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Planting a Pollinator Garden: A Quick Start Guide

Putting in a pollinator garden is pretty simple, and when getting started there are just a few things to consider:

  • deciding where to put the garden
  • sun and moisture conditions
  • planting native flowers with a succession of bloom times
  • including super food flowers
  • a couple planting tips
  • and last but not least, killing your grass

When putting in a pollinator garden, the first step is usually:

Deciding where to put the garden

For pollinator gardens there are many good options for placement because honestly, most places look better with flowers. But my best advice on garden placement is to make sure you have lots of flowers close to where you spend the most time sitting outside. So this might mean right next to the back patio or deck, or right off the front porch. Really just anywhere very close by the places where you like to sit and relax. That way you are surrounded by beauty and it’s easy to watch butterflies and bumblebees and bugs coming and going.

Other nice garden spots: old, abandoned garden beds are a great option, around a nice little shed, around a terrible shed, in the middle of your yard! (more on this in a future post), Along a front walk or any path, under a fruit tree.  Typically insects prefer visiting a sunny or partially sunny garden, but many pollinator friendly plants love shade, as well, so whatever you got, just work with it.  

Sun and Moisture conditions: What is my garden plot like?

Is the plot full sun (6 or more hours of sun), part sun (3 to 6 hours of sun), or shady (less than 3 hours of sun)?  Does your soil stay wet and soggy?  Is it rocky, sandy and dry?  Or just kind of in between?  These are the main factors that will affect what kinds of plants or seeds you put in.  Native plant nurseries provide sun and moisture requirements for each plant, and usually their catalogs are divided up into categories like:

  • full sun – wet
  • full sun – medium
  • full sun – dry
  • shade – wet
  • shade – medium
  • shade – dry
  • and so on…

Many nurseries have searchable online catalogs that can be narrowed down by your site’s factors, which is super handy.  Some great Mid-west nursery websites are listed in the resources below. 

Choosing the “right plant for the right place,” as many gardeners will say, means considering the moisture and sun conditions -even if they are tough- and then finding the plants that like it that way. With native plants, the principle of the “right plant for the right place” eliminates many problems and almost all watering.

And that is also why I don’t recommend getting a soil test, because I don’t recommend doing any soil amendments.  Nutrient rich soil can lead to foliage heavy, too tall, floppy native plants. Your terrible soil might not grow a petunia, but I am certain the right native plant is out there.

Plan your pollinator garden so it provides flowers from early spring through late fall.  

One of the easiest ways to ensure 3 seasons of blooming flowers is with a spreadsheet.  Gah! That sounds complicated! Ok, ok. Forget the spreadsheet for now. We will come back to the beautiful spreadsheet in a future post.

Here are 15 easy native flowers for a partial sun to sun pollinator garden, with about medium soil (but can handle a bit of dryness, too). These are all tough, flexible plants and many are really amazing in terms of attracting pollinators: anise hyssop, blanket flower, sweet joe pye weed, meadow blazingstar, swamp milkweed, New England aster, mistflower -these are all hard to beat for attracting many, many pollinators. Together these plants make a great 3 season pollinator garden. (I will also include their spreadsheet to prove it!)

15 Easy Wildflowers for a 3 Season Pollinator Garden

Wild strawberry
Fragaria virginiana

Wild strawberries make a welcome, cheerful early spring flower. Planted throughout the garden plot they will spread and create a weed suppressing ground cover, which is Super Helpful.

Wild strawberry, bright  white blossoms are so cheerful in early spring.

Columbine
Aquilegia canadensis

One of the earliest blooming garden flowers -it may even attract a hummingbird.

Columbine, an early blooming

Anise hyssop
Agastache foeniculum

Pollinators love anise hyssop, and you probably will, too. Long blooming purple flowers, with leaves that smell like licorice. Anise hyssop will often bloom the first year it’s planted. It’s a short-lived perennial, but can reseed itself in the garden.

