How to design and plant your garden for pollinators

Last week, we published an article about pollinators in Colorado that focused on policy support and involvement, including advocating for pollinator-friendly pest management. Here we focus on how to design and plant for pollinators.

The summary: Pollinators need food, water and shelter.

Observe your microclimate to conceive

Much of the Denver area falls within the plains and foothills living zones depending on elevation and precipitation. As such, there are native plants that fit into every ecosystem, and some overlap. (To dig deeper into this, see the Colorado Native Plants Society’s lists of common and rare native plants by area. Additionally, the National Wildlife Federation offers a free resource, Native Plant Finder, organized by zip code.)

One of the fundamental principles of permaculture is to observe and interact, according to Jax McCray of Remedy Permaculture Designs, who leads a Planting for Pollinators webinar hosted by People and Pollinators Action Network (PPAN). Observing your garden through the seasons shows sun patterns and other unique microclimate considerations to better plan where and what to plant. It also helps you design a three-layer structure of vegetation that mimics nature. Trees provide nesting, shelter, shade and food. Shrubs offer protection and nourishment, such as the Virginia cherry, the wood rose, the serviceberry. Then, infilling with perennials attracts pollinators with native plants like blue flax, yarrow, sunflowers and Rocky Mountain bees, for example.

A cabbage moth on the rocky mountain bee plant. (Tamara Yakaboski, Denver Post special)

Reduce and replace grass for pollinators

After moving into an old house with established grass, each year I cut back my lawn by digging up a section and planting some food or flowers. Slow and steady changes follow permaculture guidelines because they allow you to make it doable, see what works, and ultimately make it sustainable. Lawns use more resources such as water, fertilizers, pesticides and maintenance. And sod lawns provide no habitat or food for pollinators, while shrubs, for example, create food for birds and flowers, and shelter (as well as a block from our Colorado winds).

Good news for Colorado: House Bill 1151, the Sod Replacement Program, will allocate $2 million to financially incentivize the replacement of turf with water-based landscaping. This promotes drought-tolerant plants, shrubs and bushes to divert less water from our rivers and reservoirs for landscaping.

If you have grass, consider cutting back the lawn in areas where it is not used. Observe the use of all your outdoor space areas. Maybe there are corners or sides that are not used by children, dogs or humans. Removing the sod in these areas allows you to add some select plants or even a mix of Colorado wildflower seeds.

If you want a ground cover to replace grass, Oregon creeping grape is a native flowering holly-like shrub. Or if you like the look of native grasses, Aaron Michael, founder and CEO of Earth Love Gardens, suggests blue gram grass as a ground cover in full sun (but it’s not ideal for high-traffic areas). because it cannot withstand regular trampling. Buffalo grass is another warm season native grass that also goes dormant during droughts, although this and blue gram grass have higher hardiness when not mowed.

A black butterfly
A black swallowtail on dill. (Tamara Yakaboski, Denver Post special)

Flowers nourish the mind and the stomach

Flowering plants capture the human imagination and fill us with joy while feeding pollinators with nectar and pollen. It’s a win-win situation. Evolutionary psychology shows that flowers cause positive mood swings in humans. A pandemic study found that even certain colors — red and yellow, for example, on white — boost relaxation and comfort. Green care or gardening is beneficial for human mental and physical health, according to medical research.

Just as flowers improve human health and well-being, native flowering plants and trees also improve the health of local pollinators. Although there are many flowering options, what is most optimal for the wide variety of pollinators is the flowering of native plants and trees. The flowers provide nectar and pollen to bees, moths, butterflies, bats and birds.

Keep in mind that pollinators that have a larval stage also eat the leaves of some plants (think milkweed and monarch butterflies, for example). The reminder here is to have plants that caterpillars like if you want butterflies and know which pollinator likes what. The Western Tiger Swallowtail butterfly’s host plants for larvae are chokecherry and ash, but the black swallowtail likes plants of the dill and carrot families.

Native plants are necessary to support local pollinator populations because they have specific needs for odors, flower shapes, nectar and pollen flavors not found in typical store-bought varieties. boxes. Native plants tend to be more drought tolerant and less dependent on herbicides or synthetic fertilizers. With the climate crisis rapidly changing, we all need to select plants and trees that can tolerate less rain and warmer temperatures.

Finally, preliminary research in the UK shows that the impact of the climate crisis on flowering plants results in fewer flowers, less nectar and fewer seeds. This means that we all need to take care of our local areas and start making up the difference we can in order to maintain pollinator populations.

A bee on a sunflower
A long-horned bee on a common sunflower. (Tamara Yakaboski, Denver Post special)

Choose flower diversity for pollinators

Keep in mind that not all plants are visited by all types of pollinators. A plant selection should be diverse in its offerings, flowering time, color, attractor, etc.

Blooms throughout the season encourage pollinators to return to the same area, which is important for continued population support. Plant for flowers for early, mid and late seasons. Some of my favorite early season options are blue flax, yarrow, and pasque flower. Mid-season ideas are milkweed and blanket flower. And late summer blooms delight with giant blue hyssop, Rocky Mountain bee and ubiquitous sunflower.

It’s fun to go out and have plants for specific pollinators too. In line with microclimate observations, see what visits your area first and what misses. Monarch butterflies are a popular and important pollinator as their populations have declined by 80% to 99% and are threatened with extinction. Milkweed is one of those plants negatively impacted by global warming and drought. The Xerces Society lists the most common milkweeds for Colorado: Spider (A. Asperula ssp.), Plains (A. Pumila), Swamp (A. Incarnata), Showy (A. Speciosa), and Horsetail (A. Subverticillata).

If you’re a container gardener, many native plants do well in pots and even in hanging baskets. There are dwarf varieties of sunflowers, but also goldenrods, blanketflowers and black-eyed Susans also grow in containers.

To learn more, the Colorado Native Plant Society offers an extensive list of low-water content native plants for the Front Range and foothills. For birds, the Denver Audubon has a native plant resource for them specifically.

Watch for the People and Pollinators Action Network’s (PPAN) annual native seed exchange this fall. As a community effort, we can all give when we can and spread the message through free plants and seeds. It’s a great way to get involved in pollinator politics.

Water and the prevention of pollinator risks

Even non-gardeners can support and attract pollinators by providing a steady source of clean water for birds, bees and butterflies, which each have their own water needs. For bees, a dish with stones and water allows them to have a landing space to drink without drowning. Butterflies and moths and the like need a puddle dish, a shallow dish, or a container much like a birdbath.

Finally, work to eliminate hazards by not using pesticides, treat windows to prevent collisions, keep cats indoors, and reduce outdoor lighting. We can all help support our local pollinator populations, because all of our little efforts add up to a big impact.

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Abdul J. Gaspar