How to build a pollinator garden, according to experts | CNN Underscored (2024)

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By Emma Sarran Webster, CNN Underscored

Published 9:00 AM EDT, Fri July 21, 2023

What’s in this guide

  • What is a pollinator garden?
  • Why are pollinator gardens important?
  • How to build a pollinator garden
  • How much space you need for a pollinator garden
  • What plants to include in a pollinator garden
  • How to plant and maintain a pollinator garden
  • Tools for building a pollinator garden
How to build a pollinator garden, according to experts | CNN Underscored (1)

You may be familiar with the health benefits (both physical and mental) that gardening can provide you as an individual, but at least one type of gardening in particular has the potential to help all living beings on a global scale: pollinator gardening. Build a pollinator garden and not only will you create a beautiful green space that attracts everything from hummingbirds to monarch butterflies, but you’ll also contribute to fighting the climate crisis in a meaningful way. But what is a pollinator garden, and how do you create one?

What is a pollinator garden?

“A pollinator garden is a habitat that supports the biodiversity needed for the insect kingdom to have food, shelter, areas to breed and also to eat,” says Erika Allen, co-founder and CEO, strategic development at Urban Grower’s Collective, a nonprofit farm in Chicago. The plants within a pollinator habitat provide nectar and pollen for bees, butterflies, birds, wasps and various insects — all of which then go on to pollinate other plants elsewhere —and because other animals and insects feed on pollinators and their larvae, these habitats also feed those creatures.

“In a pollinator garden, flowers are chosen for their ability to supply nectar, not their showiness,” says Shubber Ali, CEO of the National Wildlife Federation’s Garden for Wildlife program. “Plants are chosen for their supportive qualities over four seasons, providing food, water, places to raise their young or habitat for pollinators.” As Kelly Bills, executive director of the nonprofit organization Pollinator Partnership, explains, the idea is to essentially “mimic the construction of an area’s native ecosystem.” As such, they tend to look more wild than the carefully landscaped yards and green spaces often associated with the act of gardening.

Why are pollinator gardens important?

How to build a pollinator garden, according to experts | CNN Underscored (2)

Building a pollinator garden isn’t just a fun outdoor activity; it’s an incredibly consequential way to help the environment and all living beings. According to Pollinator Partnership, 75% to 95% of all flowering plants on the planet need pollinators, and pollinators are responsible for one out of every three bites of food we eat. Put simply, as Allen says, “Without pollinators, we can’t have plants. Without plants, we wouldn’t be able to survive as a species.”

And due to the climate crisis, that’s a real risk. Extreme heat, droughts and loss of habitats have all taken a massive toll on bee, butterfly and other pollinator populations. But all hope is not lost, and individuals can actually make a difference by planting their own pollinator gardens. “By providing pollinators with more floral resources, we can counteract some of these drivers of pollinator decline,” Bills says. “This, in turn, will have positive ripple effects up and down the food chain, making every plant and animal species more resilient to habitat loss, disease and climate change.”

Still not so keen on the idea of attracting bees and bugs to your home? It may be time for a mindset shift, beyond just knowing the importance of these creatures for the larger ecosystem. “They’re just trying to survive, they’re trying to eat, they’re trying to find shelter,” Allen says. “They’re not really interested in us. We’re secondary.” In fact, she adds, the plants can actually help keep the pollinators out of your home —without pesticides — because they’ll be attracted only to the food source you planted outside. “We’re shifting our mindset from, ‘Let me eliminate these life-forms because they may bother me’ to ‘I need these life-forms, and I need to find a way to live in harmony with them because they’re essential for life.’ If we’re able to contribute to that in a meaningful way, that’s nothing but a good thing.”

