Updated: Jun 15, 2022
One of the many virtues of gardening is patience. Have you heard the saying, “First year it sleeps, second year it creeps, and third year it leaps”? This is a general rule of thumb when talking about establishing perennials, trees and shrubs in your garden. I remind myself often of this phrase as I impatiently anticipate a lush garden within the first season of planting. I’ve found some tips and tricks to help establish a pollinator garden quickly and for less money by utilizing some underused or spreading perennials, and speeding along the fullness by dividing plants.
WHAT IS A POLLINATOR GARDEN?
As a basic reminder, the key to pollinator gardens is to have a variety of plants that provide a valuable source of nectar or pollen at varying times of the year. You can even hone your plant selection by researching plants that are favored by specific caterpillars or species of insects in order to provide “host plants” or nesting/overwintering. A pollinator friendly garden can’t be too small or too big - regardless of the space’s size, I try to make sure that it is packed with plants within reason. If you’re starting a garden this year with limited resources, then it is best to start in a small space and build the garden out each year as you acquire more plants. This allows you to plant densely to provide larvae adequate protection during the growing season and to offer overwintering habitat. A denser garden also shades the ground to provide micro-habitats and suppress weeds. It's important that you avoid using chemicals/pesticides in your pollinator garden.
WAYS TO EXPAND YOUR GARDEN
It’s important to remember that pollinators and plants have formed a symbiotic relationship that benefit both parties (mutualism) – the insect or animal gets its fill of food, and the plant is pollinated for fruit and seed production to occur. With pollination comes seeds - and this is a great opportunity to leave seedheads for birds in the winter or to allow seeds to self-sow in your garden. I try to collect seeds from my annuals (zinnias, calendula, nasturtium, etc) and save them to sow in spring the following year. One plant can produce hundreds of seeds! I can’t think of a better (or cheaper) way to bulk up a pollinator garden and spread the love to neighbors and friends than by sharing seeds. I try to sow in seedling trays so I can keep an eye on watering and avoid loss from rabbits and crows. I’ll transplant the starts in the garden once they’re large enough to hold their own and establish quickly. I will also take the time to mention the importance of seed saving because of sexual reproduction (which happens when a flower is cross-pollinated). Sexual reproduction is a powerful means of plant propagation – it ensures diversity and new genes – this is ever so important for the survival and future success of our gardens and pollinators. Start your own revolution by saving seeds, sharing seeds, and germinating seeds!
This means of propagation is the quickest way to beef up your garden! There are many plants that grow and reproduce asexually via rhizomes (underground runners), bulbs/tubers/corms, and through a clumping habit. Each year a plant can put on more and more growth and will eventually benefit from division. Overcrowded plants compete for water, nutrients and space and can lead to limited airflow and increased susceptibility to disease and dieback. Dividing plants can give you numerous individuals of the same species which is beneficial in a pollinator garden. Most pollinators focus on one color and shape bloom to pollinate at a time before switching to another type of plant. Planting “en masse”, or groups, allows pollinators to efficiently obtain food without burning too much energy hopscotching along the garden for one specific flower.
Spring Division of Fall-Blooming Plants: It’s easier to divide these plants in the spring since there’s only small newly emerging leaves and the plant can bounce back quickly from transplanting since the roots are stored with energy and cool, rainy weather is in the forecast before summer comes.
Fall Division of Spring/Summer-Blooming Plants: Time division to occur 4-6 weeks before the ground freezes to allow for the plant’s roots to become established ahead of time. This is a great time to divide those plants that form bulbs, and another perk of dividing at this time? - there’s not much other garden work going on 😊.
General Guidelines: Divide plants on a cloudy day, not in the hot afternoon sun, so plants experience less stress from the heat. Thoroughly water the transplanting site and water in your newly planted divisions. Treat these newly divided plants as if they were new plants in your garden, as it may take a few weeks for them to become established.
Now that we’ve got our methods of how we can expand our garden from year to year, let’s take a look at some plants to include in a pollinator-friendly garden!
These are the plants that come back each year with increased vigor and size.
Agastache (Hummingbird Mint, Anise Hyssop): This plant is in the mint family and provides fragrant foliage and colorful blooms. Because of the fragrance, it has excellent resistance to browsing deer and rabbits. Highly attractive to bees – often referred to as a “honey plant” in reference to the support it provides to apiaries. Skippers, fritillaries, and hummingbirds visit these plants. Division is the best means of propagation.
Currently at Painters:
4” pots of Anise Hyssop, Agastache Apricot Sprite are $3.50 OR $33/Flat of 10
6” pots of Agastache Blue Boa and Blue Fortune are available for $5.00.
Black-eyed Susan: A favorite nectar source for butterflies since the large flowers provide a sturdy resting platform. What looks like one solitary flower is actually several individual flowers at the center of the bloom that provide nectar and pollen. Native bees also frequently visit Black-eyed Susans. Leave seedheads on the plants through winter as this plant self-seeds readily and goldfinches and other birds will eat the seeds in fall and winter. Sowing seed is the best means of propagation.
Varieties of Rudbeckia currently available include Black-eyed Susan straight species, Goldsturm, Cherry Brandy, Denver Daisy, and Irish Eyes - all available in 6” pots for $5.
