Plan Your Garden

A successful pollinator garden will not only provide for pollinators and lots of other wildlife, it will also provide you with the beauty of plants and flowers, healthy activity, connection with nature, and the joy and satisfaction of making a difference. But none of that happens without an honest assessment of your site, adequate bed preparation, wise plant choices, and proper care. All of it is easy, and we are happy to provide you with this easy, step by step, guide.

Garden size

Of course, the larger a pollinator garden, the better it is for our buggy friends, but even a small garden or a few well-appointed containers can make a difference. Gardening should be fun and enjoyable, so be careful not to overcommit yourself. Only you know your limitations on time, money, energy, and interest. Starting small with the option to grow your garden larger in the future is better than becoming overwhelmed and giving up altogether.

(Photo: Lisa Hubbard)
(Photo: Lisa Hubbard)

As a rule of thumb, we estimate that a 100-square foot garden (10’ x 10’) will take 4 to 6 hours to till, prepare, plant, and mulch. Once planted, it will require 10 to 20 minutes a week to weed, and just a little time to set up watering during drought.

Garden location

Monarch caterpillars on scarlet milkweed (Photo: Vicki DeLoach)
Monarch caterpillars on scarlet milkweed (Photo: Vicki DeLoach)

For the best pollinator habitat, look for a sunny place without a lot of root competition from trees and shrubs. Most of the flowering plants pollinators prefer are unabashed sun lovers. These plants need at least six hours of exposure to full sun per day, and this will be where you’ll observe the greatest amount of pollinator traffic.

If you have a shady yard, you can still plant for pollinators, but it requires a somewhat different approach using woodland plants, spring ephemerals, and bulbs. Plants that prefer shade often provide very useful services to pollinators. Many serve as host plants where butterflies can lay their eggs, while others bloom very early in the season and provide needed nectar and pollen before the summer bloomers kick in. You can also take heart in knowing that many tree species provide pollinators with nectar and places to lay their eggs.

Prepare your soil

(Photo: Peggy Greb/USDA)
(Photo: Peggy Greb/USDA)

No gardener is ever satisfied with the quality of their soil, but it’s seldom as bad as people think. In southwestern Ohio, we certainly have our challenges. Most sites are high in clay and pH, low in organic matter, and heavily compacted from construction and foot traffic. Despite this, there are many pollinator-friendly plants that grow well here, especially if you take the time to improve your soil by mixing in organic matter. The best organic matter to use is compost or well-rotted manure. At the Zoo, we sometimes use these, but we actually favor pine fines. Since most soils in the region are fertile, and high fertility isn’t necessarily ideal for most ornamental plants, a half and half combination of compost (higher fertility) and pine fines (low fertility) seems to  work very well. We do not recommend buying bags of “top soil,” as there is no legal definition of what that is and therefore no certain way of knowing the quality or content of the product. We’re also not huge fans of peat moss for this type of garden.

Consider contacting your county Extension Office or Soil & Water Conservation District Office and ask about having your soil tested. They can direct you on how to collect soil and where to send it for this inexpensive and useful tool. Once the results come in, they can also discuss what actions to take to improve your soil. This one step will teach you a lot about soil texture, drainage, fertility, and organic matter.

Make your bed

Plants will have a difficult time getting established in unprepared soil, so it is vital to do a few things before you plant.

Tilled soil (Photo: Chiot's Run)
(Photo: Chiot’s Run)

1. Kill existing turf. You can do this using glyphosate-based herbicides, which kill the grass in about 10 days. If you would rather not use chemicals, you can also kill turf by covering it with a thick layer of cardboard for 2 or 3 weeks. You can also simply till in the turf; however, this makes tilling more difficult and means you’ll need to weed out resprouting grass for a while.

2. Once the grass is dead, it is time to till. Wait until a day when the soil is just slightly moist so the tiller easily breaks up the soil into loose, crumbly soil. If it’s too dry, your tiller will have difficulty breaking up the soil. If the soil is too wet, your tiller will make heavy sticky clod and do real harm to your soil’s texture.

3. Once you’ve made two passes tilling as deeply as you can, spread 2 to 3 inches of organic matter over your entire bed and till it as deeply as possible. Then repeat this again. Once tilled, try to tread on the garden bed as little as possible.

Now you’re ready to plant!

Choose your plants

The easiest step any gardener can take to support pollinators is to grow pollen and nectar providing plants from early in the season until late. To have beautiful and beneficial blooms all season long, we suggest that you grow a variety of plants that flower at different times. And be sure to include host plants that support butterfly reproduction in addition to nectar-producing flowers.

Tall VerbenaPerennials – Flowering perennials that return year after year are great plants for pollinators. The primary importance of perennials is to provide nectar and pollen, though some are also good host plants. Most perennials bloom for short periods of time so it’s a good idea to include perennials that bloom at different times during the season in your garden.

