It's officially pollinator season, which means pollinator gardens are trending on social media. People are sharing their home gardens and all of the visitors that have flown in to pollinate them on TikTok and Instagram. Because they help carry pollen from the male part of the flower to the female part of a flower, pollinators are essential to a thriving and regenerative garden. While there are many different kinds of pollinators (birds, bees, wasps, moths, butterflies, some bats, and more) they all perform the same service, which is what makes fertilization, aka flowering, seeding, and new growth possible. It doesn't hurt that pollinator gardens are extremely Instagrammable, either.
You don't need a giant backyard to take on gardening and make a difference. Any patch of fertile space can be transformed into a pollinator garden to bring wildlife to you. Because many pollinators are endangered, due to loss of habitat and pesticides, growing a safe space for them is a pretty valuable activity. Plus, it's fun to watch bees and butterflies stop by and enjoy the literal fruits of your labor.
Bustle talked to the Pittsburgh's Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Garden's sustainable landcare program coordinator, Juliette Olshock, about how to grow your own pollinator garden. Spoiler alert: even urbanites can feed the bees and grow very 'grammable flowers.
Establishing The Space
Though having a designated garden space will certainly make this project easier, you don't need a backyard. "Pollinator gardens can come in many shapes and sizes, from wildflower container gardens to large backyard meadows. You can support pollinators with whatever space you have," Olshock says. Even Phipps has a rooftop garden for passing pollinators, so if you have safe access to your roof and the ability to set up planters, or a balcony that gets good sunlight, you can make a small garden that will offer a big service. "A native plant rooftop garden provides a place for rest and food for pollinators on the go," Olshock adds. An urban garden is like curbside pick-up for pollinators.
Growing The Garden
According to Olshock, you'll want your garden to bloom — thus providing pollen and nectar food sources for pollinators — from early spring through late fall. To get this timing right, you'll have to establish and plant your seeds by the fall, when temperatures have cooled down but before the soil freezes. "For spring color, be sure to plant some bulbs like Crocus, Tulips and Daffodils," Olshock says. She also suggests alliums, like garlic, chives, and onions. "They will look lovely with their puff ball blooms and provide for early spring pollinators." This means that you'll have to get your garden space ready and your plan of action in place over the summer. Come fall, you'll be ready to seed.
As for which plants to pick, Olshock says native plants are your best bet because "these are the plants with which local pollinators have evolved." Plus, native plants are best suited for whatever soil is already part of your backyard. To find the plants native to your area, browse through the Phipps' plant finder, where you can also check out what they look like and curate a ~vibe~. If you are in an area with "compacted or damaged soils," a garden bed is great way to raise healthy pollinator plants where they otherwise would not grow.
"If you want to support butterflies, you should also include host plants," Olshock says. Host plants may be flowers, shrubs or trees, and you can find the best ones to plant in your area by using a native plant finding database. "Three really excellent options for pollinator plants are Swamp Milkweed, Joe Pye Weed and Purple Coneflower," Olshock says. Swamp milkweed will yield pink flowers and provide food for Monarch butterflies and caterpillars. Both Joe Pye Weed and Purple Coneflower will attract bees, butterflies and hummingbirds.
What To Get At The Garden Store
If you live in an urban area, you'll need raised beds or planters to grow your garden. This means will also need to purchase soil and seed, which you can easily find at your local gardening store or online. If you are planting native plants in available soil, you'll just need to find seed mixes or plants for your area and soil type. Whatever you do, Olshock says "do not use pesticides on or near your pollinator garden," as these products can kill the insects that you are hoping to support.
You don't have to have two green thumbs to grow a pollinator garden, but you should have at least one green-ish thumb. "Basic planting and some weeding skills would be good," Olshock says, especially if the garden is getting established. That said, there's lots of information about responsible weeding that you can learn online, and this is less of an issue if you are working with raised beds or planters.
How To Lean Into Your Pollinator Garden Host Role
Once your garden blooms, you'll have regular visitors, which will make observing and tending to your garden a surprisingly fun thing to do. "You do not have to be an entomologist to know what pollinators are visiting your garden," Olshock says, adding that you can take a picture of your guests and upload it onto the Seek app to identify it for you. Getting to know your garden and your visitors will make hosting it feel like a more rewarding experience.
Juliette Olshock, sustainable landcare program coordinator at Pittsburgh's Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Garden.