pollinator garden design

Pollinator garden design: How to get started attracting bees, butterflies, and birds

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I think it’s fair to say that pollinator garden design is at the heart of most garden planning these days. Or at least I’m hopeful that it is. I see a greater percentage of homes where the garden is becoming more of the focal point than a traditional lawn. And whether it’s more traditionally planted or bursting with blooms, I can see the intention of planting to attract bees, birds, butterflies, and other beneficial insects.

Planting for pollinators and environmental mindfulness when it comes to the garden are the main threads that weave their way through my newest book, Gardening Your Front Yard: Projects and Ideas for Big & Small Spaces. But it’s not just front yards where you can make a plan to attract pollinators. Your backyard can become a haven, too. Even a small porch or balcony, depending on the location and conditions, can integrate pollinator garden design.

boulevard planted with pollinator plants

Even a small boulevard—aka hellstrip—can be planted to attract pollinators.

Furthermore, even a veggie gardener who is filling her front or backyard with veggie plants, is still attracting valuable pollinators via the little beacons of tomato flowers, squash blossoms, and cucumber blooms.

Bees, as well as the monarch butterfly, are the most common pollinators that show up in headlines, but there are thousands of species of native bees, butterflies, moths, hummingbirds, wasps, flies, beetles, and more that we can support in our gardens.

Where do you start with a pollinator garden design?

The first thing you need to do is figure out where your pollinator garden is going to go. Are you creating a simple band of annuals and perennials along a back fence? Do you want to rip out your entire front yard? Or do you simply want to work within the bones of your existing garden, adding flowers and shrubs that you know will provide food sources for pollinators?

a lawn planted with lavender

I love how this front lawn has been replaced by lavender and other plants that attract pollinators, like echinacea. It is positively buzzing in the summer!

If it’s the “tear out your whole front lawn and start from scratch” option, you may want to bring in the expertise of a professional, who will think about the grade, where the water runoff will go when it rains, etc. Also, before you do any digging, have your utility company pay a visit and mark where all the lines are. You don’t want to find them yourself!

If you’re interested in doing the planting yourself, but still need some advice, you can hire a garden designer to sketch a garden plan for you, indicating where all the plants go. Not only do they bring their design expertise to the table, they will have extensive knowledge when it comes to plants. They’ll consider form and colour and texture. They’ll know what to plant so you’ll have something in bloom in every season—including plants for winter interest. It’s wise to have input from an expert if you’re new to gardening or if you find it overwhelming to figure out your own design.

Don’t just think about food for the pollinators; think about providing sources of habitat and water. For example, I built my pollinator palace to provide shelter. It includes cardboard nesting tubes for solitary Mason bees.

Finding design inspiration

Your community might even have special programs in place that can help. An organization that’s local to me, Green Venture, has a project called Catch the Rain, where homeowners get free consultations and landscape design sketches that integrate solutions for capturing rainwater and planting native species (which would naturally attract pollinators). It’s worth checking to see if something similar exists where you live.

Plant in groups of three or five in drifts to create depth in a pollinator garden.

When coming up with a pollinator garden design, plant in groups of three or five in drifts to create depth.

Ever since I saw Roy Diblik speak in Toronto, I’ve fallen in love with the idea of planting an urban meadow. When I was researching my book, I had a great chat with Tony Spencer of The New Perennialist. Like Roy, he is part of the New Perennial Movement, a design style that mimics the aesthetics found in nature. Plants are layered in drifts. Tony also likes to use the word Wildscaping as his interpretation and progression of what this naturalistic planting is and means to a gardener. “Wildscaping is about using plant-driven landscape design, inspired by the wildness of nature, to create gardens with a sense of both beauty and purpose to rekindle our relationship to the natural world,” he told me. I love this idea of a more wild look, especially one that crowds out weeds in favour of hardy plants. And, naturally, becomes a haven for pollinators.

Which plants should you add to your pollinator garden?

Speaking of plants, that’s the fun part and there are lots of choices. If you’re just filling in sections of an established perennial garden or a simple corner, think about colour, texture, and height. Use the interior design rule of planting in odd numbers, like threes or fives. Read plant tags carefully to ensure your tall plant choices aren’t hiding the shorter specimens you plant.

