Author Rhonda Fleming Hayes’ garden buzzes, beats and blooms, thanks to the thousands of hard-working pollinators in her eye-catching Minneapolis front yard. She’s one of the lucky ones: Nationally, bees, butterflies, birds and other pollinators are threatened by habitat loss, parasites and pesticides. In her new book, “Pollinator-Friendly Gardening,” this Master Gardener and pollinator advocate urges gardeners to attract these winged friends by planting pollinator-friendly blooms. Her book offers fascinating insights to plant-pollinator relationships, provides categorized plant lists and offers practical steps gardeners can take to make a difference in the pollinator world. We talked with her about how to plant your own pollinator-magnet garden and more. Here’s an edited transcript.
Q: What value do pollinators bring to our gardens?
A: By now, most folks have heard the sound bite that bees are responsible for every third bite of food we eat. Without bees and other pollinators like butterflies, birds, moths, flies and bats, our dinner plates would be lacking in color, flavor and nutrients. Bees are in trouble for a number of reasons, but the major issue is habitat loss, including millions and millions of acres just in our country. While many environmental issues are distant, abstract problems, the great thing about pollinators is we can help them right in our own backyards. Garden by garden, I hope we can make up for this habitat loss by planting more food for them, and more food equals more flowers.
Q: What plant traits do pollinators value?
A: In general, bees like flowers in blues and yellows with a shallow landing area. Butterflies are attracted to reds, purples and pinks, and prefer flat, daisy shapes. Hummingbirds are attracted to red tubular flowers. But, there are plenty of exceptions – like hummingbirds who are all over Salvia ‘Black and Blue.’ A good way to identify good, local pollinator plants is to observe plants in your neighbors’ gardens or a nearby botanical garden. Walk around and see what flowers have the most pollinator visitors.
Q: What are five universal must-haves for a pollinator garden?
A: I recommend five natives – milkweed, aster, goldenrod, salvia and liatris. A couple bonus must-haves are zinnias and sunflowers since they’re so cheap and easy to grow and attract so many species of pollinators. My favorite moment this summer was when a hummingbird started harassing a monarch who was sitting on a ‘Moulin Rouge' zinnia in a stand of 20 other blooms and apparently ignoring a popular purple zinnia from the previous season. It’s funny what proves popular to every season.
Q: Besides flowers, what trees and shrubs are valuable to pollinators?
A: Don’t just think of a single flower bed, think about your whole yard – trees, shrubs, ground covers, vines, herbs, vegetables and fruit bushes. They all have value for pollinators. Fruit trees are especially important in the spring time as one of the first major sources of nectar and pollen. Other sources are crab apples, linden, chestnut and tulip trees, and shrubs like chokeberry, serviceberry, lilac, raspberry brambles and blueberries. I have a long hedge of wild rugosa roses and raspberries along my driveway. In the summertime, it literally buzzes with bumblebees and bees as they work away.
Q: In your book, you talk about creating a season-long buffet of overlapping blooms. What are some of the challenges to making this happen?
A: Spring blooms are something that people need to really work on. In summertime, it’s easy to throw out a few flowers and get bees, but in spring, they’re really hurting. One of the first sources of nectar is one of the most reviled flowers – the dandelion. So think about leaving some dandelions in a part of your yard or wait to mow until they’ve bloomed. Spring blooming bulbs, like scilla and alliums, are other good early nectar sources. Annuals and herbs can also help fill in gaps between various bloom times.
Q: You challenge gardeners to go beyond a single butterfly garden patch to a more holistic yard approach. Please explain.
A: True butterfly gardens are more than just a few pretty flowers. Unlike bees, butterflies need larval host plants to feed their caterpillars. One of the most well-known – monarchs – can’t survive without milkweed. They’re specialists, and their young need milkweed to survive and can’t eat any other plant. A lot of people are surprised to hear trees are one of the major larval host plants for a lot of butterfly species. So if you already have an oak, willow, cherry or cottonwood, you’re already providing lots of good food for those caterpillars. Herbs, especially dill, parsley and fennel, are another great source for butterfly habitat. Just plant extra for them.
Q: What are a few easy steps for homeowners to make their backyards more pollinator friendly?
A: First, plant more flowers. The busier people get, the more they choose foliage over flowering plants. But, those flowers are what are lacking for pollinators.
Second, avoid pesticide use. My book goes into great depth on this topic explaining why and when pesticides threaten pollinators and how to avoid using them. I have a visible, quarter-acre in the city and don’t find the need for pesticides. Still, I get great compliments all the time.
Third, allow for nesting sites. Honey bees go back to hives, but many wild bees are ground nesters and need bare soil for nesting. This can worry some people, because they don’t want to come upon a nest of bees with their mower or shovels. So I always say possibly there’s a corner of the yard, slope or unused area to leave unmulched for these nesting bees. Other bees use hollow stems or beetle tunnels in old logs for nesting, so consider leaving pruned debris and fallen branches in a spot for them.
Q: How can gardeners also make their pollinator gardens more neighbor-friendly?
A: Naturalistic native gardens don’t have to look weedy or unkempt. Keep short plants in the front and tall in back. Add crisp edges or mowed strips to contain natural plantings. Introduce larger flower and leaf shapes for balance. Add human touches – like a piece of garden art, a birdhouse, a chair or other decorative piece – to show “a cue to care” or hint that the garden is being tended. Consider adding a “Bee Safe” yard sign and point out pollinator activity to passersby.