Planting a Pollinator Garden to Attract Beneficial Insects
Planting in your garden for the benefit of pollinators and insects beneficial for a number of other reasons is one of the best things you can do to ensure that you work with nature rather than fighting it where you live. For their own sake, and for your own, creating a pollinator-friendly garden is the right thing to do.
Pollination is the name given to the process which allows for the development of fruit and seeds.It involves the transfer of pollen from the male part (anther) to female part (stigma) of plants, enabling fertilization that leads to flowers fruiting and the production of seeds.
We depend on the process of pollination for many of the plants that we grow for food and for other uses. When pollination does not occur, fruit and berry producing plants cannot do their thing, and flowers cannot produce seed to bring on the next generation.
Some plants are self-pollinating and do not require external input for this process to take place, some are wind pollinated. But some rely on insects or other creatures for successful pollination to occur.
Why it is Important to Attract Pollinators & Predatory Insects to Your Garden
Pollination presently largely takes place without us paying much attention. But we ignore this issue at our peril. Insect life is declining precipitously around the world, with many species being threatened and lost due to pressures from habitat degradation or destruction, human encroachment, various forms of pollution and climate change.
We cannot assume that we can simply continue as we are and still have insects around to pollinate our garden flowers and the crops we grow. Things will change drastically if we do not wake up, protect the insects upon which so much pollination depends, and take steps to preserve biodiversity and halt losses.
Three-quarters of the world’s flowering plants and approximately 35% of the world’s food crops presently depend on animal pollinators to reproduce. In the EU, it is estimated that 84% of crops and 80% of wildflowers depend on insect pollination.
Beneficial insects also provide a range of other boons to the gardener. As 3well as providing pollination services, insects are also an important part of the food chain. They are often indicator species, revealing the health of an ecosystem.
When insects do well and their populations are healthy, other wildlife also benefits. Insects are eaten by a range of creatures, and some predatory insects also help us in our gardens by keeping pest numbers down. (Ladybirds/ ladybugs eat aphids, for example). Insects are crucial in the web of life that sustains the natural systems around us.
Of course, we do not only value pollinators for what they can offer to us. Insect life is also precious in its own right. We should wish to do all we can to halt their decline and make a safe haven for them in our gardens.
Types of Pollinator Garden
Before you start creating and planting a pollinator garden to attract beneficial insects to your garden, it is important to understand that a garden that is beneficial for insect life can come in many forms.
When you picture a garden for pollinators, you might imagine a flower bed filled with a range of vibrant flowers. But there is no rule about what a pollinator garden needs to look like as long as it provides for and attracts the species that are beneficial where you live.
Remember, pollinators are attracted to a huge range of flowering plants. Trees in blossom, flowering shrubs, climbers and vines, perennials, and annual vegetable, herbs and ornamental flowers can all attract beneficial insects to your garden.
How you combine the plants in your garden and the overall design is just as important as the individual species that you select.
Ultimately, the goal is to create habitat, rather than just plants, and that means carefully thinking about how plants can be combined to create the insect-friendly garden you desire.
Some types of pollinator-friendly gardens include:
- Fruit trees & guilds, orchards and forest gardens
- Flowering hedgerows and shrubberies.
- Herbaceous perennial beds and borders.
- Prairie planting or wildflower meadow areas.
- Wild, undisturbed areas with native ‘weeds’ and self-sown wild flowers.
- Polyculture vegetable beds with companion planting.
- Dedicated herb gardens.
- Annual cut flower gardens.
- Xeriscaped areas, rain gardens, bog gardens, ponds, and other specialist habitats.
Remember, a pollinator garden does not have to be an area distinct from other areas of your garden. With holistic strategies, your whole garden can become a haven for insects and other wildlife. In my pollinator- friendly garden, I have examples of most of the above.
Before You Begin: Designing a Pollinator Garden
As always, in permaculture, there are certain things that we should think about before we even begin to put our plant lists together.
1. Get To Know Your Site
First of all, it is important to understand that a pollinator garden that works well for one location will not work as well in another.
Any pollinator garden should be site specific, and that means that before you make your decisions, determine a layout and choose your plants, you need to get to know your own garden, and understand the conditions where you live.
To help you understand this, I’d like to share a story about one family who were determined to create a wildflower meadow. Thinking that they were doing the right thing for the insect life and other wildlife in their area, they purchased a meadow mix of seeds online and sowed these in their garden.
Unfortunately, the meadow mix that they had selected contained plants that were not suited to the soil and growing conditions where they live. Though native to the country, they were not native to the specific area and were unsuited to its environment. So, of course, the area failed to thrive.
But instead of a generic meadow, locally native ‘weeds’ began to populate the area. Beautiful wildflowers popped up and found their place in the prepared soil. Following my advice, the family waited. Now they have a beautifully diverse, flower-filled area that developed all on its own. Insect live proliferated and now each spring and summer, the area buzzes with life.
In short, therefore, it is important to design specific to site, but also to recognise that sometimes, less intervention is best, and the best thing for pollinators where you live might not even be to plant at all. It might simply be to let nature reign, and run wild, to let a perfect pollinator garden emerge on its own.
Of course, this strategy would not work everywhere. Though it was right for this family, it might not be the right option for you.
So always observe and get to know your garden thoroughly before you make any decisions. Look at sunlight, wind, water and soil, existing plants, and broader patterns to get a good idea of the site. Undertaking this process will mean that long term, you are far more likely to succeed in your garden.
2. Get to Know the Pollinators Where You Live
To create the perfect pollinator garden for where you live, you don’t just have to get to know your site. You also need to understand which pollinators are present where you live, and which you are most keen to attract.