How to build a pollinator garden

You don’t need any special training to build a pollinator garden of your own; even gardening newbies can do so successfully. “We tell beginning gardeners, ‘If you plant it, they will come,’ and you’ll get to enjoy watching pollinators of all types visit your garden,” Bills says, then noting the main requirements. “A pollinator garden ideally practices Integrated Pest Management, contains multiple varieties of native or noninvasive flowering plants that bloom throughout the year and has a reliable water source.” If you’re starting with seeds rather than plants, prepare to plant in the spring or fall. The ideal window depends on where you live, so it’s best to search for resources specific to your region (or contact your local garden center).

How much space you need for a pollinator garden

You don’t even need an actual garden space to be successful. “The great thing about planting for pollinators is there is no minimum amount of space required,” Bills says. “Pollinator gardens can be on your front step, a windowsill or a deck or porch. We can all provide for pollinators in whatever space we have access to.” In fact, if you’re new to gardening, it may be a good idea to start small, whether that’s with a small patch of your yard or a freestanding planter with one or two native pollinator-friendly plants. That also gives you the chance to observe the pollinator activity and learn as you add new plants to the mix, Allen says.

If you are going to start with a larger number of plants, make sure you factor in room for them to grow. One of the biggest mistakes Allen sees is overcrowding your pollinator plants — especially perennials, which take more time to grow and flourish than annuals and biennials. “Some things, like lilacs or peonies, take a few seasons to really come into their own,” she says.

Before you get seeds and start planting, it’s a good idea to assess the sun conditions where your garden will be. Different plants require different amounts of sunlight, and too much or too little can hinder their growth and longevity. If you have limited location options, it’s important to know how much sun those spots get so you can choose plants that will jibe with the environment. If possible, Ali recommends planting your garden in a sunny area with windbreaks (whether natural, like trees, or artificial).

Don’t stress too much about it, though. “Most pollinators are super adaptive and you don’t have to do too much; literally, they’re wild,” Allen says. “Think of weeds. Think of dandelions, which are amazing. They’re a huge food source for everybody, including humans. Think of how it’s pretty hard to get rid of them; they grow everywhere. That’s the resilience of those plants. They’re survivors, they’re adaptive to the environment. It’s a very different, much easier form of gardening with plants that are indigenous.”

What plants to include in a pollinator garden

How to build a pollinator garden, according to experts | CNN Underscored (3)

Considering how many of the world’s plants require pollinators, it’s no surprise that the list of plants you can include in your pollinator garden is extremely long. That said, not every pollinator-friendly plant will be successful in every area. “The most important requirement of a pollinator garden is the presence of a variety of native or noninvasive flowering plants that bloom throughout the year,” Bills says, noting it’s a good idea to include a mix of annuals and perennials as well as nonflowering plants that can “provide shelter and forage for pollinators,” like shrubs and native grasses. “Plants that are native to your area are more likely to be successful given the fact that they are already accustomed to your region’s temperature and soil profiles, and the pollinators native to your area have evolved alongside these species.”

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While it’s OK to include a few nonnative plants in the mix (keeping in mind that, as Ali notes, they generally require more watering and maintenance), you should avoid invasive species completely. “They evolved in other parts of the world or were cultivated by humans into forms that don’t exist in nature,” Ali says. “Occasionally, they escape into the wild, become invasive and destroy natural habitat. Not only do they destroy and crowd out native plants, but they don’t support local wildlife.”

Allen notes some popular and reliable pollinator-friendly plants include milkweed, herbs (“a lot of the plants that we grow for food also attract pollinators,” she says) and sunflowers, as well as plants that attract nocturnal pollinators, like moonflower. That said, you can determine the best options for where you live using tools like the National Wildlife Foundation’s Native Plant Finder and Pollinator Partnership’s Garden Recipe Cards and regional planting guides. When you’re shopping in person, Allen says to look for tags that say “insect friendly” or “pollinator,” and ask for guidance from your local nursery.

You may even be able to snag some pollinator plant seeds for free. Allen recommends looking for master gardeners in your area because the horticulture experts frequently split their perennials and distribute seeds, and that local libraries often have seed banks available for members.

