Creating a Pollinator Garden
Updated: Mar 27, 2021
*Updated March 27, 2021
Last spring I remember being so excited about my vegetable garden. I grew my plants from seeds and had taken such good care of them. I waited till the time was just right, then I planted them in the garden. I was already daydreaming about all the wonderful produce I would soon be harvesting.
But there was a problem- there were no pollinators around! Without pollination, I would have no harvest. I had planted colorful flowers, but only in front of the house- not on the side where the garden is. So what's a girl to do when she's got an entire vegetable garden and no pollinators?
Plant more flowers, of course! The bees and butterflies just need something enticing to lure them in. Many vegetable plants have small flowers that are plain white or yellow. If it's early in the season and there aren't many flowers yet, it just might not be enough color to attract those necessary pollinators.
We did ultimately purchase and plant more flowers on the side of the yard around the garden. And we were successful in drawing in the bees. Eventually. But until that happened, the only way I was going to get any harvest was to pollinate my cucumbers and squash plants myself. How does one do that, you ask?
You use a small paintbrush- the kind that would come in a child's set of watercolor paints. You first collect the pollen from the male flowers, then you brush it inside the female flowers. This needs to be done early in the day while the flowers are fresh and wide open. It is time-consuming, and people walking by wonder what you're doing.
That was the only way I would get any harvest, so that's what I did. But believe me when I say it would have been so much easier to have planted bright, colorful flowers early in the season so that the bees would already be there when my vegetables needed them! This year we did things differently. I already have several pots of brightly colored flowers in the garden space, and I will add more before I put the vegetable plants in the ground. A pollinator-friendly garden might just be the answer to your pollination woes!
Male and female flowers:
Many plants, including commonly grown garden vegetables like peppers and tomatoes, are self-pollinating. This means their flowers have both male and female parts. Other common plants, like cucumbers and members of the squash family, produce separate male and female flowers. With plants like these, a pollinator must first visit the male flower to collect pollen, then visit the female flower to deposit the pollen. If that doesn't happen, no pollination will occur and the fruit will wither and fall off the plant.
So, how can you tell the flowers apart? It's easy, I promise! The male flowers grow on a slender stem from the vine. The female flowers grow on the blossom end of the fruits. The fruits usually grow to a length of between one and three inches, depending on the vegetable, before the flowers open. In my experience, the female flowers are only open for one day, so time is of the essence when it comes to pollination.
What if pollination does not occur?
When fruit does not get pollinated, it turns yellow, shrivels up, and falls off the plant. There is nothing more disheartening than walking outside to see a dozen inch-long, yellow, dried-up cucumbers lying on the ground under your plants. You worked hard to grow the plants from seed, or you paid good money for the seedlings. You have spent time planting and watering them, and it looks like you'll get nothing in return.
While it is normal for the occasional fruit to be missed by pollinators, or for it to otherwise not be viable, it isn't normal to see multiple yellow fruits at once. You can pollinate by hand, but as I said before, it takes a lot of time.
If you do need to pollinate by hand for a little while, the detailed instructions for doing so are as follows:
You'll first gently swab the male flower with the brush, ensuring there is pollen on the bristles. Next, transfer the pollen to the female flower by gently dusting the pollen into the flower with the bristles. Repeat these steps with all the male and female flowers on your plants. While this is time- and labor-intensive, it beats not getting any veggies from your precious plants. And if you take the steps to draw in pollinators, chances are you won't need to do it for long.
What kinds of flowers do pollinators like?
It isn't as much about a particular type of flower as it is the shape and color of the flower. Bees and butterflies like flowers that are simple in design and are fairly flat and open. As gorgeous as double and triple varieties of flowers can be with all their fluffy petals, all of those petals make it hard for pollinators to get to the "good stuff," AKA the pollen and nectar they're after.
Many of the more showy varieties of plants are hybridized and lab-created. While this isn't necessarily a bad thing, it can often mean the plants are sterile. They are created simply for the beauty they add to a garden. They don't do much, if anything, to draw in or help our pollinators. While it's fine to have these plants, you want to make sure you have pollinator-friendly plants and especially native flowers as well.
In the photos below, you can see good examples of what I mean by "open" flowers. The top two are purslane (left) and native hibiscus (right). On the bottom at left is a zinnia, and at right is a poppy.
When a flower is wide open with an easy-to-access center, bees and butterflies are more likely to notice it and be attracted to it. The common flowers I grow for this reason are zinnias, sunflowers, purslane, native hibiscus, and Mystic Illusion dahlias. All of these flowers are bright yellow, orange, pink, or red; and they all have a simple design.
