If you’ve shopped at the Patio before, you’ve likely seen the ever-changing display of pollinator-friendly plants we lovingly call our “Pollinator Buffet." This is a great place for gardeners at any point in their journey to easily find annuals, perennials, and more that they can be confident will support and attract these fascinating — and deeply important — creatures. But there are so many other habitat needs that we as gardeners can help meet for pollinators in addition to providing flowers for nectar and pollen. That’s why, this Earth Day, we are proud to present six tips for pollinator gardening with our very own Sara Finkle.
Perhaps it goes without saying, but water is fundamental to all life on our green planet, and pollinators are no exception! In our gardens, natural water sources can be hard to come by, and deep fountains and other man-made water sources can be difficult for pollinators to access safely. As Sara explains, an easy way to make sure your local pollinators can stay hydrated is to provide a shallow water dish lined with pebbles! These should be large enough to break the surface of the water once it is filled so that insects can easily reach the water in your ceramic saucer — and escape if they happen to fall in.
Any time you provide man-made sources of water, food, or shelter like this, it is important to clean them regularly so that you do not unintentionally create a place for harmful bacteria, fungi, or other disease-causing agents to grow. In the case of a water dish, a weekly cleaning and water refresh should be all you need to maintain a usable, healthy water source for pollinators.
There are a variety of pollinators with varying habitat needs, but bees are some of the most fascinating for the wide variety of lives they lead. Some bees nest in the ground, and others in naturally occurring cavities; some live in colonies, and others are solitary creatures. Providing grasses and other fibrous or pithy-stemmed herbaceous plants will support many native bee species, and leaving patches of bare, un-gardened earth will support others.
Additionally, gardeners in the Pacific Northwest can put up mason bee houses to support these native bees that call our region home — being sure to clean them out on a yearly basis.
3: Spring Cleanup
Here's your excuse to be a little less than tidy! In nature, no one comes behind plants to cut off their dead foliage or rake up the leaves they drop each year, and we could stand to learn from these natural cycles. While we understand that an "unkempt" garden isn't most people's style, at very least delaying your spring cleanup until temperatures are consistently above 50℉ is a simple way to ensure that you are not unintentionally cleaning up pollinators and other wildlife that may be overwintering in plant material from growing seasons prior. Remember, a warm February day doesn't mean that spring is here, so sit tight until it's time to plant tomatoes in your vegetable garden before cleaning up. Your pollinators will thank you!
4: Bloom Time
Our Patio team is always happy to suggest good plants to support bees, hummingbirds, butterflies, and more, but when planning a pollinator garden, it is important not just to provide flowering plants, but to consider when these flowers bloom! While there are many spring and summer-blooming options, gardeners wishing to support pollinators should seek to provide early and late-season flowers, as well, to ensure that pollinators have access to sources of nectar and pollen year-round. Good options for fall include coneflowers and asters. For early spring, consider crocuses and candytuft. And in winter, camellias — especially single-flowered varieties — are not only beautiful, but can provide food for pollinators like Anna's hummingbirds that are almost entirely dependent on human-provided nectar sources. In addition to benefiting pollinators, providing year-round blooms also has the added benefit of providing beauty that you can enjoy, too!
5: Native Plants
If you haven't explored our Native section recently, run — don't walk — to the Farm. Spring is the perfect time to plant a garden filled with native biodiversity that can meet the habitat and food needs of many different native pollinators. When we plant plants that are naturally occurring in our region, we are bolstering evolutionary relationships that have developed over the course of aeons — some of which are incredibly specific. Scientists have shown that many bee species, in particular, are almost entirely dependent on one or two plants they have co-evolved with, and in the insect world, generalists are the exception rather than the rule. And as Sara notes, there are currently 650 known native bee species in the state of Oregon alone!
The greater variety of natives that you grow, the greater the variety of native pollinators your garden can support, so when it comes to supporting pollinators, it is better to opt for variety over repetition.
6: Minimal Pesticides
Ensuring that your plants have not been treated by harmful chemicals that accumulate in plant tissues is critical to pollinator population health. That's why, at Cornell Farm, we source our outdoor plants from growers that avoid neonicotinoids and other systemic pesticides.
With that said, it is important to keep in mind that any garden remedy — even organic ones — designed to treat pests may also bring harm to unintended targets, as well. As Sara reminds us, it is important to do our research before using chemical treatments in our gardens, and to do so only as a last resort. There are often mechanical measures that can be taken, such as picking off pest insects by hand or dislodging them with a blast from the watering house. If you determine that you must use a chemical remedy, a targeted approach is best, and you should take measures to limit the potential impact to pollinators and other insects. For instance, you might consider covering a treated plant with row cover to exclude unsuspecting beneficial insects.
Together, we can be better stewards of our Earth by doing our part to support and protect our pollinators.