How to Create a Pollinator Garden
Providing habitat and the essential nectar and host plants for pollinators can be done in many ways, from establishing a habitat that is kept “wild,” to creating a new garden bed or adding pollinator plants to an existing landscape, or adding a container garden to your balcony or patio.
In some respects a pollinator garden isn’t unlike any other flower garden—it has colorful blooming plants to the delight of those who look upon it. But it does have certain features that make it a haven for monarchs, other butterflies, bees, and moths, and that meet their needs for all life stages. They are:
- Diversity of native plants especially rich in nectar and/or pollen;
- A mix of plants that keep the garden in bloom from spring through fall;
- Host plants for egg-laying butterflies and feeding caterpillars;
- Sheltered areas for pupating butterflies and overwintering bees, butterflies, and moths; and
- Absence of pesticides and herbicides.
Assess what you have. Light, slope, drainage, soil condition, and moisture can all determine an appropriate site for any garden. Most important for a pollinator garden is sun—ideally four to six hours of it, although two to three will work too. Most nectar and host plants grow and bloom best in sun to partly shady conditions. Sun requirements used for plants are described as follows:
- Full sun means direct sun for six or more hours per day
- Part shade means direct sun for two hours per day, with shade the rest of the day. It can include areas of dappled shade.
- Shade refers to an area that gets no sun or less than an hour of sun per day. It can also include area of dappled shade. It does not include dense shade—any area that gets little to no indirect light.
Soil condition is important too. Choose an area with well-draining soil. Improve soil texture and fertility with organic compost. Avoid compaction by incorporating stepping stones or the like to reach the inner or farthest portions of the bed.
A site that provides a windbreak, such as a fence, structure, or shrub thicket, is a real bonus. Butterflies prefer to feed in areas sheltered from the wind. The garden features that provide a windbreak can provide another benefit—ready-made shelter for pupating butterflies.
When considering the layout of your pollinator garden, keep in mind that shape and density is more important than overall size. Areas that are dense, round, and close together are more effective than small, odd-shaped isolated patches. Aim for a high area-to-edge ratio.
The single most important thing you can do to attract and preserve butterflies is to plant native and naturalized nectar and host plants. Research has shown that native plants support four times as many native butterfly, moth, and bee species as do introduced plants.
The female butterfly lays her eggs on its host plant that is also the food source for her caterpillar offspring. Some butterfly species have many host plants, others very few. The Monarch, for example, seeks out Milkweed exclusively for its host. The caterpillars will eat the plant's leaves, but rest assured, the leaves will grow back quickly. Refer to the Host Plants list that lists host plants for butterflies that frequent our area.
Nectar plants provide adult bees, butterflies, and moths with food throughout the spring, summer, and fall seasons. Favorite plants for butterflies and bees have flower colors and shapes they prefer and abundant, quality nectar. Pollinators like variety so you can never have too many in your home landscape. Refer to the Perennials list for inspiration.
Plant to create blocks of color. By grouping five or more of the same plant, they will create a mass of color that helps butterflies forage more effectively. And when you incorporate groupings of different bloom color, you increase the variety of butterflies attracted to the garden.
Include plants that will provide three seasons of continuous bloom. This way, your garden will support spring and fall migrating monarchs, as well as all the native bees, butterflies, and moths that live in it year-round. Refer to the Perennials list that identifies spring, summer and fall blooming plants pollinators love.
Arrange according to height. As with any garden, plant shorter specimens at the front, with heights increasing so the tallest are situated at the back of the border or the center of an island. Place groupings strategically so blooms fill different areas throughout the three seasons.
While butterflies get the water they need from nectar, some species need places to “puddle.” Puddling provides important minerals, salts, and nutrients that nectar doesn’t provide. If there’s an area of uncovered moist soil that holds water after a rain near your garden, that would serve as a mineral source. A puddler can be created in your garden by spreading a thin layer of dirt in the bottom of a shallow pie pan or dish with some rocks arranged for landing pads and pieces of kitchen sponge nestled in between the rocks that are kept damp. Put the puddler in a sunny, protected spot.
Shelter for growing caterpillars helps protect them from predators, and is best provided by a densely planted bed. As caterpillars become ready to pupate, they will leave their food source to seek a safe place to pupate, or become a chrysalis. A nearby fence, trellis, or other structure often works well, as does a dense shrub in or next to the garden. Small piles of fallen sticks, leaf litter, and stem thatch are great too—especially for those pollinator species that overwinter.
A pollinator garden should also provide nesting sites for native bees, the most effective pollinator of all. About 90% of bees native to Texas are solitary species, as opposed to social bees. Of these, most are ground-nesters, with about a third being tunnel-nesters. Ground-nesters need access to undisturbed and uncovered soil. This can be located outside the garden elsewhere on the property. Tunnel-nesters like dead snags and woody plant stems. Replacements for these natural elements are easy-to-make bee boxes, nest blocks, or stem bundles.
Water your newly planted plants twice a week if no rain, until they are established. Most of the native and naturalized perennials need little supplemental watering, though watering will be required in times of drought or little rain.
Supplement the soil annually with organic compost. This is all the food your garden will likely need. Dead-heading spent flowers helps keep your plants blooming throughout the season. In fall, consider letting some flowers go to seed if you’re interested in seed collection and propagation. Try to refrain from cutting plants or cleaning the bed until late February or early March. When you wait until late winter to prep your garden for spring, you protect any overwintering pollinators that may be sheltering within it.
Use no pesticides in or near your pollinator garden. Your native plants will attract all kinds of native insects in addition to pollinators. Needless to say, the presence of bugs in a pollinator garden is its very purpose. None will pose serious threat to your plants, as predators help keep the sap-sucking insects under control. The goal is biodiversity, the best measure for keeping things in balance.
A Word about Tropical Milkweed
The relative virtues and problems associated with Tropical Milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, is a hot topic and focus of research. This well-adapted non-native is the milkweed species found most at local nurseries, and as a result, has been well established. Its proliferation, in the southern parts of Texas in particular, coupled with its near year-round foliage and flower production that have lead to issues relative to the health and sustainability of the monarch butterfly species. Tropical milkweed does two things:
- It interferes with the monarch’s migratory cycle, encouraging them to linger in the southern states and continue breeding and laying eggs, “trapping” them here where they cannot survive temperatures that drop toward the freezing mark.
- It significantly increases the rate monarchs are infected by the debilitating Ophryocystis elektroscirrha (OE) protozoan pathogen. Because tropical milkweed doesn’t die back in winter, infected plants persist. Infected plants in Texas are especially harmful because they sit in the gateway for the spring and fall monarch migrations. Monarchs that visit infected plants pick up parasite spores and carry them to uninfected plants.
It is, therefore, very important to cut tropical milkweed plants to within four to six inches of the ground each November. It also makes the case for the importance of planting native milkweed species.
Tropical milkweed should be cut to the ground in November to prevent the spread of OE and any interference with the monarch’s migratory cycle.