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May 22nd 2023

Attracting Pollinators into the Garden

Written by
Floret

One of the big projects I wanted to tackle as part of the new farm design was finding a way to attract as many pollinators as possible to help with seed production and increase the overall life and biodiversity here on the farm. 

When it comes to pollinators, honeybees usually get all of the credit, but there are so many other hard-working creatures that aid in the important task of pollination, including bumblebees, honeybees, native bees, wasps, hornets, flies, moths, butterflies, and even birds. 

As I started looking for information about what plants were most attractive to pollinators, I found myself getting a bit overwhelmed. There were numerous wildflower seed mixes available specifically blended by region, but when it came to perennials, I couldn’t find any planting plans, suggested plant combinations, or design samples that I could use for inspiration. 

While many companies do a great job identifying which plants are attractive to pollinators (usually with a bee or butterfly icon), I found it hard to know which plants had similar growing requirements and would make good companions in the landscape.

So often when you see pictures of a pollinator-friendly garden it’s typically a jumble of color and feels chaotic and messy. While that effect is fitting in a wild, meadow-like setting, it’s not very suitable for a more curated garden. 

I wanted to see if I could find a way to create a beautiful pollinator-friendly garden that was also low maintenance, drought tolerant, and would provide a food and nectar source for pollinators and songbirds throughout as much of the growing season as possible. 

The first step in this experiment was to source as many easy-to-grow pollinator-friendly perennials as I could find. Rather than investing in large plants, I instead opted to order plugs, which are smaller plants, usually sold in trays of 32 to 50.

Buying smaller plants in bulk was the most affordable option and necessary given the scale of the project. 

If I were doing this on a smaller backyard scale, I would still choose to start with the smallest plants I could find because what I discovered was that nearly all of the perennials I grew as part of this project are fast-growing and fill in quickly, catching up to the size of a 1-gallon potted plant within a single growing season.  

When making my selections, I ordered everything that was noted as being attractive to pollinators and also easy to grow. I tried to select plants that had softer, more muted colors, rather than really bright and bold selections. 

Becky and I considered a number of different approaches when it came to designing what eventually became the pollinator strips. We are both huge fans of Piet Oudolf’s style and how he composes plantings in large drifts that are repeated in a loose pattern throughout the garden. It creates the effect of wide brush strokes of color and texture.

If you don’t already have Piet’s books, they are all really wonderful, but my favorite is Planting the Natural Garden

Becky organized the perennials based on color, size, and flowering time. For some of the pollinator strips, we opted for a monochromatic color palette of all whites or purples, while others included multiple colors in softer complimentary shades.

In the end, we settled on seven different color and plant combinations.

We decided to keep the design as simple as possible and plant the pollinator strips in long rows along the edges of our flower fields, similar to how our field crops are grown. This allowed us to use drip irrigation in the beds and landscape fabric to mulch the pathways in between, making maintenance much easier in the long run.

In the spring before planting, each bed was amended with a few inches of high-quality compost and natural fertilizer (I love Walt’s Rainy Pacific Northwest blend) and this mixture was incorporated into the soil with our walk-behind rototiller.

Each pollinator strip is roughly 3 ft wide and about 80 ft long with a 2 ft wide landscape fabric-covered path. Once the beds were prepared, Becky laid out all of the baby plants according to her designs and we followed behind tucking them into the ground.

We chose to space plants quite closely together (roughly 8 to 9 in) because we wanted them to establish quickly, essentially forming a living carpet so that they would be able to compete with the heavy weed pressure we have here on the farm. 

We normally grow our annual field crops in pre-burned landscape fabric to help with weed suppression, but since perennials spread from the base as they mature, using fabric on the beds wasn’t an option for this project.

Instead, we covered the bare soil around the young plants with a layer of straw mulch to keep the weeds at bay while they established. Shortly after planting, we laid down four lines of drip irrigation and watered plants deeply twice a week whenever there was no rain. Plants went into the ground in late March, and to my surprise, by July most were in full bloom and nearly filled in.

We went through and spot-weeded a few times in the summer, but overall they required very little maintenance and care. Plants established quickly and soon smothered out the weeds.

We evaluated each combination of plants over two full growing seasons.

Some planting schemes fared better than others, and I have plans to recombine the strongest performers from each into some new plantings to see if I can perfect the plant combinations.

