Expert Column: Attracting Pollinators

Elaina Moss, a Minneapolis-based master gardener, shares her methods for drawing wildlife into her garden

Photos courtesy of Elaina Moss

We all love our honeybees and monarch butterflies. We know they are in decline and wonder how we can help. The truth is, though, that honeybees and monarchs (while iconic) are not more important than other pollinators, such native bees, flies, beetles, moths, and other butterflies, which do most of the pollination.

Photo by Andrea Rugg

Our yards, balconies, and plant choices can help our pollinator friends, yet most American households have yards that do not feed or supply adequate habitats for them. Pollinators need flowers, dead logs, barren soil, tall grasses, dried stems from perennials to nest in, and dark spaces with no artificial light. A few small changes can help them not only survive but also thrive in our yards or on our balconies.

Steering clear of insecticides is necessary because they hurt not only the “bad” bugs but also the good ones. Lacewings and hoverflies will eat the bad bugs, keeping their population under control. They are attracted to plants in the carrot family, like yarrow, fennel, and parsley. Having these plants intermixed in your yard or garden is a great way to attract pollinators to pollinate your plants, as well as eat the problem-causing bugs.

Pollinators also need food year-round to survive. (Did you know over one-third of our food needs pollination to make it to our own plates?) The plants that attract the most pollinators in my yard during spring are sweet alyssum, plum trees, and dandelions. I grow yellow, white, and even pink dandelions. In the summer, there is no other plant that attracts more bees than wild bergamot, and for butterflies, Meadow Blazing Star. In the fall, showy goldenrod steals the show. If you don’t have a yard but have a small balcony, grow sweet alyssum with zinnias. During those fall months, cut stems of perennials and flowers 12-18 inches for stem-nesting bees. Leave the foliage in fall garden beds alone because pollinators nest in them. When spring rolls around, only clean them up when dandelions bloom.

While I love my PowWow Echinacea hybrid perennial for its lower growth habit, it has less pollen to feed pollinators than native Echinacea purpurea. By choosing nonnatives or hybrids, our pollinators must forage up to 10 times as many flowers, adding to their collapse. In addition to choosing native plants, our lawns themselves can be a source of food. Stopping applications of Weed & Feed and allowing clover and dandelions to bloom not only supplies a hard-to-find spring food but also adds nitrogen to your soil, making fertilizer unnecessary. Dandelions also provide aeration. Creeping thyme, selfheal, yaak yarrow, and microclover are other low-growing bee lawn flowers that can help produce a no-mow lawn.

Follow Moss’ gardening journey on Instagram at @fussygirlurbanfarm.

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