Does anyone garden for pollinators?

Ispahan Zone6a ChicagoJuly 4, 2012

When I planted my new perennial/cottage-style garden last fall and this spring, I decided I wanted to plant as many things as possible for pollinators. I wanted to focus on native bees, honey bees and even pollinating wasps and flies, and so far I have been having a great time watching all of these young plants come into bloom (well, those that are still alive after the heat and drought) and watch who comes to visit. Once you get over the initial fear of the possibility getting stung, it becomes just as fascinating as birdwatching. Most pollinators are quite gentle when going about their business, especially if they have no nearby nest to defend. (I am allergic to most wasp/hornet stings and carry an epi-pen in season.)

There is a wealth of information both online and in books about gardening for butterflies and hummingbirds, but it seems that gardening for other pollinators is a relatively new area of interest. As such, there is not a lot of information available...yet. Most of the current information pertains to honeybees, but the Xerxes Society for Invertebrate Conservation has a great new book called "Attracting Native Pollinators" that has been very useful to me.

Here are some of the plants I put in that are attracting a lot of attention from winged visitors, in no particular order:


Veronicastrum 'Fascination'

Monarda 'Raspberry Wine'

Alliums--all types

Hardy geraniums

Agastache--Blue Blazes, Blue Fortune, Purple Haze and Golden Jubilee

Leonurus cardiaca

African Blue basil




Russian Sage

Phuopsis stylosa

Vitex agnus-castus

Helenium 'Mardi Gras'

I also have a lot of plants that have not yet bloomed or settled in, so I can't really comment on how well they attract pollinators.

One plant that has disappointed me has been Phacelia tanacetifolia, the so-called bee's friend or purple tansy. This is a weedy, unattractive, brittle plant and looks dull even when in full bloom. More importantly, the bees completely overlooked it and preferred the nearby (and more attractive to humans) borage.

My inner city back garden is small, about 25 x 35 feet total. On warm, sunny days, I can count dozens and dozens of bees, wasps (not hornets or yellow jackets) and flower flies. All of them have been extremely gentle and have allowed me to get close enough to identify them easily with a guidebook in hand. I can close my eyes and literally hear the garden buzz with activity!

In the past couple of weeks, there have been dozens of giant black wasps about 1.5-2 inches long that have been working over the flowers. At first I was frightened, but they have been identified as Great Black Wasps, a non-aggressive solitary species (i.e., no nest to defend). The adults eat only flower pollen and nectar but they will kill adult grasshoppers and crickets to bury with their eggs as a food source. They usually fly away from me as soon as I get near. Now that I know what they are, they are welcome garden visitors, even if they do look a little scary.

I have had three species of bumblebees, one species of carpenter bees, one species of leaf cutter bees, and several species of sweat and solitary bees. Because Chicago has an active beekeepers' association, I get a fair amount of traffic from honeybees from nearby hives. It is harder to identify the individual species of wasps and flower flies since even less information exists about these insects, but I have seen many different types.

In the past, I have been an avid hummingbirder and butterfly watcher as well. I still have many things planted for both, and I have a hummingbird feeder set up for the odd hummer that travels into the city (I last saw one three weeks ago). But I have to say that watching pollinating insects has really opened my eyes to different aspects of gardening and to the role of humans in stewarding and conserving nature.

All of these insects have been with humans for the past thousands and millions of years and yet so few of us have taken the time to really notice them. It is so rewarding to cultivate a beautiful garden and still feel like you are "giving something back to Nature" as well.

Has anyone else been gardening for pollinators? What have been your most successful plants? Or, even if you don't garden for pollinators, have you noticed anything in your garden that gets a lot of winged traffic?

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prairiemoon2 z6 MA

I have also tried to grow plants that attract pollinators. I have many of the same plants that you have. When I first started to do that about 7 years ago, I was doing just what you are doing...except I didn't have the time to actually identify the insects. I love Bumble Bees, HoneyBees and those Hover Bees. Not so crazy about Yellow Jackets. I have one full sun bed that has been the most successful that started out about 12x12 and is now about 18x18ft. I remember one year, when I had a lot of wasps. I am not usually squeamish about bugs in the garden, especially bees but the wasps were so numerous at one point and large with orange markings, that they did freak me out and I had to keep my distance for a week or so. I don't remember what I was growing at the time, but I haven't seen those particular wasps since that one season.