Of all the plants that were part of this project, my very favorites were the yarrow, asters, agastache, nepeta, salvia, milkweed, Joe Pye weed, echinacea, and goldenrod. All of these plants were vigorous, filled in quickly, and didn’t have any major pest pressure.

Plus, the pollinators adored them. 

While I absolutely love echinacea and it’s hugely attractive to pollinators, we have such heavy vole pressure in the field, and plants didn’t survive the first growing season. If voles weren’t an issue, I would incorporate even more echinacea into future designs because they have so many wonderful characteristics. 

Below you’ll find a little more information about some of my favorite planting schemes. 

One of the pollinator strips I was most excited about was the one composed of all-white flowers.

This strip included echinacea ‘White Swan’, Shasta daisy ‘Alaska’, common yarrow, milkweed ‘Ice Ballet’, and perennial asters.

While it looked glorious in late June and early July, it didn’t hold its beauty all summer long like many of the others. By midsummer, the Shasta daisies had tipped over and everything else looked a little bit shabby and dingy.

While the floral display waned more quickly than I had hoped, this particular pollinator strip was a favorite with songbirds in the fall and winter so it still has a ton of merit in my book.

One of my favorite plant combinations was the one composed of all yellow flowers, including a mixture of different types of goldenrod (‘Golden Glory’, ‘Crown of Rays’, ‘Fireworks’, ‘Sunny Glory’, and ‘Romantic Glory’), various black-eyed Susans (including ‘Little Henry’ and ‘Goldrush’), and tansy. 

This pollinator strip had a kind of rugged feel to it and all of the plants were very textural and wild. I think the plant mix would look stunning in some type of meadow situation or planted on an even larger scale.

Of all the pollinator strips, this one was the most attractive to pollinators, especially wasps, native bees, and flies. 

Another lovely plant combination that Becky put together was all rosy pink and purple flowers.

It included yarrow ‘Sassy Summer Taffy’, pink tickseed, echinacea ‘Magnus’, milkweed ‘Cinderella’, Japanese anemone ‘September Charm’, agastache ‘Blue Boa’, and bee balm ‘Grape Gumball’.

It’s worth noting that we lost most of the echinacea due to vole pressure so there were a number of gaping holes in the design, but on the flip side the Japanese anemones filled in rapidly and put on a beautiful late-season floral show. 

To my surprise, the design that I was least excited about, which featured all blues and purples, turned out to be the longest-flowering and most beautiful one of all. 

Because all of the plants included in it had a more compact habit, they stayed upright without any support. The varieties bloomed in a nearly perfect succession from early May through September and whenever I stood next to it, it was literally humming with life! 

If I were to recommend one planting scheme of the seven, this is my very favorite and we’ve put together a printable planting plan and plant list which you can download at the bottom of this post.

As part of our low-maintenance approach to caring for the pollinator strips, we decided to leave all of the plant debris in place through the winter, rather than cleaning it up at the end of the growing season.

I had no idea just how many little creatures would feast on the remaining seed pods and make these wild spaces their home throughout the coldest months of the year. 

After realizing what an important role they were playing for wildlife, we’ve adopted a similar approach to all of the gardens on the farm and are now leaving the dead plants in place until early spring.

The plant skeletons give the winter garden a hauntingly beautiful quality—especially when they are covered in a layer of frost or a dusting of snow. 

Overall, the pollinator strip experiment has been a huge success and I’m excited to continue working on it this coming season.

Most of the perennials that were used in this project were sourced from Bluebird Nursery in Nebraska. This wholesale mail-order nursery offers more than 1,500 different varieties.

If you’re looking for perennial plugs in smaller quantities, be sure to check out Prairie Moon Nursery in Minnesota because they are now offering native flowers and grasses for home gardeners. 

I am so excited to keep exploring plantings for pollinators and will continue sharing updates here on the blog.

Id love to hear about some of the pollinator-friendly plants that you have growing in your garden.


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36 Comments

  1. Shelley on

    Thank you for this. I am a fan of perennials and this gives me some great ideas and tips. So appreciate it.

    Reply
  2. Charlotte on

    Thank you for the wonderful Pollinator Strip Plan.

    I used to work at a garden center, and have collected many perennial pollinator plants over time. I also like to experiment with different annual varieties each year, that are grown from seed. This keeps costs lower, and it’s a great way to change up the look of the garden. I leave the annuals and perennials over winter for critter food and habitat. Plus, the spent and dormant plants add a bit of structural interest in winter.

