Planting for Pollinators

Do you like watermelon, avocados, nuts, apples, peaches, blueberries, or chocolate?  None of those foods would exist without pollinators. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, more than 150 of our U.S. food crops depend on pollinators, including almost all fruit and grain crops.  Most of us value a variety of fruits, nuts, and vegetables, but let’s face it, a world without pollinators is a world without chocolate!

In addition to our food system, pollinators help flowering plants reproduce by carrying pollen from plant to plant while foraging.  Our ecosystem depends on flowering plants to produce oxygen, remove carbon dioxide from the air, and to purify water and prevent erosion.  About 75% of the world’s flowering plants depend on pollinators to reproduce.

National Pollinator Week
June is the perfect time to learn more about pollinators and their impact on plants, people and the health of the plant. In fact, June 20-26, 2022 is National Pollinator Week, launched by the Pollinator Partnership 14 years ago to raise awareness of the importance of pollinators. Let’s look at what you need to know to attract pollinators to your home landscape.

Container pots with pollinator-attracting plants at The Center at Belvedere

Who are our pollinator friends?
Examples of pollinators include birds, bats, hummingbirds, honey bees, bumble bees, butterflies, and moths.  Unfortunately, many of our pollinators are dying and experiencing population decline mostly related to habitat loss, disease, parasites, and environmental contaminants.

How to plant for pollinators
Fortunately, we can all help create more welcoming habitat and food sources for pollinators.  Even those who live in small spaces with a patio or balcony can use pots for plants, volunteer with an established pollinator garden, or help a school, church, or other organization create one!  Planting for pollinators provides many benefits to our ecosystem and contributes to conservation landscaping. In the Piedmont Virginia area, conservation landscaping contributes to the restoration of the Chesapeake Bay watershed and improves the region’s water and air quality.

The following 8 steps for planning a pollinator garden can help you get started:

  1. Conduct a site analysis: Take a look at your target area at different times of the day.  How much sun or shade does it get throughout the day? Is it a mostly dry area or a moist area? You can also purchase a soil test kit to determine your soil composition and needs.
  2. Learn the components of a native pollinator garden: Pollinator gardens should contain food sources for pollinators throughout their lifespan. They should include host plants for both larvae and adult pollinators and offer habitat and protection for pollinators.
  3. Ensure that at least 70% (if not all) of the plants you choose are native to your area: Native plants provide the best habitat and food sources for pollinators.  They are also well adapted to local climate conditions and will require less maintenance.  Beware of “pollinator” seed mixes which often include annuals, non-natives, and even invasive species!  Don’t use invasives such as the Butterfly Bush; choose Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa) instead.  Plant Virginia Natives is a great resource and also includes a free digital native plant book. Albemarle County also has a very helpful Piedmont Native Plant database.
  4. Lay out the garden design and choose plants: Make sure to select a variety of flowers that bloom throughout the season, as well as grasses that support larvae and provide protective habitats. When buying plants, ask for them by botanical name. Plan for one plant for each square foot in the garden area. Create “massings” of 4-5 plants together and disperse color and bloom time through your garden.
  5. Prepare the site: If the garden area already has grass, you will need to remove it and any other non-desirable plants, especially any invasives, like English Ivy. Use lasagna mulching if necessary to prepare rich soil for the site. In some cases, you may only need to add top soil and 1-2 inches of organic compost.
  6. Get the shovel and plant! Make sure to follow the planting guidelines for spacing and depth for each plant. Water thoroughly when done. Mulch will help retain moisture.
  7. Care for the pollinator garden: Water frequently the first year. Purchasing a rain gauge to monitor rainfall can also help determine when to water. Make sure to regularly weed the garden area and remove any invasives that may try to reestablish. In the fall, make sure to leave the seed heads and stalks to provide food and habitat for birds and overwintering insects. Cut plants back in late spring. Add leaf much in the fall and compost in the spring.
  8. Avoid using week killers, chemical fertilizers, or pesticides: This is an important step to continue protecting pollinators, who are often poisoned by various chemical compounds. There are many organic and alternative methods to addressing any problems that may arise with the plants.

Planting the new demo pollinator garden at The Center at Belvedere

Visit a demo pollinator garden
The Charlottesville, Virginia area is fortunate to have a newly designed and planted pollinator demonstration garden at The Center at Belvedere, a healthy aging community center. Master Gardeners have worked diligently with the Center staff and their newly formed Horticulture Club to create a pollinator garden including both in-ground beds and large pots. Feel free to visit this new pollinator garden at the back of The Center.

Additional Resources:
These additional resources provide more details, beautiful graphics, and examples of pollinator plants:

Attracting Pollinators to Your Garden Using Native Plants

Audubon Guide for a Healthy Yard and Beyond

Backyard Wildlife Habitat

For the Birds, Butterflies & Hummingbirds:  Creating Inviting Habitats;

Habitat at Home

Landscape Choices Inspired by Nature

Solving Your Pest Problems Without Harming Pollinators

Wildlife Habitat

Featured Image by Angela Orebaugh – Monarch butterfly on  Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) in her garden.

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