Planting for Pollinators
Choosing flowers that will attract butterflies, bees, hummingbirds and more
Photo by Jeff Knudsen
People have been cultivating butterfly gardens for decades, but over the years homeowners have become increasingly interested in providing some space for other pollinators as well. Having a little bit of information about the kinds of plants that work best for this type of outdoor area can make setting things up much easier. We turned to area garden center professionals to dial in some helpful information on what flowers work best, and why.
Meet the Pollinators
Pollination refers to the transfer of pollen from one plant to another, resulting in fertilization — and thus more plants and flowers! In nature, pollinators are the animals and insects that do the work of moving these grains of pollen as they feed, or as they maneuver from one place to another.
Some pollinators are well known,while others may not be the first to spring to mind. While most of us know butterflies and bees are important pollinators, other insects often get overlooked, such as moths, beetles, wasps and even flies. Bats and hummingbirds also make this list of beneficial creatures. When homeowners plant a garden for pollinators, they are typically hoping to attract butterflies, hummingbirds, and increasingly, bees to feed on the flowers they have planted.
Choose Your Garden Location
Picking a spot is the very first thing you’ll need to do when planning a pollinator garden, and where it is located will make a difference. For example, shaded areas are not an ideal location for these types of plantings. “Make sure you have at least six hours of direct sunlight,” says Christa Bormann, manager/horticulturist at Heinz Brothers Greenhouse in St. Charles.
Bormann also reminds homeowners that even if you are trying to attract butterflies, you’ll likely get bees, wasps and other pollinators interested, so you may want to consider that as well when selecting a space for your plantings. It can be smart to plot out an area a little bit away from the door to your home or areas where you frequently sit outside and entertain.
Locating pollinator plants in a spot near a vegetable garden can be especially rewarding,” says Kyle Lambert, perennial manager at The Growing Place, with locations in Naperville and Aurora. “It will help with the yield of vegetables such as tomatoes and squash.”
Lambert also advocates dedicating as much space as you can to the flowering plants for maximum benefit. “Bigger is always better,” he says. Those who would like to see a large-scale example of this type of garden can check out Lurie Garden at Millennium Park in Chicago to get an up-close view.
Time Your Blooms
If you’re striving to get a pollinator garden up and running this year it’s wise to consider what you’ll plant, as well as when it will bloom. Having something to offer for each season is advice that was mentioned by many of the gardening center professionals, but this doesn’t have to be overly complicated. “Start with spring blooms like tulips,” says Bormann, who also mentions summer bloomers such as Coneflowers and the lesser Catmint as other possibilities.
Plant at least five to 10 flower varieties in a starter garden to help make sure there are plants blooming at different intervals, says Matt Zerby, president and CEO of Wasco Nursery & Garden Center in St. Charles. This gives the pollinators something to feed on continuously, and it is an amount that is fairly manageable to plant.
If you miss the mark at first, Lambert suggests using annuals as a way to cover any “blooming gaps” your garden may have before it’s fully established.
“I often suggest planting different types of flowers to benefit different types of beneficial insects,” says Heather Prince, nursery manager at Wannemaker’s Home and Garden in Downers Grove. As an example, she says, “Long-tongued bees are attracted to the nectar on tubular flowers, but adult predatory wasps are tiny and prefer the nectar on clustered flowers like Golden Alexanders or Milkweed.”
Flowers for Hummingbirds and Bees
If you’re interested in trying to attract hummingbirds to your garden area, Bormann recommends including some of the plants they prefer in the mix, like butterfly bushes, coral bells and cardinal flowers. Other flowers likely to attract these fast-moving birds include columbine and trumpet creeper. They tend to be drawn to red or orange petals, but not exclusively.
Prince mentions that just about any flowering plant attracts bees, but some of her personal favorites are Liatris (Blazing Star), Pycnanthemum (Mountain Mint), and any of the milkweeds. “All of those make great plant TV,” she says.
Lambert notes that bees are also drawn to many types of herbs, so you will find them hovering around plants such as mint and lavender — both of which are easy-to-grow plants.
Another good recommendation is “White Cloud” Calamintha. It’s hardy, long-blooming, and the honey bees go nuts over it,” says Zerby, adding that the foliage boasts a nice, minty fragrance.
Attracting Beautiful Butterflies
If you’re partial to butterflies, you may want to select some specific plantings to attract them to the garden space. Of the flowers that work particularly well for this purpose in this region of the country, Zerby shares four that you can start with Agastache, Liatris (Gayfeather), Eupatorium (Pye Weed), and Monarda (Bee Balm). If you want to lure monarch butterflies, Milkweed is the only plant their caterpillars can eat, so it is a must-have.
The Monarch Joint Venture is a partnership of different organizations that work to protect this particular butterfly, and they recommend planting a species of milkweed that is from the region where you live for best results. The western suburbs of Chicago are located in the northeast region for this species, so the organization highlights the following varieties as your best choices: common milkweed, swamp milkweed, butterfly weed, whorled milkweed and poke milkweed, all of which are easy to grow.
Pollinator Garden Care Basics
Caring for a pollinator garden isn’t overly challenging, especially if you have chosen mostly plants that are native to the area. Outside of a bit of watering in dry spells and minor upkeep, most of these flowering plants will do well on their own.
Garden specialists agree that insecticides and pesticides should be avoided near your garden. The more natural you can keep it, the better for your pollinators, as they can be extremely sensitive to chemicals.
Also, don’t try to pick up every little piece of plant debris in these areas, especially as the summer draws to a close. Protective cover such as hollow stems and fallen leaves can provide a much-needed place for some species to overwinter
Monarchs & Milkweed Festival
Photo by Heather Prince, courtesy of Wannemaker’s Home and Garden
Celebrate the area’s native pollinators at the Forest Preserve District of Kane County’s Monarchs & Milkweed Festival on June 23 from noon to 3 p.m. at LeRoy Oakes Forest Preserve, 37W700 Dean St. in St. Charles.
Pollinators are responsible for bringing us one out of every three bites of food. They sustain ecosystems and produce natural resources by helping plants reproduce. Learn more about the birds, bees, butterflies, bats, beetles and other small mammals that pollinate plants at this Forest Preserve District special event.
While supplies last, the festival offers free pollinator-friendly plants (Butterfly Milkweed, Swamp Milkweed, Bee Balm, Prairie Blazing star, Sky Blue Aster, Pale Purple Coneflower, Purple Prairie Clover and Foxglove beardtongue).
Naturalists will lead guided hikes in the prairie and there will be experts on hand to answer questions about native plant gardening and habitat restoration, as well as to teach ways that everyone can pitch in to preserve plants and encourage their pollinators.
“In this festival, we’ll celebrate the beauty and importance of flora and fauna, while educating people about the importance of plants
and pollinators,” says Valerie Blaine, environmental education manager. “We want folks to appreciate the intricate relationships in nature, and how critical it is to restore habitat for animals, plants and people alike.
“The monarch butterfly is the ‘poster child’ of native pollinators,” adds Blaine. “Other pollinators, though, are often overlooked. Native plants, such as milkweed, are sometimes taken for granted or dismissed as weeds. Monarchs, milkweed, bumble bees and wildflowers are locked in an interdependent relationship that reflects the health of the environment.”
Admission to the Monarchs & Milkweed Festival is free. There will be crafts and butterfly-house kits for purchase, along with live music and food trucks.
For more information, call 630 444-3190 or visit www.kaneforest.com.