I like to attract the little tiny bees and pollinators that are so small you can hardly see them. They are all over my alyssum and thyme right now. Parsley and Marjoram is just about to open and they have those tiny flowers that attract them. I have Mondarda 'Raspberry Wine' for the first time this year and it's just about to open. I have a few Agastaches, Russian Sage and Lavender.

At this point, I am not focusing on attracting pollinators, because I originally chose plants that attract them. But now I am trying to have something in bloom all the time from early spring to late fall for them. I also have tried to choose native shrubs that I have noticed really draw them too. The Itea shrub has tons of flowers and was covered with Bumble Bees about 3 weeks ago.

I did want to provide housing for the native bees, but my first attempt didn't bring them in. I don't seem to have the right placement for one. At some point I hope to try that again. I would also love to raise bees, but it's just not possible right now.

It is fascinating and I love the Hum of activity when everything is in bloom!

    Bookmark   July 5, 2012 at 10:31AM
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jkom51(Z9 CA/Sunset 17)

Out here in coastal Northern CA we have a problem that many gardeners would love to have. There are only seven Mediterranean climate zones in the world and we're one of them. As a result, we are offered a great many plants imported from South Africa and Australia. A few come from Chile and Central Asia but not many yet. So, some of my plants don't attract anything as their native pollinators aren't around.

I planned our garden for mostly evergreen plants/shrubs because out here it's important for the garden to look good year-round. Late fall is our planting season (winter rains coming) and spring starts in February. Rain stops completely by late May and won't start up again until mid-October.

The PO had given up gardening (old age) and the property was mostly weeds. Now, weeds can actually support a fair amount of pollinators, plus there are many old fruit/nut trees around the neighborhood. However, I wasn't thinking of pollinators and just planted for effect and drought-resistance.

The first summer I saw a fair number of bees - I'm not too good on the different types - as I had planted aptenia groundcover and a few rosebushes. Leafcutter bees love rose leaves, so I had quite a few scalloped leaves as they built nests. They must have found good rotting wood somewhere; I never saw any damage to my rose canes. Sadly, I've seen fewer of these excellent native pollinators over the last few years. Not sure why, our weather's been unusually erratic and mostly cooler than normal, which may have affected them. There's lots of rotting wood around (old sheds, fences, etc.) but wherever the leafcutters are, they aren't around my lot in any numbers now.

Many bees (at least four kinds) and a couple of smaller wasps (not yellowjackets, which I hate) buzz around the aptenia. They love those red blossoms! They also like the santolina, lavendar, lavatera, daylilies, agapanthus, and alstroemeria, all of which are in abundance on our property.

Hummers love the pink cestrum shrub which is almost never out of bloom. The small aggressive Rufous hummers have driven out the big friendly Anna hummers, which I regret.

    Bookmark   July 5, 2012 at 12:14PM
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pat4750(Zone 6 Cen PA)

I don't garden specifically for pollinators but for low maintenance and wildlife attraction. Calamintha nepeta fits both those criteria.
It IS a member of the mint family but I haven't found it to be at all rampant like some of its cousins. It likes sun and tolerates dry clay soil, grows about 12-16" tall and about 8" at its base in a very upright mound. Its tiny white flowers start in late June or early July for me. When it's in bloom, it fairly quivers with activity from those small pollinators; you can hear the hum from a little distance away! Add to that it's leaves have a wonderful refreshing, minty fragrance. The cultivars 'White Cloud' and 'Blue Cloud' tend to flop in my garden and the leaves smell more like soap than mint so I search for the straight species. Apparently there is a more compact cultivar called 'Montrose White' but it's not available to me locally.

