSU extension service website. They have one specifically on butterfly gardening and another on building a pollinator garden. I also used this one from the Pollinator Partnership. All of these have lists of plants that are good for pollinators.

It is recommended to choose a few plants from each of the different bloom times. The bloom times are spring, June, summer, and fall. All of the above resources list when the flowers should bloom.

By planting flowers that bloom during each of these times you will provide the bees and butterflies food for the whole time they are around.

Which plants you choose will depend on how much space you have and what you can find. I recommend deciding what you want based on your space and then see what you can find.

Once you know what you can find then swap out those that can’t be found with some others that can be found. I had two that I couldn’t find any where around here.

I checked big box stores, home centers, and 3 separate garden/landscaping stores. The only ones I didn’t check were those pop up green houses that set up in grocery store (and other stores) parking lots.

I decided to go without one of the plants that I couldn’t find and replaced the other with a different one. Space wise I will just let some of the ones I did find fill in the spot I had planned for the one I skipped.

What plants did I go with for my pollinator garden?

Spring Flowering

Crocus – These are planted as bulbs in the fall and are one of the earlier plants to bloom. My only problem with the crocus is that the bunnies decided they would be good food this spring.

After the bunnies had their dinner, only 2 of my 20 plus bulbs bloomed. Hopefully next year the bunnies won’t eat so many of them.

Grape hyacinth – These are also planted as bulbs in the fall. Mine are just started to bloom now, in mid-May.

Columbine – This is the plant I substituted for one I couldn’t find. If you plant red columbine it will attract hummingbirds as well. I couldn’t find red, so I planted purple columbine.

I did pick up some seeds that include red columbine, but those won’t bloom for at least a year.

Alliums – These are also planted as bulbs in the fall. It is also recommended to plant these in bunches since many varieties produce tall spikes topped with round flowers.

Dianthus (pinks) – These can be found in most stores that sell flowers (at least around here).

June Flowering

Butterfly weed – This is a type of milkweed that will attract bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. It prefers medium to dry soil, so it may be a challenge to grow in my clay soil.

I did amend my soil by digging out some of the clay soil and adding in peat moss and garden soil prior to planting it last fall. It doesn’t look like it is coming back yet, but that could be our cold spring and not the soil. I hope that it will start coming up soon.

False indigo – This is one of the larger plants I chose. It should get about 3 to 4 feet tall (not the tallest I have) and has a 3 to 4 feet spread. Most of the other plants have a more compact spread than this one, though all may spread significantly by seed.

Salvia – I chose the May Night variety as it is perennial. Some salvias are only annual in my zone (zone 4), so you want to verify which you are purchasing.

Chives – This one is an herb that will bloom late spring to early summer if left alone. After it blooms you can harvest it for use in the kitchen or leave it be.

Phlox – This can bloom in spring to early summer and will attract bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds.

Lupine – This also blooms in early spring through July. It also attracts bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. I decided to try this one from seed. The only disadvantage to growing it from seed is that it won’t bloom until next year.

Summer Flowering

Gaillardia/Blanket Flower – This is listed as an annual in the Butterfly Gardening information, but the tag with the flower says it is perennial. It is also listed as able to self-sow, so if it isn’t a perennial it should still come back next year.

Swamp Milkweed – This milkweed does best in moist soil (hence the name “swamp”). Monarch butterflies lay their eggs on milkweed, so if you want to see monarchs this is a good choice.

Showy Milkweed – This is another milkweed and would also be good if you want Monarchs. This one can also tolerate drier soil than swamp milkweed.

A note on milkweed: There are several types of milkweed that can be used. I chose not to plant common milkweed as it can spread more aggressively than the other varieties.

Black-eyed Susan – This one attracts both butterflies and bees, but not hummingbirds.

Purple Coneflower – This will attract bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. Just be sure not to get the double-flowered variety.

Bee Balm – The red variety will attract bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. The other varieties will attract bees and butterflies. Depending on the variety you get, this one could spread aggressively.

Meadow Blazing Star – This is one of the two I had to skip. I just couldn’t find it at any of the stores I went to. Since I had so many summer blooming flowers, I substituted a spring blooming flower. This one attracts bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds.

Fall Flowering

Sneezeweed – This is the other plant that I couldn’t find anywhere. If you can find it, it prefers moist soil.

Tall sedum – I believe I have the ‘Autumn Joy’ variety (I got it from my dad and he wasn’t positive which type it is). Any of the tall, fall blooming sedums will work. Most sedums prefer drier soils.

New England Aster – This attracts bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. It is also one of the last plants to be blooming, so a good choice to give those bees and butterflies one last meal before they leave for winter.

Annuals are another good source of nectar for bees and butterflies. They also help to fill in the space between perennials until they reach their full size.

Annuals

Marigolds – Marigolds are easy to grow and spread easily by seed. I collected a bunch of seeds last year to use this year. Plus, I have a bunch of volunteers in the garden from the seeds I didn’t collect.

Lantana – This one has interesting flowers that appear to be different colors. I was going to put these in the ground but decided to put them in pots instead. My hope is to keep them alive inside over winter. Then they will have a head start for next year as well.

Dahlia – These are grown from bulbs and are perennials in warmer zones, but not in zone 4.

Zinnia – Zinnias vary in height from fairly short (6 inches if you can find the right variety) to 3 feet tall. The shortest I could find are 17 inches, but I also have some 3-foot ones as well. These are sown as seeds outside once the chance of frost is gone.

I’m also thinking about getting Ageratum, Pentas, and Verbena if I can find them. Many of my perennial plants are small, so there is a lot of open space for this year.

In a few years there won’t be as much space to be filled with annuals.

Between all the annuals and perennials, I wanted for my pollinator garden, I knew it could get expensive. I had to find a way to reduce my costs.

Tips to save money on your pollinator garden:

Buy clearance plants in late summer or early fall. The only risk here is that the plant doesn’t have time to get established enough to come back in the spring.

Start by seed. This can be a significant savings if you can get them to grow. Some plants, like zinnias, grow best from seeds. Others, like lupine, don’t bloom the first year so take that into account when deciding what to start by seed.

Many annuals can be gotten for free just by saving their seeds from one year to the next. I don’t plan on buying any marigolds this year because I have so many seeds from last year. The only downside to this is that it takes longer for them to bloom than buying them at the store.

Get them from friends, family, or neighbors. Some perennials spread so much that someone you know may need (or want) to thin them. Ask around to see what others may have to share.

Hopefully the bees and butterflies will find the new pollinator garden quickly. I look forward to seeing butterflies and hummingbirds in my gardens. I even look forward to seeing the bees on my flowers.

I just hope Luna doesn’t decide that bees are for eating… Although that is why my pollinator garden is in the front yard and not the back yard.

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