- GrowNYC Education
Growing for Pollinators
A garden isn’t only about growing vegetables and fruits. Flowers, trees, and grasses are also important parts of a garden.
More flowers = more pollinators, which means higher yields of fruiting crops, your garden ecosystem thrives, and it is fun to watch the garden buzz with life!
Many seed companies sell flower mixes specifically for certain pollinators, like bees or butterflies. These mixes usually contain perennials (plants that survive the winter and come back each spring) and self-seeding annuals (plants that will drop their seeds and grow anew in the spring).
Tips for a successful pollinator garden:
Plant a wide variety of flower colors, shapes, and sizes, which bloom from early spring through late fall.
Plant in bunches, rather than single plants. This makes it easier for pollinators to find food.
Choose native plants when possible. Native plants tend to bloom when native pollinators are emerging – nature is so neat! Many bees and butterflies also have strong preferences for native plants.
Avoid hybrid flowers, pollenless, and flowers with ‘double blooms’ (specifically for your pollinator garden – these are beautiful and can be perfect for bouquets!)
Add flowering annual and perennial herbs. Rosemary, lavender, basil, and oregano are wonderful sources of nectar.
Provide food for all phases of life - some herbs like dill and parsley are preferred foods for swallowtail butterfly caterpillars. Monarch butterfly caterpillars only eat from milkweed plants. If you want to sustain butterflies, you have to feed caterpillars!
Choose a variety of flower structures, each designed for different pollinators. Choose some long tubular flowers and some short and round ones.
‘Deadhead’ or cut off flowers after they pass their prime. This signals the plants to create more flowers rather than focus energy on maturing the seeds in older blooms.
A few Teaching Garden favorites for pollinators include:
1. Zinnias (Annual)
We love zinnias because there are so many options from ‘dwarf’ varieties to ones that grow several feet high! They also come in so many beautiful colors and are wonderful as cut flowers in bouquets. They are easy to grow and will bloom for many months.
Zinnias have a lot of nectar and are a favorite of many pollinators.
You can direct seed zinnias into your garden, or start them in pots indoors like we do.
2. Snapdragons (Annual)
Snapdragons come in so many wonderful colors. Snapdragons release their scent at the time of day when bumblebees are most active, and all of those pretty colors? They are by design. Bumblebees can’t see red but they can see yellow, blue, and ultraviolet, turning snapdragon flowers into giant arrows towards an all-you-can-eat pollen buffet.
We start our snapdragon seeds indoors and then transplant into the garden when the weather warms up.
3. Milkweed (Perennial)
Milkweed attracts a huge variety of pollinators, blooming in midsummer. It spreads through rhizomes underground so be ready for it to spread throughout the general area where you plant it. Monarch butterflies lay their eggs exclusively on milkweed plants, which the caterpillars then eat. There are compounds in the milkweed plant that are absorbed by the caterpillars that make them and the adult butterflies toxic to predators.
There are many species of milkweed, so make sure you choose one that is appropriate for your USDA zone (link: https://garden.org/nga/zipzone/)– or look for one that is native to your region.
4. Lavender (Perennial)
Make sure you choose a lavender variety that suits your climate if you would like it to be perennial. English lavender varieties tend to be hardier – they can survive colder winters. You can expect tall lavender blooms in the summer and fall, especially if you cut back spent flowers. Lavender attracts all kinds of bees and also repels mosquitos!
Lavender is easy to care for – it likes well draining soil and doesn’t like to be overwatered. It also isn’t picky about soil quality and doesn’t require much fertilizing. It can be slow to start from seed, so we recommend purchasing young plants from a farmer’s market or nursery.
5. Calendula (Annual)
We grow calendula as a flower and also as a medicinal herb. Flowers are edible and the petals can be used to make tinctures and salves.
They flower from spring through late fall, attracting bees and butterflies. As a bonus, they also attract beneficial garden insects like ladybugs and lacewings so if you plant them near your vegetable crops, they will help reduce your pest pressure!
Calendula are relatively compact and very container friendly!
We start calendula seeds indoors and transplant them to sunny spots in the garden, but you can also directly seed into your garden.
Other flowers we love to grow include:
Nasturtium (Annual – self-seeding)
Black-eyed susans (Perennial)
Echinacea / coneflower (Perennial)
Poppies (Annual – self-seeding)
Bee balm (Perennial )
So tuck a few pollinator friendly plants into your existing garden, or plant a whole pollinator friendly space. Either way you are sure to enjoy a colorful, buzzing garden space!