Research plants that are native to where you live. They’ll be hardy to your zone’s conditions, while bringing the added benefits of drought and heat tolerance.

sedums and zinnias

Fill in the gaps of your perennial plants with annuals the pollinators will love (like this sedum/zinnia combo). Also, try to have something in bloom from spring through late fall.

Here are a few perennials you can plant that the pollinators love:

  • Aster
  • Black-eyed Susan
  • Butterfly weed
  • Buttonbush
  • Chives
  • Coreopsis
  • Echinacea
  • Liatris
  • Ninebark
  • Potentilla
  • Rose of Sharon
  • Sedum
  • Shasta daisy

And my annuals list includes: Boragecalendulacelosiacornflowercosmosmarigoldnasturtiumssunflowers and zinnias.

zinnia with a monarch butterfly

The zinnias I plant in my garden attract butterflies and bees. And the hummingbirds LOVE them!

Here are a few places to research native plants for your region.

Pollinator resources and certifications

There are wonderful resources available underlining the magnitude of insect population decline and rich with ideas about what homeowners can do to help. As habitat becomes scarcer, we green thumbs have the opportunity to roll out a welcome mat of pollinator-friendly plants in our yards.

A number of organizations now provide guidance and special habitat designations, encouraging home gardeners to do their part. Some organizations take this dedication to conservation a step further with certificates and signs you can hang in the garden. Here are a few that might be of interest:

The National Wildlife Federation
The National Wildlife Federation provides a handy checklist that can then be used to apply for a Certified Wildlife Habitat designation. The checklist indicates what a homeowner should provide in terms of food, water, cover, and places to raise young, as well as documenting your sustainable practices. “Every habitat garden is a step toward replenishing resources for wildlife such as bees, butterflies, birds, and amphibians—both locally and along migratory corridors,” the site says. Upon qualifying, you can get a Certified Wildlife Habitat sign to hang in your garden.

The Canadian Wildlife Federation
Certifying your garden as a wildlife-friendly habitat can happen by filling out an application form where you check all the boxes that apply to what you’re doing in the garden. There is also an option to include a sketch of your garden. Necessary elements include one or more sources of water, food, and shelter in the garden and to vouch that you use earth-friendly gardening practices to maintain it. If you meet the criteria, you will receive a certificate and decal to display.

The Million Pollinator Garden Movement
The original initiative, The Million Pollinator Garden Challenge, surpassed its goal to register a million gardens and landscapes to support pollinators, but is still going strong. People are encouraged to plant gardens for bees, butterflies, birds, bats, and other pollinators. It was dubbed a nationwide (in the United States) call to action, but it’s amazing to look at the map to see all the different countries around the world where people have registered.

In the Zone
Where I live falls into the Carolinian zone, what’s been dubbed a biodiverse eco-region between the Great Lakes. WWF-Canada and an organization called Carolinian Carolinian Canada have created a program called In the Zone to encourage home gardeners to support native wildlife by providing food and shelter. A checklist narrows each to-do toward creating a climate-smart garden.

Landscape designer Sean James opts for a mix of textures, planting woolly and blue-leaf plants. Plantings include Veronicastrum ‘Fascination’, milkweed, thyme, Invincibelle Spirit smooth hydrangea (described as “bulletproof” in terms of hardiness), fountain grass, globe thistle (beloved by pollinators, but Sean warns it can spread), sea kale, and roses. Credit: Sean James

Using your house to attract pollinators

I couldn’t resist including this adorable house. It’s a whole other take on pollinator garden design. When chef and musician Chuck Currie was trying to attract hummingbirds to his East Vancouver yard, he planted bushes and flowers that would attract them, but it didn’t seem to work. His girlfriend worked at a retailer called Wild Birds Unlimited, which kept a large map of Vancouver with hummingbird sightings. On the map, all the hummingbirds were in the west end of the city where all the flower gardens are. There were none on Chuck’s side of the city, where everyone has vegetable gardens.

A house with red polka dots to attract hummmingbirds

I love how this house is part of a pollinator garden design.

After cleverly painting red polka dots on his house (the color signals to hummingbirds that nectar is nearby), there were soon multiple pins showing up in East Vancouver—all of them at Chuck’s address. He also has a garden that attracts hummingbirds, of course, as well as other birds, such as American bushtits and goldfinches.

For more reading on pollinators

Some of the text in this article has been excerpted from Gardening Your Front Yard, with permission from my publisher Cool Spring Press, which is a division of The Quarto Group.

pollinator garden design tips

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