Goldenrod: Important fall/late-season pollinator plant and attracts flies, bees, beetles, wasps and butterflies. These blooms are nectar rich and many call goldenrod the single most valuable perennial plant for pollinators! It is important along the Atlantic coast for fall monarch butterfly migration. Native goldenrod can become rather tall and can benefit from pruning in early summer to promote a bush/shorter habit with more blooms. We carry several “dwarf” varieties that are more garden friendly if you don’t have the space for the larger ones. Division is the best means of propagation.
Currently 6” pots of Little Miss Sunshine, Golden Baby, Fireworks, and Little Lemon are available for $5.
Coneflower/Echinacea: Attracts birds, butterflies, dragonflies, bees, and other pollinators by supplying a great source of nectar and pollen. The brightly colored landing pads make it very visible and accommodating to pollinators. Leaving seed heads on the plants during fall and winter provide birds with seed. Can be propagated by seed or division.
Right now you'll find E. pallida, E. purpurea, E. tennesseensis, and hybrids Cheyenne Spirit, Fragrant Angel, and more at Painters - most in 6" pots for $5.
Short-toothed Mountain Mint: The flowers of this plant are unassuming, but their nectar entices some of the greatest numbers of pollinators when in bloom in the summer! Attracts bees, wasps, flies, butterflies, moths, and beetles. The fragrant silvery leaves contain pulegone, which is surprisingly an insect repellent and can be used by rubbing leaves on clothes. Give this plant some room to roam. Division is the best means of propagation.
Currently Available in 6” pots for $5.00.
Liatris ‘Kobold’ – Blazing Star: Beautiful, mid-summer spikes of purple blooms that attract butterflies and bees. ‘Kobold’ is a shorter variety and benefits from being planted en masse to help create a lofty stand of blooms. Divide corms in early spring.
Currently available in 4” pots for $3.50 each or $33/flat of 10.
Milkweed: Did you know that monarch caterpillars and immature butterflies can ONLY eat milkweed? It provides all the nourishment the caterpillar needs to transform into a butterfly while its flowers also provide nectar to other butterflies, bees, and beneficial insects. The Xerces Society recommends planting milkweed native to your area. Native varieties of milkweed in WNC include Asclepias tuberosa (butterfly milkweed), Asclepias incarnata (swamp milkweed), and Asclepias syriaca (common milkweed). Read our blog post, Milkweed: How You Can Help Save the Monarchs, to learn more about choosing the right variety for your location.
Asclepias tuberosa (butterfly milkweed), Asclepias incarnata (swamp milkweed), and Asclepias syriaca (common milkweed) are currently available in 6" pots for $5.
Grasses: Don’t forget about the native grasses! Over 70 different butterflies and moths depend on native grasses as part of their life cycles. Little bluestem, Big bluestem, and Switchgrass are all larval hosts for many species of butterflies and moths, especially skippers. Many native grasses provide habitat for overwintering insects. Bumblebee queens nest at the base of bunch grasses where they will be protected during the winter before emerging in spring.
We currently have several species of native grasses that range in size from 1 gallon to 8”tall and vary in price from $8-$10.
Other great perennials to note:
Nana Coreopsis - great for dividing and adding along borders
Monarda/Bee Balm - great at spreading, responds well to annual division
Penstemon - attracts bees Blue-Eyed Grass (divides well and adds grass-like texture to the garden),
Perennial herbs: Catnip, Chives, Oregano, Lavender, Mint, Sage, and Thyme.
Another great way to help fill out a pollinator garden quickly is to add some plants that get larger in size! They will also offer the “bones” to the garden in the winter. Please consult our Tree & Shrub Availability List for varieties, sizes, and pricing. Here are some great ones:
Caryopteris – Bluebeard: Long bloom period from summer through fall. Attractive periwinkle blooms attract butterflies and bees. Fragrant silvery foliage is resistant to deer and rabbit browsing.
Clethra – Sweet Pepperbush: Provides late summer color and fragrant and yellow fall color. Flowers are magnets for butterflies, hummingbirds, bumble bees and native bees.
Buttonbush: Showy white balls of blooms are attractive to butterflies, and it's a host plant to Titan sphinx moth, hydrangea sphinx and the royal walnut moth. Great source of nectar for bees and a variety of other pollinators.
Viburnums: White umbels of blooms attract pollinators, especially butterflies, flies and bees. Blooms give way to berries which attract birds in the fall. Several varieties and sizes of Viburnums available!
Chokeberry: April blooms provide nectar and pollen to native bees and butterflies including mason, miner, and bumblebees and even some lesser known flower flies. Aronia is also a host plant for larvae of several species of moths and hairstreak butterflies. Berries provide a food source for mammals and birds later in the season.
New Jersey Tea: White, airy, summer blooms are highly attractive to many different types of bees and butterflies. Even hummingbirds will be attracted to the flowers, both for the nectar and to catch the small insects visiting the flowers. NJ Tea is a host plant for caterpillars of the spring azure, summer azure, and mottled duskwing (a type of skipper), as well as a few moth species.
While they won’t come back year after year, I do find that they have a place in my pollinator garden as they help fill in any bare spots at an affordable price. Some of my favorites include:
Tithonia (Mexican Sunflower),
Salvia (especially Pineapple Sage)
Most of these are in 3.5” or 4” pots varying in prices from $1-$3.50 each.