Some other choices that work well are plants that grow tiny flowers together in large clusters. Examples of these include catnip, oregano, lantana, and butterfly bush. Our oregano and catnip have both bloomed this summer, and they stay covered up with bees. Plus, if you grow these herbs, they can also benefit you. Herbs offer both culinary and medicinal value to people. You can check out some of my other posts on herbs to learn more.
The photos below show some of these flowers that bloom in clusters. At the top left is a catnip plant and a bumblebee. The top right shows a butterfly bush bloom stalk. On the bottom, at left, is lantana, and at right is a butterfly perched on the butterfly bush. Butterflies don't use butterfly bush as a host plant, so they won't lay eggs on it. They, along with bees and hummingbirds, are highly attracted to its nectar. It has a lovely, sweet scent.
Where to plant the flowers:
There is no right or wrong approach to planting your flowers. Of course, you'll want them near your vegetable plants. As you can see in my photo, we put two pots of lantana on the edges of our cucumber bed. We've got most of our flowers in pots instead of in the ground. This way we can move them around if we need to. You'll want to place them throughout your garden area so there is a splash of color in multiple spaces. The more color, the more bees you're likely to attract.
You can also plant things like zinnias in the ground. I recommend starting these in the ground from seed, as seedlings don't tend to transplant well. Simply check the seed packet for sowing times for your zone. If you choose to put things like this in the ground, I recommend putting them on the edges of your garden where they won't be in your way during watering, harvesting, or other garden activities. Zinnias can grow to around five feet tall, so you'll want them in places you won't need much access to for the summer.
The biggest key here is to make sure you've got diversity. You want a variety of flower colors, shapes, types, and even heights to bring in as many pollinators as possible. You will see the improvements in your vegetable plants rather quickly. Within a week of adding more flowers to our garden last season, I no longer needed to pollinate our plants by hand. There were dozens of bees on our veggies each morning.
Bees are vital to pollination but don't forget the butterflies. They do a great job, too. So many people worry about caterpillars eating their crops. While I see their concern, in my experience this isn't a huge problem. Many butterflies only have one to a few host plants. Monarch butterflies only lay eggs on milkweed. Swallowtails prefer herb plants such as parsley, dill, or fennel. This means they won't lay dozens of eggs on everything in your yard. You're not likely to lose your crops to a few caterpillars. Aren't a few chewed leaves worth this beautiful butterfly below?
Like all other living things, pollinators need water. While bees and butterflies may have a hard time drinking from a source such as a birdbath, you can do things to help. Something as simple as placing a flat stone in your birdbath that bees and butterflies can rest on to get a drink can do the trick. You can also place a shallow saucer with a natural sea sponge on the ground in areas where pollinators hang out. They can land on the sponge for a drink. We have a saucer with sponges in one of our birdbaths.
If you've got a small pond in your yard, growing water lilies will help pollinators as well. Last summer we had many bees, wasps, and butterflies land on the lily pads for a rest and a sip of water. You can even grow water lilies in a deep container, such as a large flower pot with no holes in the bottom. You can purchase water lilies in the outdoor garden center of home improvement stores. They come with instructions to grow and care for them. We bought three last season and loved them. I was excited to see that it appears they survived our rough winter and will be coming back this spring.
Possibly the most important thing you can do for our pollinators is to avoid pesticides and herbicides. There are many other, safer ways to control unwanted pests and weeds. Pesticides can be devastating to bee populations. They're not great for you and your family, either. Check out this article from Smithsonian to learn more about taking care of our pollinators.
To control many weeds, you can add white vinegar to a pump sprayer and spray directly onto the weeds. You can kill unwanted ants by creating a mixture of one teaspoon of borax and one cup of jelly. Place the mixture in a dish near the ant bed, and they'll carry it back to the other ants, including the queen. It may take several days or a couple of weeks since borax is slow-acting, but eventually, the colony will die. Replenish the mixture as needed. Essential oils can also repel many pests. All of these are safer alternatives to commercial pesticides or weed killers.
Planting a garden tailored to pollinators isn't hard. If you're ever unsure, check the tag that comes with the plants you are considering purchasing. Quite often, it will be labeled as "bee-friendly" or it may include a warning about not using pesticides if you want to plant that variety. This is usually called a pollinator warning, letting you know that it attracts pollinators that don't need pesticide exposure. Even if you're not looking to pollinate a vegetable garden, you can plant some of these simply to enjoy having a bright and cheery flower garden. Knowing that you're helping our pollinators is just a special bonus.
I only covered a few of the many plants pollinators enjoy. What would you add to the list? Please let us know in the comments.