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Rebecca Small - July 01 2021

Attract Pollinators to Your Garden

Pollination occurs when pollen is transferred from one flower to another, fertilizing the female flower and eventually producing fruit and seeds -- this is a plant’s way of reproducing. The pollen particles are carried from flower to flower as the pollinators travel in search of pollen or nectar to feed on. Pollination is an essential process in growing food on an industrial scale or in your home garden. While pollination can be done by hand on a very small scale, it is imperative that we support pollinator species for continued food and plant production and a healthy, balanced ecosystem. 

Not Just Bees

While there are around a thousand different pollinators in Ontario, the first one that often comes to mind is the honey bee. While honey bees are an important and prominent pollinator, there are hundreds of types of bees in Ontario including carpenter bees, mining bees, mason bees and leaf cutter bees. Ontario is home to a wide variety of bees but they can’t get the job done all on their own. Butterflies, moths, hummingbirds, beetles, flies, birds and bats are all active pollinators! 

Start Early

Plant some early blooming flowers to give pollinators a source of food as soon as they become active in the early spring. Early flowering bulbs such as crocus, snowdrops, winter aconite and Siberian squill will begin blooming just after the snow starts to melt -- maybe even before -- and will provide an early meal. Early blooming perennials such as hellebores, primrose and heather are good choices for pollinators as well. These early flowering plants all have the added benefit of a burst of colour and will act as a sign of spring after a long winter. You can plant both bulbs and perennials in the fall for beautiful blooms in the spring. Make sure to choose single petaled varieties as this will provide easier access to pollen and nectar. Although sometimes showier and more exciting, double petaled varieties may make the pollen harder or impossible for insects to reach.

Bees were favoring this 'Becky' Shasta Daisy since its pollen was easily accessible, instead of the double petaled 'Ice Cream Dream' Shasta Daisy sitting just a few inches away

Embrace Weeds

Another way you can help pollinators in the early spring is to wait a little longer to clean up your yard. This will give any overwintering insects and pupae a chance to wake up or mature instead of being raked up with the yard waste. Wait until daytime temperatures are between 10 and 15 degrees celsius to start your yard clean-up -- it might be hard to wait but it will save the lives of local pollinators! It’s also a good idea to wait a little longer to mow your lawn for the first time. Participating in “No Mow May” will encourage biodiversity and provide vital food sources early in the spring, even if it does mean a lawn full of dandelions. You can even sow out white clover seeds in your lawn for an extra boost of flowers! A lawn that is completely made up of white clover will be flushed with white flowers throughout the summer while the leaves will remain green with very little watering and will require virtually no mowing. As far as pollinators and home owners are concerned this could be a huge improvement over traditional lawns!

Plant Native 

The majority of flowering plants are helpful to pollinators, but planting native species is a great way to encourage native pollinators -- after all, the two go hand in hand! Native plants can also be frequented by non-native pollinators such as honeybees. Consider planting beardtongue, milkweed (butterfly, common, and swamp varieties), spotted joe pye weed, common evening primrose, lance leaved coreopsis, eastern purple coneflower, wild columbine and liatris. Check out this article from Credit Valley Conservation for a more comprehensive list. For many of these plants you may find a true native variety hard to come by, but cultivars --sometimes known as nativars-- should be readily available and will sometimes exceed true natives in appearance or disease resistance. True natives may be purchased online as plants or seeds from specialty retailers. Some believe that true native species are far more beneficial for native pollinators. If you must opt for nativars, avoid double petaled flower varieties which make it hard for insects to access pollen and nectar. 

A native Columbine (left) compared to a showier nativar (right). Either option will attract pollinators though some believe native plants are more beneficial for native pollinators.

Spice Up Your Annual Pots

Annual pots can be a great way to incorporate pollinator plants for those without enough space for perennials. Classic container plants like geraniums and impatiens are not particularly appealing to pollinators and don’t provide an adequate food source. Instead, consider adding plants like zinnias, heliotrope, lantana, salvia, verbena, petunias, million bells and annual varieties of butterfly weed and butterfly bush. Even while limiting your container design to pollinator friendly annuals, you will have a whole range of colours, flowers, sizes and textures available. Flowering annuals will provide much needed nectar and pollen to mature pollinators. Consider planting host plants for insects to lay their eggs on and for juvenile pollinators such as caterpillars to eat. Adding annual asclepias (butterfly weed) to your pot will provide food for monarch caterpillars and nectar for adult butterflies. Dill and fennel will provide a feast for swallowtail caterpillars while acting as a fluffy, airy thriller in a container design. Planting parsley is another way to feed swallowtail caterpillars, if planted on an angle around the edges of a pot it will act as a flowing spiller draping over the container’s edge. 

Using pollinator friendly annuals can create a bold and exciting summer planter

Ensuring that there are lots of flowering plants in your garden doesn’t just feed pollinators. Attracting insects to your garden with ornamental flowers near your veggie garden will ensure that there are enough insects present to pollinate any flowering cucumbers, zucchini, squash and melons and will cut down on the odds of under pollinated and malformed vegetables. No matter the type of pollinator, they all play a vital role in our ecosystem. Making your garden a safe place for them to rest, feed, and reproduce is a great way to help ensure their health for years to come. Filling your garden with pollinator friendly plants not only helps pollinators, but can provide vibrant colour, beautiful fragrance and unexpected variety to your garden!