    Practice Integrated Pest Management.
    All critters are welcome in my garden…even aphids! By leaving the “pests”, a mini-ecosystem is created, and the beneficial insects and animals come to my garden to do the work for me.

    No Pesticides Please! Pesticides do not discriminate. They will kill the pollinators too.

    Reply
  3. Amy on

    Thank you so much for these plans, we’re going to use the purple one this year. I’m having trouble finding Aster Pink Chiffon anywhere, tho, would you be able to suggest a replacement?

    Reply
  4. Shawn Walker on

    I started a pollinator garden on a hillside on my property. It is about 50 feet from one of my cut flower gardens and about 100 from another. I started out with Echinacea (purple, white and cream colors), then added Salvia, Lambaba (Bee Balm), Phlox (pink), Liatris and Spirea shrubs. Then in the front planted Mother of Thyme. I was so surprised the first year by all the insects that visited the garden. Some of the blooms were harvested and used within floral buckets and arrangements, the others were left on the stems to die back naturally. When I went to check the blooms that had died back, almost all of them had their seeds eaten by the birds. That made my heart happy. Such an exciting thing to know that naturally we are feeding our pollinators and are able to enjoy watching them and the flowers grow at the same time!

    Reply
  5. Sarah on

    I have hundreds of different plants in my pollinator gardens, but by a landslide, the favorite of bees is the catmint. They go crazy for it! I have probably 30 catmint plants dispersed through my gardens and there are times that I can while away an hour just watching the bees crawl over the blooms.

    Reply
  6. Brooke on

    I planted borage back in 2016 because I was trying for edible plants only. It smells like cucumber, tastes like cucumber and the blooms are pretty (and our dogs will have a taste as well occasionally). I discovered it self seeds like crazy and every year since I have fought all the volunteers from that original planting and it’s offspring.
    This year I let them go and no matter the weather or the time of day, there are tons of bees of all species. I can’t bring myself to get rid of them because if there is a plant the bees love and I’m bothered because it doesn’t look as nice as I want it to, I will let the bees thrive on the overly enthusiastic borage. Plant it somewhere where it’s self seeding won’t be a problem or that you are willing to chase the offspring for years to eliminate it.

    Reply
  7. Chelle Warren on

    Hello! Brand new here -have only planted in containers prior but now I have 2 rather large rectangle beds that I am trying to map out my plan for Zone 8 Austin Texas heat. I watch flowers that I can enjoy in arrangements and give as bouquets! I love the cupcake zinnias and my ultimate favorite are the peony’s! I want to have a variety of flowers in colors that match well together and blend sone lavender in as well. Let’s not forget hydrangeas!! Unsure if zone 8 will work for them? I just haven’t a clue if I need a pollinator area or do i just buy seeds and plant? I do want it to be artistic in nature and loved the lines of yours. How do I figure this out? Thanks!

    Reply
  8. Betty on

    Beautiful! I inherited a perennial garden on the easement in front of our new house (approx 20×60 feet) in Detroit last year. I added a bunch of pollinator friendly plants last spring, planted 150 bulbs last fall and focused on adding more Michigan natives this year. Thanks for the recommendations! I’ve been very inspired by our Piet Oudolf garden on Belle Isle and I’m trying to create that lush meadow look instead of the mish mash of plants the previous owner had. Ideally, I want to get rid of all the grass in our yard and expand the gardens to create a pollinator paradise.

    Reply
  9. Lynne James on

    Two of the best pollinator plants I have in my garden are the ordinary oregano (Origanum vulgare) and what we call Michelmas daisies, Aster amellus. The oregano flowers mid-summer, and the daisies are a late summer/autumn flowerer. Comfrey is also a big hit with the bees, but doesn’t have showy flowers so may not be suitable for garden beds. And there’s borage too, super popular!

    Reply
  10. Laura on

    This plan has been so helpful in designing my own pollinator bed in my backyard in Portland. I also love Piet Oudolf’s books, but have struggled with making my perennial beds feel natural. As a vegetable gardener it’s hard to break out of my square foot grid mindset, and seeing the way you mapped out the flower groupings in a painterly, organic way has changed my approach to my garden planning. Would you ever consider sharing some of the plans for the other beds? The one including yarrow and echinacea (I think the pink/purple bed) would be especially helpful, as those are two of my favorite natives. Thank you for this valuable resource!

