build a pollinator palace

Build a pollinator palace for your garden

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You’ve likely heard of insect hotels, but what about a pollinator palace? At the 2017 RHS Chelsea Flower Show in London, England, in the Great Pavilion, I encountered this very unique structure for pollinators, artistically assembled, though a little wilder looking. Conceived by garden designer John Cullen of John Cullen Gardens, gabions filled with layers of live plant material and items found in nature were placed among a regular garden with trees, flowers, and groundcover.

When I was coming up with projects to include in my book, Gardening Your Front Yard: Projects and Ideas for Big & Small Spaces (2020, Quarto Homes), I reached out to John to ask if I could include his concept, which I knew would look stunning in my own front yard garden. And it is a huge conversation starter with neighbors who walk by! Before I got started with building my own pollinator palace, I had the opportunity to interview John about how he came up with the idea…

“Inspiration for the Pollinator Palaces came firstly from a sustainability point of view,” says John. “I wanted something that would last forever—often the wooden bug hotels start to rot down and, in time, just become homes for bugs and not pollinators.” John was also keen to find something that gave an initial tidy look. “We are often met with the misconception that if you garden for wildlife, it needs to be messy,” he explains. “The steel gabions throw all of this out the window.” Rather than a messy piles of logs or twigs in the corner of the garden, John explains that you can now have a tidy pile that can look like art.

Pollinator palaces at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show

Metal gabions with shelves are used to create a layering effect in John Cullen’s pollinator palaces exhibited at the 2017 RHS Chelsea Flower Show.

Gather your materials

Once I decided to include a pollinator palace project, I set out to source a decorative gabion. At one point, I was only able to find wholesalers that sold them. However, on a trip to a local antique market to look for materials for another project, I found these delightfully rusty old milk crates. Three of them, when stacked, make the perfect “gabion.” I couldn’t wait to get them home.

Tools

  • Power miter saw in case you want to cut “levels” from wood
  • Eye protection

Materials

  • Metal gabions or old metal milk crates
  • Plywood or metal sheets cut to fit the length and width of the gabion
  • Yard debris, such as sticks, pine cones, moss, dried flowers, etc.
  • Mason bee nesting tubes

Because it was spring and I don’t do an extensive fall cleanup, I was able to gather some debris, like small branches. Hydrangea sticks were scored from a neighbor. I also gathered moss that covers some old patio stones at the back of my property. It was carefully lifted it using my soil knife. Pine cones were collected and delivered by a friend. And I ordered the nesting tubes for Mason bees online.

John Cullen says he uses hydrangea heads to create shelter spots for bees and ladybirds. He also says that once any plant material breaks down, it can be replaced yearly or with the seasons.

Filling antique milk crates with shelter for pollinators

I used branches and twigs found around my yard to create a couple layers in my pollinator palace. The bottom of each milk crate featured a nature shelf, meaning I didn’t need to cut too much wood to separate the layers. The solitary nesting tubes for Mason bees are resting on a square piece of plywood cut to size. Photo by Donna Griffith

Putting your pollinator palace together

You can customize your layers however you like or with whatever materials you have close at hand. Here is my layering order:

In the bottom milk crate, I placed layers of moss, followed by hydrangea sticks. The great thing about the milk crates as opposed to a gabion is there is a natural shelf added when they’re stacked.

I placed the second crate on top and layered it with bark, twigs, and meatier sticks gathered from my yard. Then, I cut a square of plywood slightly smaller than the square shape of the milk crate. I sat this on top of the stick layer.

This was the only layer where I needed a shelf because everything else was easy to stack. I also had the natural shelves created by the crates’ bottoms.

On this “platform,” I stacked the Mason bee nesting tubes before adding the third crate. In this last crate, I added the pine cones, another layer of sticks and twigs, and some moss on top. At the back of the crate, I nestled a little terracotta pot with alyssum. Alyssum attracts parasitic wasps, beneficial insects that take care of some insect pests.

Displaying your shelter for pollinators

My finished project is nestled among a perennial garden near the street. The garden is planted with a plethora of pollinator-friendly plants, like catmint, lavender, echinacea, milkweed, ninebark, and liatris. There there are a lot of pollinators that frequent this garden.

I attached the three milk crates to each other using zip ties, just in case anyone decides they want my pollinator palace to grace their own yard. Layers can easily be swapped out over time, but I’ll have to add new zip ties.

pollinator garden

My pollinator palace sits prominently in my front yard garden, among plants that attract pollinators throughout the spring, summer, and fall. I’m growing ninebark, liatris, coneflower, lavender, Gaillardia, catmint, Columbine, and more! photo by Donna Griffith

Attracting pollinators to your palace

John Cullen’s concept is fluid enough that you can decide which pollinators you would like to attract:

  • Solitary bees are always on the lookout for a safe quiet place to nest. John recommends using cardboard tubes. “If bamboo or other wooden tubes are used, you have to ensure that the insides are baby smooth,” he explains. “Any splinters, even tiny ones, can spear the emerging young in spring. Using cardboard Mason bee nest tubes within your palace creates spaces for them to make nests for their larvae. John sources his tubes from a company in the UK that specialize in solitary bees.
nesting tubes for solitary bees

One of the highlights of my summer was discovering that bees were using my nesting tubes!

  • Moths and butterflies love places to cool down.
  • You can also create a feeding station on the top of the palace by placing a large plate with fruit for butterflies to feed on. Every palace that John Cullen’s company creates is unique and tailored for the client.
one of John Cullen's pollinator palaces at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show.

Another photo of one of John Cullen’s pollinator palaces at the 2017 RHS Chelsea Flower Show.

I hope you’re inspired to build a pollinator palace for your own garden! Thank you to my publisher, Cool Springs Press, a division of The Quarto Group, for the permission to run this excerpt from Gardening Your Front Yard.

Gardening Your Front Yard

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Learn how to build a pollinator palace for your garden

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5 Responses to Build a pollinator palace for your garden

  1. Philip says:

    Wow! I’m definitely getting inspired to build one myself. I’ll probably start small and experiment since I don’t have any experience in this but it would be amazing to make it work out. Thanks!

  2. Jane E Sherrott says:

    How beautiful. Keep rain off the nests by adding a roof or putting the nests under the eaves. I live in Vancouver, BC where our adults emerge around 50C-10F which is late March here and it’s still rainy. It’s best to keep periodic summer rain or sprinkler water off the condos, too.

    • Tara Nolan says:

      Hi Jane, I’ve nestled the nesting tubes in the middle of the structure, so they’re protected by the layers above – pinecones sticks, and moss. 🙂

  3. annmare says:

    At the PA Flower show i was advised not to use bamboo. It doesn’t breathe and the bees overheat and die. What is the substance you are using in these pictures?

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