Milkweed is one of the most common pollinator-friendly plants, acting as a host for caterpillars and attracting monarch butterflies. “There are different varieties of milkweed that you can smell from 100 feet away — this beautiful scent,” Allen says. “It’s an olfactory experience for us as humans, but that [smell] is also what’s attracting the insects.” This one, the common milkweed, is native to the eastern two-thirds of the US and suitable for planting in nearly all USDA Plant Hardiness Zones.

Even if you don’t have a yard that’s bathed in sunlight throughout the day, you can still attract pollinators. This kit includes 14 different wildflowers that are specifically adapted to part-day sun, like California poppy and purple coneflower. Added bonus: Stover Seed donates a portion of its sales from this mixture (or any of its regional native pollinator wildflower mixtures) to Pollinator Partnership.

If you have little ones, you can get them involved and interested in pollinator gardens with this adorable and easy-to-use kit. The Wildflower Seed Pop will grow a variety of pollinator-friendly plants, like wild bergamot (which Ali says is a host plant for up to 12 butterfly species and 3 pollen specialist bees) and China aster, which is suitable in almost all of the USDA’s Plant Hardiness Zones.

Sunflowers are not only stunning visually, but they’re also attractive to all sorts of pollinators. Ali suggests the ox eye sunflower species specifically, which is native to many states in the US and supports birds, butterflies, bees, hummingbirds and more.

How to plant and maintain a pollinator garden

If you’re using a freestanding planter, Garden for Wildlife recommends you place small rocks or broken clay at the bottom, add organic compost and potting soil on top, and ensure the container has drainage. If you’re starting your pollinator garden in the ground, you’ll need to do a bit more preparation to ensure the environment is ideal and that no unwanted species will get in the way, Bills notes.

While some weeds are indeed pollinator friendly because they grow so quickly, they can also hog the space, sunlight and soil, so it’s important to remove them before planting your seeds (just make sure to do so without pesticides so as to not harm the environment for your native plants).

Your pollinator plants need soil with good drainage, so if it doesn’t already have that (Pollinator Partnership’s technical guide suggests testing it by digging a small hole and filling it with water), use a hoe or a garden rake to loosen up to 2 inches of soil, avoiding digging too deep, as you don’t want to bring dormant weed seeds to the surface. As you do so, add organic compost or humus mulch, which Ali says helps maintain moisture and prevents weeds from growing, then even out the surface with a landscape rake.

Allen is a huge proponent of growing in compost and adding it to the soil when you’re planting in the ground. “It’s sustainable and allows the plant material to really be nourished,” she says. If you compost at home, you can use the output; otherwise, Allen says, you should be able to purchase it from a local composter or garden center. When you’re buying, just aim to get the most natural, organic option possible.

“A hoe or rake can be helpful for breaking up soil or clearing rocks,” Bills says. This hoe is a nice lightweight option with a comfortable handle. You can use it for loosening the soil and digging up any weeds you want to get rid of.

This landscape rake allows you to clear and even out the surface for your pollinator garden without needing to bend over at an uncomfortable angle. Plus, its fiberglass handle construction means it’s incredibly lightweight, at just under 2 pounds.

When you plant the seeds, do your best to distribute them evenly across the area and make sure they’re actually in the soil and not just sitting on top. Ali suggests creating clusters of native plants, or “pollinator targets” — just remember to leave enough space for them to grow. Allen suggests adding mulch between perennial seeds in the meantime.

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While wildflowers do tend to be more low maintenance than other plants, they do need regular water,especially during the first few weeks when you should plan to water daily as the roots establish themselves in the ground. Depending on where you live, you may need to increase or decrease your frequency of watering. Check out region-specific planting guides for guidance. If you don’t want to stand there with a hose every time your plants need watering, Allen suggests considering a soaker hose, which releases water from tiny holes along the entire hose, for a low-cost irrigation system. If you’re using a planter, you can get one that’s self-watering so you don’t have to tend to it quite as frequently. Once the plants have matured, your pollinator garden will need less care. Water the soil if it gets dry; occasionally pull weeds when they develop (try using a plant-identifier app, like Seek, to make sure you’re not accidentally pulling your native plants); set up a birdbath or other water source for the thirsty pollinators; and leave the seedheads be in the fall, as they’ll provide food for birds throughout winter.

