Have you ever found yourself leaving a home and garden center with a flat of flowers you know nothing about? Or maybe you have stood there, paralyzed by all the choices, and not sure what to purchase? Choosing plants and flowers for your garden or landscape can be an overwhelming experience. Garden centers tantalize our senses with colors, textures and varieties of flowers from all over the world. Choosing a goal, such as planting a butterfly garden, can make the decisions much easier and guide you towards a purpose.

Monarch caterpillar on swamp milkweed

Monarch caterpillar on swamp milkweed

So why plant a pollinator garden?

Not only do pollinator gardens look great, they also create interesting wildlife viewing opportunities foryou and your family. You could see a butterfly uncurl its spiral, straw-like mouth (called a proboscis) to drink nectar. Or you might be fooled into thinking you saw the world’s smallest bird when a hummingbird moth hovers over your flowers. Including host plants for caterpillars in your garden will provide for the full life cycle, which means you’ll see even more butterflies and moths in your yard. Caterpillars are an excellent food source for other wildlife, such as birds. Young birds need protein and cannot survive on fruit and seeds alone.

Doug Tallamy reports in his book Bringing Nature Home, that one pair of chickadees requires more than 350 caterpillars per day to raise their young. When you add that up over the couple weeks it takes for the birds to be old enough to fledge, you end up with more than 6,000 caterpillars! Native trees and smaller host plants can make a huge difference for the wildlife in your neighborhood.

Beyond the enjoyment you’ll have from watching pollinators and other wildlife, your flowers could help save threatened and endangered species. You may have heard that the rusty patched bumblebee became the first insect in the United States to join the endangered species list.

This bee was found in Ohio historically, but recent surveys find it missing through most of its former range. Another native pollinator of concern is the monarch butterfly, which relies on wildflower habitat here in Ohio as they travel to Mexico to spend the winter season. Many pollinators, including moths, wasps, beetles, and more, help keep humans and wildlife fed through the fruits and seeds they help produce when pollinating flowers. We can easily help these beneficial insects survive in our neighborhoods by providing more food and shelter in our yards.

So let’s plant some flowers!

Butterflyweed

Butterflyweed

If you want to help pollinators, choosing wildflowers native to your area is best. Even better, purchase flowers from a local plant sale or grower that can give you complete information about how the plant was grown. Why? Unfortunately, flowers can sometimes contain pesticides that could harm or kill pollinating insects. Gardeners can unknowingly purchase flowers that have pesticides in them, because growers are not required to provide this information on the label. Fortunately, we are lucky here in Ohio, with several native plant growers available that can offer pesticide-free, gorgeous wildflowers.

Native wildflowers also make great landscape plants because they are adapted to our local weather and soils. For example, if you have wet soils, planting swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) will mean you may not need to water it much at all after it has established itself. If your soils are dry, you could choose drought-tolerant butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa), which also happens to be the perennial plant of the year for 2017! I could not be more excited to see the Perennial Plant Association choose this plant, because milkweeds are the host plant for monarch butterfly caterpillars. By the way, I’m including the scientific names (in parentheses) of all plants mentioned here because common names can vary, and many plant sales use the Latin, or scientific names.

Bumblebee on blueberry flowers

Bumblebee on blueberry flowers

There are also many native wildflowers that will also do well in shade, and some can even provide ground cover, such as wild ginger (Asarum canadense reflexum). A ground cover choice for partial shade might be species of violets (Viola sp.) or Creeping Phlox (Phlox stolonifera). If you are looking for a shrub or small tree, look for viburnums, serviceberry (Amelanchier sp.), or crabapple (Malus sp.). If you need an even smaller shrub, plant some blueberry bushes (Vaccinium sp.). I planted six blueberry bushes in my front yard to replace the non-native privet shrubs, and have never regretted it after watching bumblebees bring us the best blueberries we have ever tasted.

What about nesting habitat?

Pollinators need more than just food (nectar and pollen) to complete their life cycle. Your yard could also provide nesting habitat and a safe place to spend the winter. Plant stems can provide nesting chambers for some pollinators, while others use small holes in the ground. Last summer I had a bumblebee nest in a flower bed, and I enjoyed watching them all summer long. Some butterflies and moths survive the winter in the leaves that fall from the trees in your yard. If you leave an untidy corner of your backyard to save some raked leaves, you will increase the survival of beneficial insects. Most of us do not have enough space to save all the leaves that fall in our yards, but setting aside some will certainly help some species survive, especially if you have native trees such as oaks (Quercus sp.) or maples (Acer sp.) in your area.

Start small!

Spiderwort (Tradescantia sp)

If you’re not sure where to begin, perhaps choose one native plant to add to an existing flower bed. Popular choices to get started are purple coneflower (Echinacea sp.) or black eyed susan (Rudbeckia sp.) for full sun in well-drained soil. You could even get a larger sized container to plant native flowers. If you are interested in helping monarch butterflies, try starting a small 3’x6’ garden bed focused on milkweeds (mentioned above) along with fall blooming flowers to help the adult butterflies find food on their way back south. Asters (Aster sp.) and goldenrods (Solidago sp.) are great options to consider for fall nectar sources. New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) is popular for native plant gardens because of its relatively large purple and gold bloom, and goldenrods look great next to them. By the way, if you have fall allergies, don’t blame goldenrods, as many people often do; ragweeds (Ambrosia artemisiifolia) are the real culprit!

More information on plants for pollinators

There are so many resources for pollinator gardens, but make sure you are looking at a resource for your area. Check for local native plant sales; your county soil and water conservation district could be a good start. For example, Franklin SWCD has a plant sale each year, which is where I purchased my blueberry bushes. There are also many local companies specializing in native plants. If you are not sure how to get started, reach out to Master Gardeners in your area by submitting a comment here.

Other sources are the Midwest Native Plant Society, your local Wild Ones chapter, or your Ohio State University Extension office. These organizations can get you on the right path.

You may also want to check out these Pollinator Habitat Installation Guides.

If you already have some gardening experience and just want to look at plant lists, here are some great resources:

Native Plant Finder by National Wildlife Federation — Just type in your zip code to find plants native to your area.

Plant lists collected on one page by the OSU Bee Lab.

If you still have questions after checking these resources, feel free to post a comment here, and I will try to get an answer to you as soon as possible! –Colleen Sharkey

Colleen Sharkey is an environmental educator and naturalist whose love for birds has led to a focus on native pollinator conservation. Colleen enjoys sharing her passion for the natural world through workshops, guided hikes and the written word. Find her around central Ohio birding by ear while trail running or studying native plants and insects through a macro lens. 

Photo credits: All photos by Colleen Sharkey