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How to Plant a Pollinator Garden

By on April 3, 2017
A monarch butterfly on a New England Aster

A pollinator garden in your yard is a great way to give back to the environment and add some vibrant colour to your yard.

Pollination is when pollen from the stamen (male part of the flower) is transferred to the pistol (female part of the flower) allowing a plant to produce seeds that become the next generation. Bees, butterflies and moths help this process along and are some of the most familiar pollinators. They move from flower-to-flower, feeding and collecting food, inadvertently transferring pollen from one plant to another. This is called cross pollination and it ensures genetic diversity and resilience.

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Recent years have seen a sharp decline in pollinator populations due to climate change, habitat loss and pesticide overexposure. This could lead to a decline of plant species, impacting ecosystems and our own food security. Pollinators are responsible for pollinating over 30 per cent of our food. Crops can decline or disappear without their help. 

The right flowering plants in your yard can make a big difference in reversing this trend. Credit Valley Conservation (CVC) works with residents to help them plant native pollinator gardens. The key word is native. “Native pollinators coevolved with the native plants,” said Melissa Creasey, a specialist at CVC. “They are best suited to successfully pollinate native flowering plants and to get pollen or nectar from them.”

Plan Ahead
Pollinators need a constant source of food from spring to fall. Consider having a continuous sequence of flowers in bloom to provide pollen throughout the growing season. Some notable native plants that are sure to attract bees, butterflies and moths, and sustain them at different points in their life cycle include:

Lance-leaved coreopsis (beautiful yellow flower with large flower head and easy access to nectar)
Wild Geranium (showy, pink flowers with dark lines on petals act as nectar guides)
Asters (large number of colourful, daisy-like flowers that attract many pollinators)
Eastern Purple Coneflower (purple, large flower head creates a landing pad for pollinators)
Spotted Joe Pye Weed (numerous shallow rose-purple flowers that produce large quantities of nectar)
Milkweed (numerous shallow pink- mauve flowers produce sticky pollen sacs)
Wild bergamot (showy lavender flowers, new flowers open as old ones are depleted)
Trees like oak, birch and cherry and shrubs like dogwoods (leaf out earliest, providing some of the only nectar and pollen early in the year)

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Bees Please
Ontario is home to approximately 400 different native species of bees, which account for nearly 70 per cent of pollination activity. They add a little buzz of life to a yard and can even help increase yields in your vegetable garden.  “Some native bees, like some mining bees, nest in the ground,” said Creasey. “Others, like many leafcutter bees, nest in hollow stems or cavities.” 

Throughout the summer and fall, some cavity nesting bees use stems to lay their eggs. Leave plants standing tall throughout the winter or cut them down no shorter than 20 cm. You can also help bees along by adding a CVC bee nesting box. You can provide habitat for ground nesting bees by leaving small patches of bare soil without mulch throughout your garden.

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Butterflies and Moths
Butterflies come in many shapes, sizes and colours. Some, like the eastern tailed blue, can be as small as a penny. Others can be as big as a grapefruit, like the giant swallowtail. Butterflies are generally active during the day and are often showier than moths, which are more active at night. They both begin life as an egg that hatches into a small caterpillar.

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Caterpillars are picky eaters and need certain plants to survive. Monarch caterpillars, for example, need milkweed in order to grow. If a caterpillar has the right food source, it will grow and eventually transform into a chrysalis (for butterflies) or cocoon (for moths). Eventually an adult butterfly or moth emerges and is ready to start pollinating. “Plant nectar-producing flowers for adults butterflies and moths and host plants for caterpillars,” said Creasey. “Most butterflies and moths only lay a few eggs on each plant so don’t worry about caterpillars doing too much damage when they feed. Don’t skip over grasses,” added Creasey. “Plant native grasses and sedges to offer food and shelter for caterpillars.”

Tips to Improve Success
• Plant nectar plants alongside caterpillar host plants – you can't have a butterfly without a caterpillar first
• Plant flowers in clumps of at least five per species to make them easier for pollinators to find 
• Use a mixture of colours and shapes that bloom throughout the season so a variety of pollinators can visit at different times
• Remove weeds manually, pollinators are very sensitive to chemicals.

Remember to plant the right plant in the right place. For more information about each plant and its ideal conditions, please refer to CVC’s landscaping plant guides at: www.creditvalleyca.ca/landscaping

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