Lynmar Bench

A bench set among a summer display of blanket flower (gaillardia).

What is a garden, and what is it for?

The wildlife that visit plants and flowers in our gardens are an integral part of the beauty and vitality contained in them, a tangible aspect that can’t be separated from concepts of design. By including lots of pollinator-friendly flowering plants, our gardens become not just aesthetically beautiful, but gardens of life, with the potential to create a moving and inspirational experience for all who visit. The same flowers that pollinators visit make us happy as well.

These gardens have the ability to bring nature into our own yard, and because they are necessarily flower-filled, they provide uplifting settings to grace our outdoor spaces and activities, houses, the neighborhood and the community. Immersion in nature and in plant-filled spaces lowers stress levels and contributes to general well-being.

We don’t usually think of our gardens as educational or entertaining, but this type of garden holds the ability for both.

What pollinators need

Many of the same flowers that support pollinators also support beneficial insects — predatory insects that provide natural pest control. Over 90 percent of birds feed their young insects, so these gardens can be important sources of food for them.

Who doesn’t love flowers, hasn’t exclaimed over the tapestry-like beauty of butterflies or acrobatic activities of hummingbirds and is not mesmerized by the activities of bees? Imagine the pleasure of finding the empty husks of parasitized aphids on plant leaves, showing that natural pest control is working. These small creatures connect and integrate us with the larger world, and engage us in their lives.

Gardens need a number of factors to support pollinators. The most important is to include many flowers that offer pollen and nectar. Pollen is composed of proteins and fats and is primarily a larval food for bees. Nectar is composed of different sugars and provides food or fuel for daily activities.

Some plants such as poppies produce only pollen and mostly just in the morning, but many plants’ flowers produce both. Grains, oaks, grapes, and conifers are wind pollinated and generate profuse amounts of low quality (low protein) pollen not attractive to pollinators. Ferns reproduce mostly by spores. Some landscape plants don’t flower, or the blooms are not recognized by native pollinators.

Flowers such as some roses, dahlias, echinceas, and black-eyed Susans have been bred for multiple petals, and flower parts are no longer accessible. The mop-headed hydrangeas are composed mostly of sterile flowers, while the lovely lacecap varieties have fertile flowers very attractive to bees.

Best choices

Some plants such as red valerian (Centranthus ruber) cater to specific pollinators. Butterflies avidly visit the deep pink, long floral nectar tubes in the spring and summer. Zinnias and many salvias greatly appeal to hummingbirds and bees. Some hummingbird mints (Agastache) are hummingbird favorites and super showy to our eyes, while some are more bee-friendly such as anise hyssop types (Agastache foeniculum).

Penstemon flowers often cater to both hummingbirds and bees. Evening primroses (Oenothera) nectar attracts large, night-flying moths, though bees can collect pollen. Moth caterpillars are a very important food source for fledgling birds. Sphinx moths have large iridescent eyes, and going out in the evening with a flashlight reveals a world not often seen. Many evening primrose flowers unfurl within about 10 minutes in the early evening, a process fascinating to watch.

There is much to learn by observation in our own yards and neighborhoods.

For pollinator gardens, think in terms of floral profusion, not minimalism. A few pollinator plants won’t support many bees or much else and may not even be enough to attract them. Consider that it takes one acre of flowers to support a honeybee colony. They are creatures of efficiency and they won’t direct the resources of the hive to small patches of flowers.

Honeybees and, to a lesser extent, native bees practice flower constancy and visit the same flowers all day long. Butterflies and hummingbirds also need sufficient food resources to survive or stay in an area. Having the largest area of flowers per variety as you can manage in your garden is important.

Flower-rich gardens make us happy too — whether the color scheme is bright, primary colors or pastel compositions, in formal settings or impressionist mixes of blooms — we all respond to color.

About pollinators

Bees are the most efficient pollinators. Washington state has about 600 species of native bees, most of them solitary, not social, and as such not defensive like social honeybees. Seventy percent nest in the ground in small holes they make with chambers. Nests are provisioned by females with small balls of pollen on which they lay an egg. 

Thirty percent of native bees are crevice nesting and make or use small holes in dead wood, fence posts, hollow plant stems or bee-blocks. Each species is active during the same time of year that the flowers it co-evolved with are blooming, so you will see different bee varieties in your garden over the course of the season.

They come in a wide range of shapes, colors and sizes — from 1/10 of an inch long, in the case of Perdita bees, to black carpenter bees that many be 1 inch long. Bees may be shiny black, black and yellow or white, iridescent green or covered in fur like bumblebees.

Butterfly species too may just be active in the spring, others during summer. Monarchs and hummingbirds migrate through in spring and late summer, and some (hummingbirds) nest here. Including plants in our gardens that bloom early in the season to those that bloom late in the season is very important in ensuring the viability of these creatures’ lives. Bloom “gaps” can spell death or the inability to reproduce.

Early-spring blooming plants are vital for the queens of some bumblebee species. As they come out of hibernation, they need nectar for fuel and pollen to provision nests. Early blooming plants such as willow, heathers, and Oregon grape (mahonia), are important for these bees.

Late-blooming plants such as asters, goldenrod, salvias, rabbitbrush (Ericameria) and the shrub, seven-son-flower (Heptacodium miconioides) provide important floral resources for bees and other migrating species at this crucial time going into winter. Milkweeds (Asclepias) are vital for monarch butterflies to reproduce and are showy garden subjects.

What works best

Native plants are best for native wildlife, but many bees, butterflies and birds feed on a number of selected nonnative plants too.

A diversity of flowers blooming is very important. Many bees are generalists (honeybees especially) and require a diversity of pollen and nectar for health. Studies have shown that having 8-11 different species blooming at one time helps not just with bee health, but also attracts more species.

Some plants such as blanket flower (Gaillardia), catmint (nepeta), sidalcea, scabiosa, delphinium, some lavenders, calamint, echinacea, sunflowers, and many salvias and hummingbird mints (Agastache) bloom for weeks to months and not only fill our gardens with color, but support much life.

The size of our yards dictates how much we can plant, but this is an important aspect of bee health to keep in mind.

Making sure we use plants that are adapted to the particular soil and climactic conditions in our gardens helps ensure we have healthy plants. Healthy, adapted plants generally don’t have pest issues. There is a direct connection between healthy soils and healthy plants. Just spreading about 1-2 inches of good compost on the soil each year as a mulch does much to generate healthy soils. Having a good population of predatory insects contributes to a healthy plant environment.

Pollinator gardens are as beautiful to our eyes as they are important to pollinators’ lives. Flower-filled spaces can grace our home gardens, businesses, parks and farms all season long.

Organizations such as the Xerces Society (xerces.org) offer many resources online and in print. Books on pollinator gardens are available at bookstores and online. Many nurseries now provide information on which plants are pollinator-friendly. And wood blocks to house crevice-nesting bees can be made or purchased online.

Kate Frey is an author, columnist, garden designer and educator. Her books are “The Bee-Friendly Garden” and “Ground Rules.”

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