With so much information available about the vital importance of pollinators to our food chain and a healthy ecosystem, as gardeners, we can use our outdoor spaces to support the beneficial insects that are local to us. That includes providing crucial foraging habitat for pollinators.
There are 3,600 known species of bees alone in the United States and Canada. And the term pollinators doesn’t just refer to the bee populations, there are also hundreds of species of butterflies, birds, moths, and flies to provide habitat and forage for, too.
The Pollinator Victory Garden: Win the War on Pollinator Decline with Ecological Gardening by Kim Eierman shares tips on how home gardeners can use ecological landscaping and native plants to benefit pollinators and nurture a healthy ecosystem in your garden. The following excerpt, used with permission from Quarry Books/The Quarto Group, shares tips on creating foraging habitat in both sun and shade gardens.
Guidelines for planting foraging habitat
As is the case with all planting, planting the right plant in the right place ensures gardening success. Using native plants that have evolved with the pollinators you want to attract will give your foraging habitat an advantage over gardens planted with nonnative species.
There are no hard-and-fast rules that dictate the perfect foraging habitat, nor can every site accommodate every planting goal, but what follows are some general guidelines.
Planting guidelines: Foraging habitat
- Choose sunny, open areas when possible.
- Emphasize native plants.
- Plant for a continuous succession of bloom throughout the growing season.
- Have at least three different plant species in bloom at the same time.
- Vary flower sizes, flower colors, and flower structures of plants.
- Group each plant species into a clump 3 feet (0.28 m) square or larger.
- Space plants so they can grow to their mature width.
- Place plants close enough to eliminate large gaps between plants at maturity.
- Combine plants that have similar growth habits (e.g., clumping vs. running) and are equally competitive.
Where to plant forage for pollinators
Almost any part of a landscape can be used to grow flowers for pollinators, but not all sites are equally valuable as foraging habitat. You will obviously be limited by the size of your landscape and the general conditions within it. If you are lucky enough to have parts of your landscape in full sun, you have an advantage. But even if you don’t have a sunny spot, you can still plant forage plants.
Determining the size of a foraging habitat
When deciding on the size of an area to plant with forage plants, go as large as you can but perhaps do so in multiple steps. If you are working with a landscaper, the work can be accomplished more easily than if you are planting the area yourself. Be realistic about your time, energy, and budget, and the scale of the project. Splitting a landscape into a series of smaller projects can be easier than doing everything at once; you can connect pollinator patches as you create them. Even if you have a very small landscape such as an urban garden or just a terrace or patio, any pollinator habitat you create is valuable, including a container garden filled with flowering native perennials.
Where to plant forage for pollinators in sunny areas
Most forage plants, and most of their respective pollinators, prefer sunny conditions and open areas. The warmth of the sun enables cold-blooded pollinating insects to be active, and the ability to see the sky allows them to navigate. If your landscape has both sun and shade, emphasize planting most of the foraging habitat in sunny areas. An obvious area that’s usually in a sunny, open location is the lawn. Convert any part of the lawn you can live without into a flower-filled pollinator buffet. It’s fine to keep lawn that you really use, but lose the rest, making sure to maintain it pesticide free.
Hard-to-mow areas, like hillsides (especially if they’re sunny), can be a boon to pollinators (and the person who has to mow) when they’re converted into expanses of flowering ground covers; thicket-forming, short, flowering shrubs; or even diminutive meadows.
Where to plant forage for pollinators in shady areas
Don’t despair if your landscape is devoid of sun; you can still plant for pollinators, but your plant selections will be different. Numerous pollinator friendly plants grow in part shade or even full shade. Shade plants can be valuable to pollinators, especially when not much else is around. In the northeastern United States, spring-blooming woodland plants including Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria), trout lilly (Erythronium americanum), and spotted geranium (Geranium maculatum) are critical to early-emerging pollinators such as bumble bees and may be the only floral resources around when pollinators need them. Even summer-blooming plants like Joe Pye weed and fall-blooming shade plants can have value to hungry pollinators. Woodland asters and goldenrod (Eurybia divariacta, Symphyotrichum cordifolium, Solidago caesia, Solidago flexicaulis, and others) receive many pollinator visitors in fall.
Want to learn more about providing foraging habitat for pollinators?
If you are interested in doing more in your garden to turn it into a haven and food source for beneficial insects, The Pollinator Victory Garden (The Quarto Group, 2020) is a great resource to add to your gardening book shelf.
About the author: Kim Eierman is an environmental horticulturist and ecological landscape designer specializing in native plants. Her company is EcoBeneficial LLC. Based in New York, Kim teaches at the New York Botanical Garden, Brooklyn Botanic Garden, The Native Plant Center, Rutgers Home Gardeners School, among others. In addition to being a Certified Horticulturist through the American Society for Horticultural Science, Kim is an Accredited Organic Landcare Professional, a Steering Committee member of The Native Plant Center, and a member of The Ecological Landscape Alliance and Garden Communicators International.
Here are more articles on gardening for pollinators
- Butterfly host plants: How to provide food for young caterpillars
- Pollinator garden design: How to get started attracting bees, butterflies, and birds
- Build a pollinator palace for your garden
- Types of bees commonly found in yards and gardens
- Choosing the best bee plants for a pollinator garden
- Flowers that attract pollinators: It’s not about the grown-ups
Main photo by Carolyn Summers