    Reply
  11. Dganit Eldar on

    Thank you so much for this post. I have a question though regarding you other flower beds. I am new to the business. Are you not encouraging pollinators throughout your cut flowers beds? If not, how do you keep pollinators away?
    Thank you,
    Dganit

    Reply
  12. Lyn on

    Hi! Thank you for this pollinator plan. Do you have a flowers, fillers, foliage combination plan for small area like 2000sqft land? I get so overwhelmed, I don’t know which ones to plant first. Thank you!

    Reply
  13. Brianna on

    I really appreciate this being broken down by plant and also including the nurseries, AND including the plan!!! I hate when people take a picture and just say “bee friendly plants” because I want to know exactly what the plants are!! Love love love!!

    Reply
  14. Lou on

    Where’s the planting scheme? Love the purple strip the best; great job on all of them.

    Reply
    • BriAnn, Team Floret on

      Towards the bottom of this post you can sign up for the Pollinator Strip Plan. It will automatically pull up on your web browser after clicking “Get the Plans”.

  15. Mya on

    Love this post. Here in Minnesota, the honey bees and small native bees love Calamintha nepeta and Pycnanthemum muticum in my garden. Bumblebees like my penstamon. And I’ve noticed that my monardas attract the very largest bumblebees ever – guess they are the only ones with tongues long enough to access the nectar. And monarch really flock to my Meadow Blazing star (Liatris ligulistylis) in late summer – (this seeds everywhere which for me is a plus but might not be for everyone)

    Reply
  16. Robyn on

    I LOVE your site! Gardening has been an important part of my life for many years in zone 5. I recently moved into a condo community in a new-to-me planting zone 10a. The back of our building faces a pond and gets full sun. It is currently planted sparsely with basic green shrubs. I would like to plant as many perennials as possible to use for cutting and feeding pollinators, while enjoying a beautiful garden outside of my lanai with as little maintenance as possible. This article is a tremendous help! While I know these plants are sun lovers, zone info would be helpful in future articles as well. Thank you for sharing your knowledge so freely with home gardeners like me and with retailers also. You truly are a gift to the gardening community!

    Reply
  17. Allison on

    Our place in Skagit was owned by a nursery owner in the 60s/ 70s and has a wide variety of plants. Currently working to catch up on deferred maintenance, and add more cut flowers! Thankful for your resources – hoping to add more pollinator friendly plants around our orchard and berry patch.

    Reply
  18. Dolores Delgado, Portland, OR on

    Are pollinators meant to help other plants grow? I have raspberries, so would pollinators like lavender, daisies, zinnias help them?

    Reply
  19. Susanne Osmond on

    do you follow the work of xerces society? great resources on creating habitat for pollinators and butterflies; also on avoiding pesticides and herbicides on bee-friendly plant material. xerces.org

    you might also be interested in the work of john little from the uk. he’s experimenting with all sorts of simple waste materials and techniques to create habitat for pollinators. grassroofcompamy.co.uk

    Reply
  20. Kyle on

    If you have a low, wet spot, definitely check out Henderson’s checkermallow. I’m in year 3 of my planting and it has sprang to life like crazy this year. Has no problem with Washington’s wet winters. Native bees were all over it today. Lovely pink blooms and the plants basically take care of themselves.

    Reply
  21. Grace on

    Would you mind sharing where you bought your plugs from? I have been trying to create a garden with a similar purpose for awhile, but am having a hard time sourcing small perennial plants/plugs.

    Reply
  22. Susan on

    I love my lavender. Not only are bees all over it in the summer, but it smells fabulous on the walkway up to our front door. It also likes dryer soil and needs very little water. When the blooms are finished, I love how the goldfinches descend on it, clinging to the long stems as they pluck out the seeds. It’s nice to feed the birds and the bees!

    Reply
  23. Stephanie on

    High Country Gardens and Native American Seed are some additional great resources for pollinator and waterwise plants, especially if you live in Texas, Oklahoma, or the western mountain states.

