It’s May, and gardeners are heading to local garden centers in search of brightly colored annuals to add a quick pop of color to their gardens, as well as pots of cucumbers, tomatoes and other vegetables in hope of a bountiful harvest.
But if you truly want heaps of flowers and a plentiful harvest, you must attract pollinators to your garden — bloom-buster fertilizers alone won’t do the trick. Ninety percent of all flowering plants rely on pollinators from the animal kingdom: bees, butterflies, beetles, birds, bats and moths, among others.
How do you attract these beneficial pollinators? As described below, each of them is drawn to different types of plants. These busy pollinators are also thirsty, so give them a source of shallow water to keep them healthy and happy.
Bees are the most obvious pollinators in the garden — we can hear them buzzing about their business and see them as they search for nectar. There are more than 4,000 different varieties of bees native to North America. The familiar honey bee is not native to North America — it is a late-comer European immigrant and requires fairly warm temperatures to buzz about. Native bees work to pollinate our world from early spring through late fall, when it is too cold for honey bees to be out and about.
Attract bees to your garden by growing flowers that are full of nectar and brightly colored with blue or yellow petals (bees can’t see red), fragrant, open in daylight and have landing platforms. Flowers possessing these criteria include zinnias, coreopsis, marigolds, cone flowers (echinacea), basil, lavender, rosemary, agastache, wallflowers, sedum and black-eyed Susan (rudbeckia).
Bees are a welcome addition to our gardens and should not be feared because of bee stings. Most bees do not sting, and those that do rarely sting while they are getting drunk on nectar.
Butterflies are less efficient at pollinating, but they are among the most eye-catching pollinators in the garden. You will need specific plants to both attract butterflies to your garden and to keep them alive and well.
Caterpillars (the butterfly’s larval stage) need a host plant. Caterpillars eat the leaves of these host plants to develop. Among these are plants in the milkweed family (asclepias), parsley, dill, fennel and dandelions.
Adult butterflies need nectar from flowers or rotting fruits. Among the nectar-producing flowers are bee balm (monarda), asters, tickseed (coreopsis), cone flower (Echinacea), Joe Pye weed, hardy hibiscus, fall phlox, sedum, verbena and catmint (nepeta).
Beetles are the largest group of pollinators due to their sheer numbers. They are responsible for pollinating 88 percent of the 240,000 flowering plants globally. Some of them can damage plant material, as they will eat their way through petals and floral parts, depositing pollen along the way.
But the beetle family also includes beneficial members such as ground beetles that eat slugs, cutworms and other pests. It also includes ladybugs and soldier beetles that eat more destructive insects like aphids. Beetles are attracted to chives, cosmos, dandelions, dill, feverfew, marigolds and mustard.
Hummingbirds are the primary bird pollinators in North America. They arrive in our area in mid-April to May and stay busy through September.
Hummingbirds have very good eyesight and are extremely attracted to the color red. They thrust their long slender bills deep into the flowers for nectar, withdrawing faces and backs dusted in pollen. They must eat several times their weight in nectar every day to survive, and that means a lot of pollination in your garden!
Flowers that attract hummingbirds are typically tubular, with funnels or cups, and are brightly colored red, yellow or orange. They do not need to be fragrant, but they must be prolific nectar producers. Among these are ageratum, astilbe, bee balm (monarda), black-eyed Susan (rudbeckia), columbine (aquilegia), cone flowers (echinacea), salvia (especially the red flowers of salvia splendens), lobelia, phlox and geranium.
Trees that attract hummingbirds include flowering dogwood (cornus florida) and red buckeye (aesculus pavia). Hummingbird-attracting shrubs include butterfly bush (buddleia), rhododendrons and lilacs.
Bats and Moths
Most pollinators work the day shift. Bats and moths take over pollination at night. They are attracted to white or pale-colored, strong, sweet smelling flowers that open in late afternoon or evening. These include nightshade (nicotiniana), night-blooming jasmine (cestrum nocturnum), night phlox (zaluzianskya capensis), lilies, jasmine, sweet peas, gardenias, mock orange (philadelphus) and fragrant roses.
You can find most of the plants discussed above at your local garden center and even well-run big box stores. If you want to learn about them from local growers, however, you will have a wonderful opportunity this Saturday, May 19, from 9 to 3 p.m. when Green Spring Garden Park in Annandale holds its annual Spring Garden Day.
More than 40 local vendors will be there. These vendors know a lot about plants suitable for this area and are happy to talk to you about how best to cultivate these plants.
Master gardeners also will have a booth where gardening problems can be diagnosed and unknown plants identified. As an added bonus, you can explore the 22 demonstration gardens located in the park and see mature plants blooming there in May.
Attracting pollinators to your garden will result in pollination of ornamental plants as well as edible plants, as all of these pollinators work from flower to flower. So planting a variety of flowering plants in vegetable gardens, as well as in flower beds, will ensure lots of blooms and a heavier harvest of vegetables ... and a sanctuary for a variety of beneficial birds and insects.
Eleni Silverman is a certified Master Gardener, Vice President of the Belle Haven Garden Club, Chair of the Landscape Committee at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology and author of the garden blog "Belle Haven Garden Maven." She admits to a fascination with all things gardening, and will eagerly discuss the relative merits of leaf mold versus hardwood mulch. Please let her know if you have any comments or questions about this column or gardening in general. She would love to hear from you.