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Want to help save the bees and butterflies?  Create a pollinator paradise in your garden — here’s how

Want to help save the bees and butterflies? Create a pollinator paradise in your garden — here’s how

Want to help save the bees and butterflies?  Create a pollinator paradise in your garden — here’s how

As spring turns into summer, you may be observing all sorts of bees, butterflies, moths and other pollinators happily visiting colorful blossoms. These beautiful and fascinating creatures provide the crucial ecosystem service of pollination, but some species are in decline.

Populations of the rusty-patched bumblebee, for example, have rapidly decreased due to threats such as introduced disease from managed bees, climate change, insecticide use, invasive species and habitat loss.

Given the importance of pollinators to the sustainability of natural ecosystems and food systems, many people are looking for practical ways to support the intricate ecological relationships between plants and insects that have evolved over centuries.

From a rosette of basal leaves, the central flowering stalk of golden ragwort rises above the foliage, with daisy-like flowers that last for weeks and provide nectar and pollen for bees and flies.

Here are five steps you can take to create pollinator habitat in your yard, garden, on your balcony, at your community garden or in other public spaces such as boulevards:

1) If you have a lawn, replace sections of turf grass with low-maintenance native ground covers such as wild strawberry, pussytoes and pearly everlasting, in sun, or wild ginger, zigzag goldenrod and woodland strawberry, in shade. Not only will you save a lot of time — less lawn to mow, water and weed — but you’ll also be replacing the ecologically barren landscape of mown turf grass with beautiful flowering plants that provide pollen and nectar for bees and butterflies.

2) Plant native shrubs. They require very little maintenance other than watering in their first year of growth, as they’re getting established, and they offer food, cover and nesting habitat for pollinators and birds. A bonus: many native shrubs provide food for humans, too, with delicious berries and nuts. Edible fruit-producing shrubs for sunny spaces include serviceberry, elderberry, chokecherry, chokeberry, and highbush cranberry. For edible nuts, consider American hazelnut, which thrives in sun and part-sun. In shade, shrubs such as purple-flowering raspberry, alternate-leaved dogwood, ninebark, eastern snowberry and spicebush are great, easy-to-grow, nonedible choices; for sun, New Jersey tea, northern bush honeysuckle, winterberry, common juniper, fragrant sumac, smooth rose and pussy willow work well.

The Parkdale People and Pollinators Peace Garden, in honor of Black Lives Matter, is a public street corner planting that honors resilience.  It includes native plants such as blue vervain, black-eyes Susan, butterfly milkweed, bottlebrush grass, big bluestem grass and golden Alexander.

3) Grow a selection of native plants in large pots on your balcony. Hardy plant choices include yellow giant hyssop, nodding wild onion, black-eyed Susan, wild columbine, Virginia mountain mint, wild bergamot, zigzag goldenrod, New England aster, hoary vervain and wild blue violet. These container plants will return year after year if you mulch them with a thick protective layer of dead leaves over the winter.

4) Support pollinators with simple tweaks to your garden maintenance practices. For example, leave dead leaves where they fall in autumn, as they provide crucial habitat for many species of overwintering bees, butterflies and moths. And in spring, don’t “clean up” or remove these leaves, as different species of pollinators emerge from their winter protection at different times, some even in mid- to late summer. The leaves will decompose naturally and replenish the soil, and as they’re doing this good work, the new growth of plants will hide any remaining leaves.

5) Join with neighbors to create connected pollinator corridors in your neighborhood — ribbons of habitat across the landscape! These connected pollinator patches not only grow habitat, but they also grow community, too, uniting neighbors in a shared purpose of helping pollinators thrive.

Pollinators need and support native plants, and native plants need and support pollinators. These relationships are vital to supporting all life on earth. When we plant native plants and create pollinator habitat, we increase the odds that these ecological connections will be there for generations to come.

The number of native plant species that could and should be more available through the nursery trade and planted in gardens is extensive.  Every native plant garden not only provides habitat for pollinators but also grows the market for these plants.  Shown here is white camas (Anticlea elegans), growing in the gardens of the native plant nursery Beaux Arbres, near Ottawa.

What Pollinators Need

  • Areas with diverse flowering plants, from spring to fall, with pollen and nectar
  • Plants on which to lay their eggs, or nesting areas in which to lay their eggs
  • Areas that are free of pesticides
  • Patches of bare ground in which to burrow and build their nests

  • A diverse array of plant and landscape features, such as rocks, dead wood, dead stems, leaves, mud, oils and resins that support the various habitat and nesting needs of diverse pollinator species.

Adapted from “A Garden for the Rusty-Patched Bumblebee: Creating Habitat for Native Pollinators (Ontario and Great Lakes Edition)” © Lorraine Johnson and Sheila Colla, illustrations © Ann Sanderson. Published 2022 by Douglas & McIntyre Ltd.


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