The world needs pollinators, but pollinators need our help, too, and the easiest, most satisfying and beautiful way to come to the rescue of declining insect populations is to plant flowers. In a pot on a patio or on a sprawling country estate, you can make a big difference.
It's not the size of a garden that matters, says Jared Barnes, a horticulture professor at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas, and a champion of pollinators. "What if we all had pollinator plants in our yards?" he says. "What if everyone was doing this? If we are all doing small things, it can have a drastic impact."
The ripple effect of gardening for pollinators in a neighborhood, a region or across the country is profound, Barnes says. As populations of bees, butterflies, moths, beetles, and other pollinators recover, gardens turn into naturally balanced ecosystems. They produce more flowers and fruits -- and have fewer pests -- than gardens intensively managed with an arsenal of chemicals.
Barnes' research and practices are backed -- not coincidentally -- by the enthusiastic anecdotal observations of gardeners everywhere, and by the numbers. The Xerces Society, which supports pollinator conservation around the world, notes that more than 85% of the world's flowering plants, including more than 100 crops, depend on pollinators. By restoring habitat and reducing the use of pesticides and herbicides, gardeners can come to the rescue of declining insect populations, which have an economic value of about $3 billion in the United States alone, the Society says.
In his presentations to garden groups and garden designers, Barnes does more than advocate for pollinators: He emphasizes the pleasures and rewards of gardening, "the sense of wonder and awe that there is a world out there bigger and greater than all of us," he says. "It's a little miracle that we can plant plants in our gardens and see butterflies. It's a wonderful thing for all of us to participate in."
Barnes' favorite pollinator plants are easy to find in garden shops, easy to grow and naturally beautiful. Rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccafolium) is a North American native plant with bristly globe-shaped flowers that stand 3 to 4 feet tall in a garden. They're native prairie plants, sturdy and undemanding. "Everybody should have them," Barnes says -- along with other tough but beautiful perennials such as yarrow, mountain mint (Pycnanthemum), and milkweed (Asclepias) for butterflies.
A pollinator garden Barnes designed on the Stephen F. Austin campus includes these favorites, planted together with salvias, lilies, coneflowers, alliums, goldenrods, asters and other hard-working perennials. There's something blooming in the garden from spring through fall.
In his own garden at home, Barnes is working on new flower beds modeled after best-practice research on attracting monarch butterflies. The research takes as given that milkweed plants are critical for monarchs (they are the only food of monarch caterpillars and are excellent nectar plants for monarch butterflies and other pollinators), but it also demonstrates that where these plants are placed in a flower-bed design has a direct effect on the ability of butterflies to find them. For best results with monarchs, milkweed should be planted around the outside of a bed, not scattered, cottage-garden style, among the hurly-burly company of flowers like zinnias and tithonias, even though these other plants are very attractive to pollinators in general.
A border planting of milkweed will attract up to four times the number of monarch butterflies as gardens in which milkweeds are mixed among other flowers, the research shows. To make milkweeds even easier to see from butterfly level, don't let other plants flop over on them, Barnes says. Give every plant the space it needs, and make sure your planting design takes mature height into consideration.
Butterflies, and especially monarchs, "are the poster child of this love-of-insects movement," Barnes says, and the drawing card for his presentations on pollinators. When you make your garden beds, flowerpots and kitchen garden pollinator friendly, you'll surely notice an increase in the number and diversity of butterflies in your yard. What you might not see are all the different bees and flies that also contribute to the business of pollinating flowers and fruit, but these tiny insects are there, and they are doing you and us all a world of good.
-- The Xerces Society's website (xerces.org) has many resources for gardeners, including information about pollinators, pollinator gardens and plant lists of recommended pollinator plants for your region.
-- For more about Jared Barnes and his interests in horticulture, nature, and gardening, check his website (meristemhorticulture.com).