Planting for Pollinators

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Monarch on Buttergfly weed. Photo: Angela Orebaugh.

By Angela Orebaugh
Piedmont Master Gardener

Do you like watermelon, avocados, nuts, apples, peaches, blueberries or chocolate? None of those foods would exist without pollinators. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, more than 150 of our U.S. food crops depend on pollinators, including almost all fruit and grain crops. Most of us value a variety of fruits, nuts, and vegetables, but let’s face it, a world without pollinators is a world without chocolate!

In addition to our food system, pollinators help flowering plants reproduce by carrying pollen from plant to plant while foraging. Our ecosystem depends on flowering plants to produce oxygen, remove carbon dioxide from the air, and to purify water and prevent erosion. About 75 percent of the world’s flowering plants depend on pollinators to reproduce.

Summer is the perfect time to learn more about pollinators and their impact on plants, people and the health of the planet. Here’s what you need to know to attract pollinators to your home landscape and help raise awareness in our local community of the importance of pollinators.

Volunteers working on the pollinator garden at The Center. Photo: Bill Sublette.

Who Are our Pollinator Friends?

Examples of pollinators include birds, bats, hummingbirds, honey bees, bumble bees, butterflies and moths. Even certain flies and beetles play role in pollinating. Unfortunately, many of our pollinators are dying and experiencing population decline mostly related to habitat loss, disease, parasites and environmental contaminants. 

How to Plant for Pollinators

Fortunately, we can all help create more welcoming habitat and food sources for pollinators. Even apartment dwellers can support pollinators with plants in pots on their patio or balcony, or they can volunteer with an established pollinator garden, or help a school, church or other organization create one! Planting for pollinators provides many benefits to our ecosystem and advances the practice of conservation landscaping. In the Piedmont Virginia area, conservation landscaping improves the region’s water and air quality and contributes to the restoration of the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

The following eight steps for planning and planting a pollinator garden can help you get started.

1. Conduct a site analysis. Take a look at your target area at different times of the day. How much sun or shade does it get throughout the day? Is it mostly dry or moist? Also, have your soil tested to determine its composition and needs. Test kits can be picked up at the local Virginia Cooperative Extension office, and VCE publication 452-129 provides a guide to soil sampling for the home gardener.  

2. Learn the components of a native pollinator garden. Pollinator gardens should contain food sources for pollinators throughout their lifespan. They should include host plants for both larvae and adult pollinators and offer habitat and protection for pollinators.

3. Ensure that at least 70 percent (if not all) of the plants you choose are native to our area. Native plants provide the best habitat and food sources for pollinators. They are also well adapted to local climate conditions and will require less maintenance. Beware of “pollinator” seed mixes, which often include annuals, non-natives, and even invasive species! Don’t use invasives such as the Butterfly Bush (Buddleja davidii); choose Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa) instead. Plant Virginia Natives website is a great resource and also includes a free digital native plant book. Albemarle County also has a very helpful Piedmont Native Plant database. Links to these resources are provided at https://piedmontmastergardeners.org/gardening-questions/native-plants/.

4. Lay out the garden design and choose plants. Make sure to select a variety of flowers to provide blooms throughout the season, as well as grasses that support larvae and provide protective habitats. When buying plants, ask for them by botanical name. Plan for one plant for each square foot in the garden area. Plant four to five plants together in “massings” and disperse color and bloom time through your garden.

Pollinator Garden at The Center. Photo: Bill Sublette.

5. Prepare the site. If the garden area already has grass, you will need to remove it and any other undesirable plants, especially any invasives, like English Ivy. Consider using “lasagna” or “sheet mulching” techniques to prepare the soil (piedmontmastergardeners.org/article/lasagna-mulching/). For a pollinator bed, layering with a little compost, topsoil and straw or leaves is all you need. If the soil is too rich, native pollinator plants will tend to grow very tall and flop over.

6. Get the shovel and plant. Make sure to follow the planting guidelines for spacing and depth for each plant. Water thoroughly when done. Mulch will help retain moisture and suppress weeds.

7. Care for the pollinator garden. Water frequently the first year. Purchasing a rain gauge to monitor rainfall can also help determine when to water. Make sure to regularly weed the garden area and remove any invasives that may try to reestablish. In the fall, make sure to leave the seed heads and stalks to provide food and habitat for birds and overwintering insects. Cut plants back in late spring. Add leaf much in the fall and compost in the spring.

8. Avoid using weed killers, chemical fertilizers or pesticides. This is an important step to continue protecting pollinators, who are often poisoned by various chemical compounds. There are many organic and alternative methods for addressing any problems that may arise with the plants. See pollinator.org for more details. 

Visit a Demo Pollinator Garden

Our area is fortunate to have a newly designed and planted pollinator demonstration garden at The Center at Belvedere, a healthy aging community center (thecentercville.org). Master Gardeners have worked diligently with The Center’s staff and newly formed Horticulture Club to create a pollinator garden including both in-ground beds and large pots. Feel free to visit this new pollinator garden at the back of The Center, off Rio Road at 540 Belvedere Boulevard or view the demo garden design and plant list at piedmontmastergardeners.org/gardening-questions/native-plants/. 

Additional Resources

Interested in learning more? View more links to practical information, beautiful graphics and lists of pollinator plants at piedmontmastergardeners.org/planting-for-pollinators/. 


Plants for a Sunny Pollinator Garden

Selected for the new pollinator garden at The Center at Belvedere, this array of largely native plants will offer blooms from April to October. 

Groundcovers 

  • Field Pussytoes (Antennaria neglecta)
  • Wild Geranium (Geranium maculatum)

Shrubs

  • New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus americanus)
  • Winterberry Holly (Ilex verticillate) 

Vines

  • Coral Honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens)

Perennials

  • Butterfly Weed  (Asclepias tuberosa)
  • Tickseed (Coreopsis verticillate)
  • Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)
  • Dwarf Joe Pye Weed (Eutrochium dubium “Little Joe”)
  • Grass Leaf Blazing Star (Liatris spicata)
  • Orange Coneflower (Rudbeckia fulgia var. deamii)
  • Downy Skullcap (Scutellaria incana)
  • Goldenrod (Solidago rugosa “Fireworks”)
  • New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae)

Grasses 

  • Pink Muhly Grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris)
  • Little Blue Stem (Schizachyrium scoparium “Standing Ovation”)

Annuals/Tender Perennial

  • Angelonia (Angelonia angustifolia)
  • Salvia (Salvia “Rockin’ Deep Purple”)

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