    Reply
  24. Lori Gross on

    I have been expanding native flower plots over the past five years and have found Echinacea purpurea to be a favorite of so many pollinators both as a host plant and for adult nectar. Asclepias tuberosa is also in that category. Right now the Penstemon digitalis is putting on quite a floral show and is covered in bumblebee queens. The Monarda bradburiana is a new favorite. The plants I started from seed last spring really filled in and are blooming heavily in their second season. Pycnanthemum tenufolium seems to be pest free and attracts a wide variety of butterflies, wasps and bees with white flower heads during midsummer. It is also drought tolerant and can fill in a large area. All of my plants have to tolerate a lot of heat and wind without ideal moisture. I have always been pleased with the quality of plants from Prairie Moon Nursery. This year’s experiment is white moon garden with native plants. Loved your comment in the new season about “maybe I tried to do too much”. Thanks for all you share.

    Reply
  25. Caro on

    How do you deal with voles. They destroyed my spring garden. They are all of my bulbs.

    Reply
  26. AMS on

    I love this post, as focusing on pollinator friendly plants has been a big goal of mine as I build my garden.

    When I put in my information to download the pollinator strip plans it only provides the purple. Is that intended?

    Reply
  27. Christy Washut on

    I love Bee Balm, but have trouble getting to come back for more than a couple for years. Any hints? I also have a location where I had a huge clematis. It had to come out due to the construction of a new porch. I have tried to re-establish another one in the same location for 3 years now. No luck…. Any help you can offer would be so appreciated. Thanks in advance. Christy

    Reply
  28. Kari Ferguson on

    Several years ago I decided to plant leeks and let them go to seed. Not only are the giant seed heads stunningly beautiful, they also attract the most pollinators of any plant I’ve seen. They look whimsical planted amidst other perennials, and require little to no maintenance.

    Reply
  29. Beverly Ash Gilbert on

    What a lovely pictorial tour of your pollinator strips – thank you!

    In addition to the purples you’ve listed, I’ve found pollinators love to hang around my rhododendrons (esp. the purple ones) at the edge of the woods and the alliums (chives, garlic, onions and leeks) in my veg patch, so I’ve been tucking garlic into my flower beds and edge some of them with chives!

    Reply
  30. Eowyn on

    Just glorious. Thank you for the example you set with these plantings! I’m curious if you’ve come across professor Doug Tallamy’s work and considered incorporating more straight species versions of our US natives? They are now known to be far more important and nutritious to our native insects and other wildlife than cultivar versions of native plants.

    Reply
  31. Mary Wordsman on

    I live at 5500 ft elevation and I started with a blank slate when we built our home in 2015. I like tidy, symmetrical garden beds but in the front yard, I decided to leave a large, pear shaped area for pollinator favorites and I let them go to seed the first couple of years. It contains daisies, lupine, dianthus, black eyed susan, echinacea, yarrow, foxglove, salvia, veronica, Russian Sage, bearded Iris, blanket flower, Korean lilac, bachelor button, and monarda. In late summer, it is a riot of color and you can hear the bees buzzing. Hummingbirds and butterflies also visit regularly. While it looks a bit chaotic, it always brings a smile to my face. Helping birds and pollinators is important to me as they are all in decline. Season 2 of Growing Floret will help others to see that providing for pollinators is so very important.

    Reply
  32. Susan on

    I LOVE this so much! I have been a fan of Floret for probably a decade and have been so inspired over the years! I have a garden mixed with perennials, a few cut annuals like zinnias, veggies, and herbs. The last few years I’ve gotten so much more interested in native plants and plants that beneficial to butterflies and birds. I’m on a quest to add as many butterfly host plants as I can! I’ve started leaving my plant material up over the winter the last few years as well, for the reasons you mentioned, and am so happy to see you all sharing that you’re doing this! Other pollinator favorites for me in Michigan are blue wild indigo, liatris, rattlesnake master, and stiff goldenrod. I also take care of the butterfly garden at my kids’ elementary school. It has a lot of pollinator plants. Here is a blog post I wrote how on it evolves over the season https://maybeillbecomeafarmer.wordpress.com/2022/10/14/the-parkwood-butterfly-garden/

    Reply
  33. Eva on

    Absolutely love this idea. We are in the early stages of planting a cutting garden & harvest garden & I have been thinking of bringing in pollinators but didn’t think to do them in rows. I love it!

    We have noticed the following plants are brilliant for pollinators, bees & other native insects: sedum autumn joy, cat mint, lavender & cosmos.
    We are in Victoria Australia but probably similar slightly milder conditions

    Reply

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