Anise hyssop, a long blooming favorite in the pollinator garden
Courtesy of Dr. John Hilty, Illinois Wildflowers

Butterflyweed
Asclepias tuberosa

The orange on butterflyweed is hard to believe, and hard to pass up! As a milkweed, it’s particularly important as a host for Monarch butterfly caterpillars.

bright orange butterflyweed, a milkweed much needed by Monarch butterflies

Black-eyed Susan
Rudbeckia hirta

I love this black-eyed susan because it blooms its first year and all summer long. It self sows like crazy, popping up in unexpected spots the next year. An exciting plant!

Black-eyed susan, readily self sows and makes for an exciting, unexpected garden at times

Rose (or swamp) milkweed Asclepias incarnata

The first year the swamp milkweed bloomed in my yard, I regretted that I’d planted so far from my deck -so many butterflies were seeking it out, on the other side of the yard! Monarchs love to lay eggs on these and you’ll likely find many caterpillars munching away in late summer.

Rose or Swamp milkweed, a plant beloved by many insects

Purple coneflower
Echinacea purpurea

You can’t go wrong with coneflowers. They’re just beautiful, especially in large groups.

Purple coneflower mixed with prairie sage

Blanket flower
Gaillardia aristata

Another short lived perennial, blanket flowers will just keep blooming and blooming through the summer and fall. Bumblebees love them.

Blanket flower, a long-blooming red flower for the pollinator garden

Sweet Joe Pye weed
Eutrochium purpureum

It’s hard to express how much I love this plant. Tall, blousy, full of life. Bees, butterflies, everyone loves Joe Pye weed.

Sweet Joe Pye weed, great pollinator plant
Courtesy of George Bruson, Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center

Meadow blazingstar
Liatris ligulistylis

This plant is called a Monarch magnet, and that is no joke! I’ve seen as many as 5 monarchs at a time on one plant! What!

Meadow blazingstar, the Monarch magnet

Western sunflower
Helianthus occidentalis

Sunflowers can be aggressive in the garden, but in my experience that is not true for this guy. Sunflowers are very important for pollinator gardens, plant one today!

Western sunflower.  Sunflowers are an important part of pollinator gardens.
Courtesy of R.W. Smith, Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center

Old field goldenrod
Solidago nemoralis

A beautiful gold in the fall. Goldenrods have a reputation for being aggressive, but Old field goldenrod hasn’t been that way for me.

Old field goldenrod provides important fall blooms

New England aster Symphyotrichum novae-angliae

These are just covered with pollinators in the fall, and the richness of the purple color will stop you in your tracks.

pollinators love New England aster

Mistflower
Eupatorium coelestinum

Last fall, every time I visited the garden at the library there was a monarch on the mistflower. A long bloom time. Might be aggressive in a truly moist soil.

mistflower for the pollinator garden
Courtesy of Dr. John Hilty, Illinois Wildflowers

Aromatic aster
Aster oblongifolius

This plant is unbelievably covered in flowers when it finally starts blooming, and blooms into November!

aromatic aster provides important late season blooms

Prairie dropseed
Sporobolis heterolepis

This one is extra! Prairie dropseed makes a wonderful groundcover (weed suppression) and adds a lot of personality and meadowy feel to the mix.

Prairie dropseed for the pollinator garden

And here’s the garden’s spreadsheet. Below is an adaptation of a great planning technique shown in Planting, A New Perspective by Piet Ouldolf and Noel Kingsbury. It’s a really useful book by two extraordinary gardeners. And I will write more about using this method for pollinator gardening in a future post.  

But here you can see that this garden will have a number of species in bloom throughout the season.  This variety is important because there are a variety of pollinators with different sized bodies (and tongues!) and they can’t all access the same nectar and pollen sources.

