Plan Your Garden

1. Garden size

(Photo: Lisa Hubbard)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.

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.

2. Garden location

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.

3. Make your bed

Tilled soil (Photo: Chiot's Run)

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

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!

4. Prepare your soil

(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.

5. Plant your garden

How to plant – After you’ve chosen the best plants for pollinators and completed the above steps, you are ready 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.

(Photo: Lisa Hubbard)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.

Treating for pests

Do you need to treat for pests?
monarch caterpillar eat leaf USFWS

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.

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. We suggest you ask an expert at The Ohio State University Extension office.

Organic pesticides

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.

Mosquitoes and flies

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.

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.

Proper watering –

Even a well-established garden (and your trees) will need occasional 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 the soil is dry then 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. It also helps retain soil moisture and nutrients. After plants grow in together you may have less 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.

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.

End of season –

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.