How to Plant a Pollinator Garden

Bird and bee populations are shrinking. You can help bring them back by planting a habitat in your own yard.
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The monarch butterfly. Photo by David Howell

On the homefront, we can start to reverse course by envisioning our yards differently, recognizing them as tiny oases for bees, butterflies and birds, including vital caterpillars and moths. I’ve recently realized that many of my plantings—including non-native azaleas, nandinas and camellias—are lovely, but they aren’t nurturing the insects that are the foundation of the local ecosystem.

“When you have plants in your yard that have no feeding damage, no little holes in them, that means you have a dead landscape,” Tallamy says. “These plants that we picked because they were pest-free—meaning nothing eats them—they might as well be plastic. They’re not contributing to local food webs and the creatures that run our ecosystem.”

The interplay is important; the birds and bugs that live here co-evolved with the area’s native plants. To understand this, think of the monarch butterfly, which lays eggs exclusively on one type of plant. If that plant (milkweed) no longer populates our gardens or roadside areas, then no more monarchs.

A full 90 percent of plant-eating insects are host-plant specialists, Tallamy says, meaning they don’t exist without a particular plant.

Cultivating native flowers, shrubs, vines and trees provides much-needed nectar, pollen, foliage, nuts and berries to local fauna. Once you plant them, you’ll usually see quick results, as my daughter and I did.

Some non-native plants, such as butterfly bushes, do provide nectar for butterflies and moths, but they aren’t conducive to breeding. Tallamy compares planting those to putting out sugar water in hummingbird feeders. Non-natives aren’t host plants, and “somebody’s got to make those butterflies somewhere.” He suggests adding the native joe-pye weed (not actually a weed) and others that are actual host plants for Virginia birds and insects.

Two types of insects drive our ecosystems. “Pollinators keep the diversity of plants there and pollinate,” Tallamy explains, while insects in the food chain, such as caterpillars, “pass the energy to other animals,” like birds, when eaten.

Monarch butterflies are gorgeous and worthy of our concern, but we also need to nurture other insects that aren’t as flashy. “Butterflies are essentially day-flying moths that taste bad,” Tallamy says. “They’re not major parts of our food webs. They’re pretty and we love them, but it’s those ugly brown moths that are driving the food webs.” Many moths pollinate at night and are rarely seen.

To help the bird population rebound, we need to grow more caterpillars. Raising just one clutch of chickadees (six to eight chicks), for example, requires at least 6,000 caterpillars, according to the Audubon Naturalist Society. “If you want to attract birds to your yard, you can do it in artificial ways, like putting out a bird feeder, or you can plant what they actually eat and what they feed to their young,” says Renee Grebe, Audubon’s conservation advocate for Northern Virginia. “That’s native seeds in the fall or oak trees that support over 500 species of caterpillars that they feed to their young.”

Migratory birds, including at-risk songbirds such as the golden-winged warbler, the wood thrush and the Baltimore oriole, also require steady sources of food or “way stations” as they travel. “If you have property big enough to support one tree, and you make that a productive tree,” Grebe says, “you’ll support the migrating birds that desperately need that food.” Productive trees in our area include native oaks and plum trees (Prunus americana).

Honeybees, which are inarguably vital, get a lot of press, but we also have about 400 other species of bees in our area that will busily pollinate wherever they are welcomed.

“Mason bees are really important pollinators, and they don’t sting,” says Arlington landscape designer and educator Nancy Striniste, author of Nature Play at Home, who specializes in designing natural play areas for children with native plantings. “Attracting mason bees to your yard and having the opportunity to observe them is something that kids are naturally drawn to.” Her book includes a section on how to lure them.

Categories: Home & Design
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