Pipeline swallowtail on zinniaAnnuals – The importance of continuous bloom is where annuals, which live for just one year, come in. Designing with perennials alone can leave a gardener struggling for constant bloom. Good nectar-providing annuals can assure food for pollinators from May to a hard frost, and they are heavy bloomers. Moreover, annuals can be planted in places other plants can’t go like containers, baskets, and window boxes. With annuals, any patio, balcony, windowsill, or courtyard can become pollinator habitat.

Flowering cherryTrees and shrubs – Woody plants are the true multi-taskers of the garden. They provide great habitat for pollinators, particularly for early foragers as they tend to bloom in early spring, and many host important and/or numerous butterfly and moth caterpillars.

Fennel caterpillar

Host plants – Including plants in gardens to host insects is just as important as providing pollen and nectar. Without host plants in the landscape, butterflies and moths have nowhere to rear their young. Sometimes, a single plant species hosts a single insect species, as is the case with monarchs and milkweed. Other plants, however, can serve as host to multiple insect species, and vice versa.

These associations have evolved over millions of years, and almost always occur between native plants and butterflies. The  increased use of land for farming and development and the spread of invasive exotic plants have diminished the diversity and populations of native plants. This has put a tremendous amount of pressure on pollinators. By including host plants in your garden, you will provide the means for generations of butterflies and moths.

Go to Choose the Best Plants for a list of specific pollinator-friendly plants recommended by the Zoo. 

Plant your garden

How to plant – Dig a hole just deep enough to set a plant at the same depth it is in the pot, but dig the hole wide enough so you can spread the roots widely out 3 to 5 inches or less in the soil. When you remove a plant from its pot, its roots might be bound up in a root ball as a result of growing in a pot. It’s important to tease apart these roots and spread them out into the planting hole. It’s okay if most of the soil from the pot falls off the roots. In fact, most horticulturists recommend removing as much potting soil as possible because it is very different in texture and soil particle size and can potentially interfere with roots establishing in your actual garden soil. Once the roots are spread nicely in the hole, cover with soil and gently firm the soil with your hands. Note: To prevent compacting the soil you worked so hard to till, we suggest using boards to distribute your weight as you plant and work in the bed.

Helping your new plants get established – Your newly planted plants will need extra care while their roots grow into your garden’s soil. This period of establishment can vary according to the time of year of planting and which plants they are. Generally speaking, gardens planted early in the spring establish faster than those planted in the summer or during hot weather. Smaller plants, such as one-gallon perennials, tend to establish more quickly than larger plants like balled and burlaped trees. About the only thing a gardener can do to assist plants through the establishment process is to water properly, and the only way for a gardener to know that the plant is well-established is when it no longer requires extra attention to watering.

Proper watering – Watering might seem the most basic of gardening tasks, but it requires careful attention to detail. Just remember this: over-watering is just as detrimental to plants as under-watering. It also manifests itself in plant symptoms exactly the same as under-watering does. Here is how that happens. A plant with too little water will wilt and generally look bad. A plant that has been watered too much will lose roots to rot and consequently will also wilt and generally look bad. The only way to know when to water is to check the soil. Ideally, a soil will almost dry out before it is watered again. Watering should be thorough so moisture reaches deep into the ground, but it should not be especially frequent. Therefore, before any watering, dig a small hole 5-6 inches deep and check it. If it’s still moist, wait. If it’s dry, water.

(Photo: Lisa Hubbard)
(Photo: Lisa Hubbard)

Do you need fertilizer? Garden soil that has been mixed with organic matter will not likely require fertilizer. Soil fertility can be determined by conducting a soil test, as described above. If you feel your soil is not fertile and your plants are not performing well, a half-strength or lesser application of water-soluble fertilizer might provide a boost. If growing plants in a container, fertilizer will be necessary and should be applied according to instructions. We prefer a combination of water-soluble fertilizer for a quick boost and a slow-release granular to carry plants through the season.

Care for your garden

The easiest way to succeed at any kind of garden is to stay on top of it. The more it is neglected, the harder it will be to bring it back to a beautiful condition. We recommend visiting the garden on a weekly basis. Pick a night or an afternoon when you can give it 15-30 minutes of attention to pull a few weeds or trim things back. While doing that, observe for issues or problems with your plants.

Watering – Even a well-established garden (and your trees) will need occasional watering. Make note if the ground is dry and water is needed. Ideally, a garden should just about completely dry out before you thoroughly water again. An inexpensive rain gauge will help you know how much rain your garden has received. It can also measure how much water you’ve given your garden when you sprinkle. Ideally, any watering should put at least an inch of water out over a broad area of the garden.

Mulching – A few inches of mulch until the plants grow in together will help keep weeds at bay. After that, you’ll find less, if any, need for mulch.

Weeding – For most small gardens, hand-pulling or cultivating the soil with small hand hoes should suffice for most weeds. For tougher weeds, some might consider spot applications of glyphosate or broad-leaf herbicides. For repeating annual weeds, consider a pre-emergent herbicide until the problem subsides.