Having an irrigation plan is crucial for the success of your pollinator garden. After all, “it doesn’t make sense to do all this work to have a more balanced environment if we’re not thinking about water,” Allen says. This soaker hose gives you the option to sprinkle or soak your plants, which can be helpful if you live in a climate that isn’t consistently rainy or dry.

If you’re going the container garden route, there are endless options of planters you can use. “I recommend self-watering pots, pots with depth for optimal plant growth and for growing plants that can survive winter,” Allen says. The Tufts Pollinator Initiative recommends a planter that’s at least 16 inches deep to accommodate native plants’ deep roots. Even the smallest size of this sturdy garden bed exceeds that at 2 feet deep —and it includes a built-in water collection and redistribution system to help you with watering.

It’s not just your plants that get thirsty. “Pollinators need water too,” Ali says. “Line the birdbath with large stones so the pollinators and birds can drink (not at the same time, of course).” This bath has a simple and versatile look for any garden, and it’s made out of recycled plastic and bamboo fibers. Keep in mind that standing water attracts mosquitoes, so be sure to refresh the birdbath frequently.

This free app makes it easy to identify plants, whether they are existing weeds in your garden that you’re not sure if you should pull or new blooms that sprouted from your seed kit.

You don’t need much to build or maintain a pollinator garden, but here are a few tools and items our experts recommend that will come in handy.

You can start your pollinator garden journey as small as a single large pot. “There are beautiful upcycled barrels and buckets and all kinds of things that are low cost, or really beautiful artisan ceramic vessels you can grow plants in and move them around,” Allen says. If you want to add in the self-watering feature, this one is a good option. It’s made from 80% recycled materials, deep enough for native plant roots and available with a watering system.

“A hand trowel is particularly helpful when planting plug plants or liners,” Bills says, noting you might want a larger shovel as well if you’re going to plant mature trees, shrubs and other plants. Ali recommends looking for a tool with a pointed blade, like this one.

If you’re not sure what tool you’ll prefer for breaking up soil — or if you’re in need of a few different tools for your various gardening endeavors — this is a great option, with four different tool heads you can swap in and out: a spade, a leaf rake, a hoe and a tinned rake. Plus, it has a telescoping handle, so you can adjust the length depending on your height and comfort.

Safety is always important when working in a garden. “Protect your hands from thorns, prickly plants and dirt [with] durable gloves that fit well and provide good grip,” Ali says, suggesting this pair with reinforced fingertips and palm patches.

Wildflowers grown for pollinators don’t require nearly as much maintenance as other plants, but you’ll still want to occasionally clean them up. If you supplement your pollinator plants with trees, shrubs and other plants to fill out the habitat, you’ll also need to maintain those. Ali recommends this set for doing so. “[It’s] three sizes for cutting and trimming plants, pruning branches, deadheading flowers and shaping shrubs,” he says.

“Be sure to keep a watering can or hose nearby when planting, as it’s good to immediately water plants after they get in the ground,” Bills says. This metal can is corrosion-resistant, and it has a handy removable spout so you can vary the water flow as needed.

While not crucial, Ali says it’s also nice to “provide extra sites for birds to nest.” After all, if your goal is to build a habitat for pollinators, it’s ideal to create an environment they’ll want to return to.

“While not essential, a testing kit can help you determine the pH level and nutrient content of your soil, allowing you to make informed decisions about additives,” Ali says.

Take some of the guesswork out of planning your plant placement with this tool that measures how much sunlight specific locations in your garden get.

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