Home & Design January 28, 2009

Pollinator Gardens

Let’s talk about the birds and the bees

Pollinator gardens are comprised of thousands of insect species which in the course of doing what they do unwittingly benefit our environment by supporting the natural ecosystem.

Pollinators like bees, tiny wasps, butterflies, beetles, flies, hummingbirds and bats move pollen from the male anther of one flower to the female stigma of another in their quest for what the National Gardening Association describes as the sweet, nourishing nectar and fat- and protein-rich pollen.

In recent years, pollinator numbers have been slipping, a problem attributed to commercial pesticides. But it isn’t difficult to create a haven for recovery of these vital players in the ecosystem, you just have to know where to start.

First you will need to do your research via books, the Internet, or, the best resource of all, another gardener.

Kelley Weston of Native Landscapes in Hailey says a successful landscape starts with a master plan that takes into account the diversity of the use areas being considered. (For example, meadow and water areas differ in needs.) But, he adds, no harm can be done to a native landscape by adding a hybrid or two for spot color and commercial perennials can start or extend the season of any landscape.

Local gardeners emphasize the benefits of strategic planting, a way of planting that’s designed to help pollinators find their way around more easily. Most say it is best to offer plants in the same color palette clustered together instead of just one bush.

Remember also to leave enough room for plants to bloom when they mature and to plant a variety so they bloom at different times and attract different species. Flowering trees and shrubs are beneficial components as they can act as supplemental food sources when nothing else is in bloom.

The key to a well-rounded pollinator garden is to include both nectar and host plants so adults and offspring can find nutrition. Our area’s native and migratory birds include the Song Sparrow, Mountain Chickadee, Red Breasted Nuthatch, Common Yellow Throat and Warbler. The Swallowtail and Tattered Weidemeyer’s Admiral butterflies along with the Rufous Hummingbird are also local pollinators.

Serious hobbyists prefer their yards to look wild. They typically place twigs, hair and rope out to be used by birds, bees, bats, butterflies and beetles as nesting materials. Their yards may look cluttered to some, with pots turned upside down and dead logs hanging from sheds, but there is purpose in the chaos.

If you prefer a more manicured garden you can still take pleasure in watching pollinators pass through your yard by placing a few containers on the patio along with a feeder or two. A starter garden can be put together for around $500—a tree, a few shrubs and some fragrant flowers should be enough to get you started.

As far as overall landscaping advice goes, Weston says that the three most important things in creating a healthy garden are weed control, regular watering schedules and good drainage for the first two years.

“Native plants don’t become drought tolerant until the third year so you should water as you would in a traditional garden,” Weston explains. He adds that most people notice a decrease in their water usage by 30 percent in the third year with native plants. To break the destructive cycle of the past, most garden centers now offer organic brands of fertilizer which can be applied in the evening, after most critters settle down for the night.

Pollinators need the basics. Shelters can be purchased or you can make one of your own. Allow water to pool in shallow crevices and put out an assortment of flat rocks for the sun-loving butterflies to bask on. To butterflies, a small mud puddle where males can sip and ingest salt is essential for the reproductive process. Wild bees will use the mud for building materials and look for bare areas to develop underground homes; they favor shady spots and need some form of protection from the elements.

Most native trees don’t produce flowers, fruit or fragrance, so Sheila Kelley of Webb Nursery suggests trees such as the Greenspire Linden, Prairie Gem Pear and Newport Plum for the Blaine County area.

She likes more traditional plants like day lilies and tells me about a series of azaleas suited for high elevations called Northern Lights. As I look through a catalog during our visit I see that we live in zone 4 and notice that native shrubs like the chokecherry, Woods’ rose, mock orange, serviceberry and snowberry are listed as well as more mainstream choices like garden roses, spirea and sumac.

“Dill, parsley and rosemary with their pungent odor will also attract pollinators,” she says. Experiment with seeds or starts, any fragrant plants are worth a try, and planting different shapes and sizes also encourages more visitors. Pink, purple, red, blue, yellow and orange seem to attract best, so shiny pieces of garden décor in these colors may help as well.

So don’t wait another minute encourages Webb’s Kelley.

“Our annual precipitation is 16-18 inches including snow, and the growing season is only 60-90 days long, so we have to get out there while we can.”

Joann Schmid has years of experience in the floral industry. Her hobbies include home décor and decorating, hiking, reading, and spontaneous day trips.


This article appears in the Spring 2009 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.