Pollinator Tips for Summer Gardens

Author: Julianne Labreche, Master Gardeners of Ottawa-Carleton

Hot, lazy July days bring busy pollinators to visit our orchards, flower, and vegetable gardens. These small garden visitors are critical to human survival. They help to put food on our tables by pollinating many plants that provide us with edible fruit. Pollinators, which include many beneficial insects, face many threats these days and need our support.

Here are some ways you can make your summer garden more pollinator-friendly.

Plant for Bees

Because of how they see, bees are attracted to yellow, blue, purple and white blooms. In my pollinator garden, I like to plant for continuous bloom, starting in early spring and stretching the season late into the fall. The garden includes not only a variety of perennial and annual flowers, herbs, and shrubs but also flowering trees.

Plant for Butterflies

Butterflies prefer flat, clustered blooms that provide a good landing pad. There are many butterfly-friendly plants, but some favorites include scarlet bee balm (Monarda didyma), blazing star (Liatris), New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium), yarrow (Achillea millefolium), noninvasive goldenrod such as Ohio goldenrod (Solidago ohioensis) or stiff goldenrod (Solidago rigida) and tickseed (Coreopsis).

Plant for Hummingbirds

The ruby-throated hummingbird visits gardens in our region. These tiny, jeweled birds migrate here each year from Mexico and parts of Central America. Hummingbirds use their sight to seek out nectar-rich flowers. They prefer bright red and orange tubular-shaped flowers that suit their long tapered beaks and grooved tongues. In my garden, they gravitate towards red cardinal flowers (Lobelia cardinalis), butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), and Maltese cross (Lychnis chalcedonica), among others.

Rethink the Manicured Lawn

Turf grass offers little to pollinators, except perhaps if clover is combined into the seed mix. Of course, it’s important to avoid pesticides or herbicides if you want to attract pollinators. Each year, I’ve reduced the amount of turf grass in my front and back yards. It’s less work, and I’ve enjoyed watching the diversity of birds and insect species that visit the garden each summer.

Provide Water

Like all creatures, insects require water to survive. Small containers with pebbles and fresh water provide safe places for insects to land. Butterflies enjoy mud baths that provide salt and other mineral requirements. Hummingbirds are attracted to misting sprays that they can fly through. I have a variety of water features for wildlife in my garden, including a new solar mister to try out this summer.

Offer Bare Ground

Most native bees neither bite nor sting and need bare ground for nesting. As plants grow larger, less mulch is needed, and there are fewer weeds to pull. It’s easy to leave some open, empty spaces for nesting pollinators, especially in the back of the garden away from footpaths.

Go Native

Native bees are attracted to native plants, so it’s good to add many to the garden. Some favourites in my own sunny front yard garden include Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum), black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), obedient plant (Physostegia virginiana), and dense blazing star (Liatris spicata). Non-native bees are attracted to non-native plants, so herbs and non-native perennials can fill those empty garden spaces.

Be Messy

Small mason bees make their nests in hollow cavities in plant stems, decaying logs, and fallen stems. Commercial ‘bee houses’ provide education about the benefits of bees, but unless they are maintained and cleaned regularly, they can become breeding grounds for mites and diseases that kill bees. An easier way to help pollinators is to simply be a slightly messy gardener and leave areas for burrowing insects to raise their young.

Mix it Up

Vegetable gardens need pollinators too, so plant herbs and flowers to attract them. Squash bees, for example, are important in vegetable gardening. Cucurbit plants such as cucumbers, pumpkins, squash, and watermelon rely on squash bees that look like honey bees, just a little larger. In flower gardens, I’ve had good success mixing in kale, Swiss chard, chives, and pots of tomatoes, basil, and other herbs to provide food for the table while supporting pollinators.

Leave Fall Leaves

As summer fades and fall approaches, don’t rush to tidy up the garden; cut back plants and rake leaves. Except for those large oak leaves, many leaves will break down naturally in time and become nutrients for the soil. They also create a warm blanket for pollinators, helping them to overwinter. I spread leaves over the garden beds or put them in the compost. Leaves should be raked from the lawn, as they will compact and damage it.

Certify Your Garden

If you’re interested in certifying your garden as pollinator-friendly, check out the Canadian Wildlife Federation website. Consider qualifying your garden under their Backyard Habitat Certification Program and learning more about becoming a citizen scientist.

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