Pollinator garden successional bloom planting chart
Old field goldenrod, and important host plant for many insects
Old field goldenrod, an important host plant for many insects

Super Food Perennials to include in the garden

In recent years, it’s become more and more clear that not all plants are created equal.  Some perennials feed many more insects than others.  Renowned naturalist, entomologist, University of Delaware professor, and author, Doug Tallamy, has been raising awareness with his books, Bringing Nature Home:How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants and recently, Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation that Starts in Your Yard, that certain plants are host plants to many more moth and butterfly species than others.  This is particularly important because moth and butterfly caterpillars are essential food for breeding birds -the chicks need soft, high protein food.  With hungry baby birds in mind, the top 4 types of plants you definitely want to include to support the food chain are: Goldenrods, asters, sunflowers, and Joe Pye weed.

A couple planting tips

When planning where to put each plant in the pollinator garden, try to create groupings of each species -some people say “masses” of plants. So think in terms of groups: 3 butterflyweeds here, 5 butterflyweeds grouped there, seven over there…and so on. This works well for general garden design and it also makes it easier for the pollinators to move from bloom to bloom efficiently. This is simply trying to mimic masses that often occur in nature, where one species might take over a sweep of ground, and can be a highly concentrated food source for pollinators.

My next tip is… for the first year or two, mulch is your friend. If wood mulch is handy, that will work, or straw also makes a great mulch. Mulching around and between newly planted plants will greatly reduce the weeds growing in your garden, and reduce the time you need to spend weeding the garden. Weeds can be intense! And mulching is definitely worth it. (Just try to make sure your mulch is also weed free) (for example, if somehow you have access to free mulch, try to choose the freshest mulch that has not been sitting around a long time gathering weed seeds.)

Killing your grass

I will probably write an entire post on killing grass at some point, because it is such a worthy topic, however, here I’ll just describe my favorite method. But before I get to that, I’d like to emphasize how much you need to kill your grass (in the garden plot area). Truly killing your grass will save you so much time in terms of weeding, watching weeds grow, re-mulching, etc. So I encourage you to really kill your grass!

I like to “sheet mulch,” using layers of newspaper and straw. So a few months before I want to plant, or ideally the previous fall, I will set the border of my new garden bed, and then lay down three sheets of newspaper at a time, significantly overlapping, so generally there’s about 6 sheets of newspaper in any given spot. I weigh it down with straw on top as I go, and at the end, wet the straw and newspaper down, if it’s not going to rain.

This method also works really well with newspaper and wood mulch. If you use wood mulch, it’s very important that when digging holes for your new plants that no mulch slip into the hole. If the wood gets buried it will suck up all the nitrogen as it decomposes and your plant will not do well. That is why straw is an advantage, you still want to keep it out of the hole, but it’s not as big a deal as with wood chips.


As you get started down the pollinator garden path, there’s no doubt you will see other plants that grab a hold of your brain and won’t let go. Don’t worry, that is normal. Native plants do that to people. Lying awake at night, thinking about plants? Normal. My recommendation is to just go with it, definitely get more plants, expand your pollinator garden a little bit, put in a new bed over there, one by the shed, maybe one at city hall. Why stop?

Resources:

How to Build A Pollinator Garden, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Prairie Moon Nursery

Prairie Nursery

Native Flowers and Seeds from Ion Exchange

Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants, By Doug Tallamy

The Native Plant Podcast

5 replies on “Planting a Pollinator Garden: A Quick Start Guide”

In reference to killing your grass… What if it’s morning glories you want to kill? Would the newspaper/straw method work for them too? My mom is fighting a losing battle with morning glories in a spot she want to garden in – she’s digging them out by hand with out much success.

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Hey Sara! Hmm, you know I’ve never had to deal with morning glories, but I know cardboard put down in the fall covered with straw will kill off creeping charlie and clover, which are a bit tougher than grass to kill. Beyond that, it seems like a kids wading pool filled with water will kill almost anything rather quickly 🙂

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