Clean-up – A perfectly tidy garden it isn’t really all that great for pollinators. Many overwinter in the stems of perennials and grasses. Leave as many of your plants up as long as you can. Once you have cut them back, consider stashing them upright beside your compost heap until spring to give our pollinator friends a chance to emerge. Likewise, rotting wood is great habitat for pollinators and other insects.

Do you need to treat for pests? – Don’t fear some insect feeding on your plants. This is natural, healthy, and means our pollinator friends have found what you planted for them. If you find it absolutely necessary to control pests, use pollinator-friendly methods.

monarch caterpillar eat leaf USFWS
(Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Before spraying any pesticide, first identify any insect you suspect might be harming your plants. Then look it up to see if it is an actual threat. Usually it won’t be, but if you determine a need to treat, learn which insecticide best targets your pest and will do the least amount of harm to other insects. There are good books available on this approach, which is called Integrated Pest Management (IPM). For quicker help, call your local county Extension office.

Beware of organic pesticides. On the surface it might appear they are the best approach, but some are broad spectrum and very lethal killers that can also cause harm to humans. Again, it is always best to follow the steps of IPM and/or call to Extension if you think you have issues with pest insects.

Avoid spraying products that kill flying insects. These all kill pollinators. None of them just kill mosquitoes and flies. The best means for mosquito control is to remove places with standing water—usually gutters, sometimes junk in the yard. Where standing water cannot be avoided, mosquito dunks biologically kill the larvae. To control flies, close garbage cans tightly and clean up other refuse and animal feces. Mosquito zappers are a waste of money. They kill mostly beneficial insects, rarely kill mosquitoes, and, according to some reports, might actually attract more mosquitoes to you.

Need more gardening advice? – We suggest you Ask an Expert at The Ohio State University Extension office.

Other ways to support pollinators

Monarch on clover (Photo: Kenneth Dwain Harrelson)
(Photo: Kenneth Dwain Harrelson)

Here are some other great ways to support pollinators in your yard.

  • Provide water in the way of a birdbath or other water feature.
  • Reduce the size of your lawn and how often you mow it. Let it grow long and consider allowing clover and violets to live and bloom. They are great for pollinators!
  • Offer basking spots for butterflies in the way of large, flat stones or rocks placed in sunny areas.
  • Many pollinators overwinter and lay eggs inside plants. If you can, leave your garden as is over the winter until late spring.

Choose the best plants

You might be tempted to rush to the garden center and pick the first plants that catch your eye, but you, your garden, and pollinators will all benefit if you consider which plants perform best in our area for pollinators. Fortunately, through our plant trialing program, we have already done this work for you!  For over 20 years, we have been trialing plants for their function and appearance in regional landscapes. There’s no better method of determining whether a plant will live and look good over time than to plant it in soil conditions typical of the region and observe it.

As a result, we have created the following lists of spring, summer and fall-blooming plants that grow and look best and benefit pollinators most in the Cincinnati region. We encourage you to grow a diversity of plants from these lists to help feed and host our pollinator friends throughout their life cycles. (Note: registered gardens should include at least one nectar and one host plant.)

More info on how recommendations were chosen

We are very careful when recommending plants. First, we determine how likely it is that a new gardener will succeed with the plant. We then consider pollinator activity that we have observed. Most importantly, we compare our research with that of highly respected entomologists, including Joe Boggs at Ohio State Extension, Dr. Daniel Potter at University of Kentucky, and Dr. David Smitley at Michigan State University.

Our recommendations include both native and exotic plants. Research suggests that the nectar and pollen of any plant, whether exotic or native, is good food for pollinators. If your plants are providing these, you are feeding pollinators. Some exotic plants are heavily favored by pollinators, while others are not. Some native plants get heavy visitation, while other receive almost none. The primary indicator of whether a plant is providing pollen and nectar is heavy visitation to its flowers.

However, it’s important to note that almost all host plants for butterflies and moths are native plants. We suggest that any urban or suburban landscape consist of a rich diversity of plants that includes a strong percentage of native plants. The larger and more natural the landscape, such as in parks and preserves, the more natives it should contain.

Spring-blooming plants Summer-blooming plants Fall-blooming plants

Zoo’s Best Plants for Pollinators Brand

To make it even easier for people to choose the best pollinator plants, we have established a Zoo-approved and branded selection of plants. This Zoo’s Best Plants for Pollinators line is grown by two local growers and sold at many local, independent garden centers in our region. A portion of every sale comes back to the Zoo to support our plant trialing program. Access the current list of participating garden centers here.

Register your garden

Now that you’ve added pollinator-friendly plants to your yard or landscape, it’s time to register your garden. Remember, you can register a garden of any size as long as it includes at least one nectar and one host plant. You’ll have an opportunity to upload a photo of your garden when you register. Help us reach our goal of registering at least 500 gardens in 2019!

Once you submit a completed application form, you will receive a digital certificate recognizing your official Plant for Pollinators Garden certified by the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden. You’ll also have the option to purchase a yard sign to place in your garden, letting your friends and neighbors know that you care about pollinators.  

Map of registered gardens

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Interested in becoming a partner? Contact [email protected]oo.org.

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