    Bookmark   July 5, 2012 at 12:16PM
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Ispahan- Bumblebees seem to have dominance over the yellow jackets, in our garden. Where the bumblebees want to be...the yellow jackets give them leave :)

But, both seem to like the following plants (as well as the ones you already listed)

Butterfly bush (yellow jackets love this one!)
Salvias of all kinds
Sunflowers (bumblebees get the flowers, yellow jackets get the stems LOL)
Roses...a few of the older, less full varieties, especially
Apple blossoms
Plum blossoms
Cosmos (especially when grown from seed...maybe a different variety?)

Oh, and since we normally have fairly dry summers, we keep shallow birdbaths with some water in the bottom. Also, some shallow dishes on the ground, as bug baths. I read about this in Sally Jean Cunninham's book. The yellow jackets, especially, seem to calm right down, when they have water and some butterfly bushes, in late summer.

    Bookmark   July 5, 2012 at 1:45PM
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I second the Calamintha and the Nepeta. I have quite a bit of both because they grow well in my desert climate and they are always covered in bees and other pollinators. There is a bee keeper somewhere in my area so there are always lots of honey bees and the great big fat bumblebees. The Nepeta and Calamintha bloom for months and the Walker's Low catmint will not spread like some others do. Mine make a clump prob 3 feet wide and 2 feet tall and bloom from March thru frost.

    Bookmark   July 5, 2012 at 1:56PM
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tsugajunkie z5 SE WI

Nothing, and I mean nothing in my garden attracts a more varied nor more numerous pollinators than Eryngium planum 'Blaukappe'. Every size and shape of pollinator comes to that plant in droves...or maybe that's swarms.


    Bookmark   July 6, 2012 at 5:21PM
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I don't have a cottage garden but I enjoy reading the posts and seeing pictures, and have jotted down some plant combinations that I liked. I thought this was a very good question and had never really considered myself a gardener for pollinators but that is what I have, along with other winged creatures. Here is a picture of what is currently attracting welcome guests. Thanks for looking and hope I am not offending anyone by not posting a cottage garden.


    Bookmark   July 6, 2012 at 10:08PM
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Yes, I grow for pollinators! Hummingbirds, bees, wasps, hemaris thysbe, butterflies, etc.

Thyme in bloom is a favorite for honeybees.
St Johns Wort (hypericum x sunpat is my variety) is faved by bumble bees. They literally take a bath in the pollen, creating a frenzy!
Nepeta 'Six Hills Giant' is by far the favorite for all pollinators.
Agastache 'Blue Fortune' and liatris are great for butterflies.
Joe Pye Weed and milkweed in bloom are loved by both butterflies and bees.


Here is a link that might be useful: what butterflies want (photos in my garden)

    Bookmark   July 7, 2012 at 9:00AM
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Jodi- That looks like a cottage garden, to me...and a beautiful one, too :)

Thanks for sharing a picture of your garden!

    Bookmark   July 7, 2012 at 9:44AM
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Ispahan Zone6a Chicago

Thank you to all of you for your wonderful photos and input on this topic!

Because of your input and ideas, I have ordered a few more plants for late summer/fall planting that I hope will be established enough by next season to provide food for pollinators:

Helianthus 'Lemon Queen' (the perennial one)
Silphium perfoliatum
Hardy hibiscus (said to be attractive to both bees and hummers)
Echinops 'Blue Glow'
Solidago 'Fireworks' (I already have 'Little Lemon')
Calamintha nepeta
Nepeta 'Joanna Reed' (said to be sterile and constantly blooming, just like Six Hills Giant)
Aster 'Edo Murazaki'
Aster 'Raydon's Favorite' (to add to Bluebird, Fanny, and October Skies)
Vitex 'Abbeville Blue'
Agastache 'Blue Fortune' (I already have this but it can't hurt to add a couple more!)
Another Helenium 'Mardi Gras'

I am going to try to grow the Eryngium mentioned above by seed next year.

Thank you all again for the great observations and inspiration!

    Bookmark   July 7, 2012 at 3:03PM
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