Numerous insects (and other creatures) play a role in pollination. And those pollinators don’t all have the same needs, likes and dislikes. Most have adapted to feed from and interact with specific plants native to your area, and won’t necessarily be able to pollinate a wider range of species.
Distinct pollinators may prefer a certain colour or colours of flowers, and be more drawn to them. They might typically opt preferentially to visit flowers of a particular shape or be drawn to certain fragrances….or repelled by them.
The perfect pollinator garden is one tailored to the specific pollinators in your area that you most wish to attract.
Important pollinators in the UK include honey bees, bumblebees and other bee species, butterflies and moths, flies, wasps, beetles, and more…By learning more about specific species, I can make sure I have plants suited to their needs to attract them in my garden.
3. Take Note of Which Pollinators Are Currently Around, and When
As well as understanding which pollinators are present and important in your area, and what they prefer, you also need to know a little more about their lifecycles and habits in order to cater to them as well as you possibly can.
Think about which pollinators are already present in the area where you live, and when they tend to appear, and depart. There may be specific times of the year when having plants in bloom for local, native pollinators is particularly important.
Where I live, for example, it is particularly important to have early blooms for bumblebees when these emerge in late winter and early spring. And through my own planting, I can ensure that there is nectar around when little is yet available in the wild in the surrounding area.
4. Think About When You Most Need Pollinators Around
Thinking about when you need plants in bloom to attract pollinators from your own perspective is also important in a food producing garden. Remember, one of the benefits of attracting pollinators to your space is that they will be around to pollinate your own crops.
In my garden, it is particularly important for me to attract plenty of pollinators in the early spring, so these are present by the time the fruit trees in my forest garden come into bloom. So plants that flower during this period (including spring ephemerals like daffodils, for example) are included in guilds of beneficial plants below the trees.
Of course, if you have an annual vegetable garden, you need plenty of pollinators around in summer. You could place flower beds close to beds for annual crops. But in permaculture, we talk about integrating rather than segregating, and so will often place particularly pollinator-friendly plants as companions with our main culinary crops rather than in a separate location.
For example, I use borage, marigolds, calendula and other companion plants to draw pollinators to my vegetable beds and into my polytunnel to pollinate my tomato plants and other crops in summer.
Choosing Plants for a Pollinator Garden
Since pollinator gardens come in many different forms, there are no hard and fast rules about which plants you should include. However, here are some tips to help you make the right plant choices for a pollinator garden:
- Start with plants native to your area.
- Select plants that bloom over as much of the year as possible.
- Opt for diverse plants with flowers in a variety of shapes, forms and colours.
- Choose plants for fragrance as well as visual appeal.
- Seek out nectary plants.
Native plants are often the best choices for native pollinators because these plants and animals have evolved together. Often, pollinators have close relationships with specific plants found in a particular area.
Some make the mistake of creating a beautiful flower garden in summer, but forget about providing for pollinators over the rest of the year. Choosing diverse plant types, and plants that bloom at different periods, so that you have plenty of nectar around throughout the whole of the growing season.
Remember, different pollinators will prefer and be attracted to different flower shapes, forms and colours. Honey bees, for example, can see purple and white most clearly and so are often most attracted to flowers in these hues.
Single rather than double blooms are often more attractive to insect pollinators, because the nectar is easier to access in this form of flowers.
Large species of bumblebees in Britain (like hummingbirds in North America) are attracted to tubular flowers. While other pollinators prefer wide, flat umbels of blooms, like yarrow, for example.
Some pollinators are drawn to fragrance rather than hue, to aromatic herbs and fragrant flowers can be used to attract these species.
Nectary plants are plants that provide high quantities of nectar for pollinators to enjoy. Some flowers produce far more nectar, and refill far more quickly, than others.
Borage, for example, is a fantastic nectary plant, re-filling with nectar for bees and other pollinators far more quickly than many other flowers.
Native plant lists for your particular area can also be a good place to start when choosing plants for your pollinator garden.
Other Features for a Pollinator Garden
Remember, while choosing the right plants and combining those plants in the right ways and in the right places is the most important thing, pollinators will also benefit from other features that you add to your garden.
For example, you should consider adding:
- Water features.
- Rocks and stones.
- Stumps, logs, dead wood and brush piles.
These other features can help to increase the habitat available for a broad range of insect life and other pollinators in your garden.
Marking Out Your Pollinator Garden
Once you have created a plan for your pollinator garden, have decided the type of garden you will create and made a list of the plants that you plan to include in your design and where each one will be placed, you can get started on actually putting your plans into action.
But you cannot plant right away. First you will need to mark out the area for your planting scheme.
I like to mark out new growing areas with string, or with flour or chalk lines on the ground.
Creating Your Pollinator Garden
Next, you will prepare the area for planting. Some schemes, like a pond, or rain garden, for example, will require some digging and additional stages of work. But in many cases, you can take a no-dig approach when creating new growing areas.
Instead of digging you can layer cardboard and organic materials over the site – topping this with a layer of compost, well-rotted manure, leaf mould, or loam. You can them plant the species you have selected through or into these layers.
Sowing and Planting a Pollinator Garden
Once you have created an area for planting, you can next begin the process of populating your new pollinator garden with plants.
This might involve sowing seeds directly, or indoors to transplant later. It might involve propagating existing plants elsewhere through division or from cuttings. And perhaps purchasing some bare-root plants.
Remember, share and co-operate, and take a DIY approach to plant propagation to save money and create your garden in a more eco-friendly and sustainable way.
Finally, you can watch your garden grow and the pollinators arrive. Just make sure that you tend your garden organically to avoid harming the creatures your garden is designed to attract and aid.