By Marty Ross
Butterflies are a wonderful part of a healthy garden. They — and innumerable other insects that pollinate plants — are also ecologically and economically vital, but they are on the decline.
Gardeners can help offset the loss by planting flowers that sustain butterflies and other pollinators. A garden designed with pollinators in mind is as beautiful as any other, and perhaps even more so.
Bumblebees are pollinators, too. These bees are visiting bee balm plants in the Butterfly Habitat Garden. James Gagliardi Smithsonian Gardens
Butterflies, moths, bees, beetles, hummingbirds and even bats all are pollinators. Their health and welfare are critical to a healthy and diverse ecosystem, and to the production of one in every three bites of food we take, according to the National Pollinator Garden Network.
The organization has launched an ambitious campaign, the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge, to encourage the planting of pollinator-friendly landscapes to invigorate pollinator populations. The goal is to register one million pollinator gardens, large and small, old and new, across the country.
“If you have four acres, that would be wonderful,” says Matthew Shepherd, communications director for the Xerces Society, the wildlife conservation and protection organization. “But if you have an urban plot, a community garden, or a spot on the balcony of your 10th-floor condo, you can plant flowers,” he says. “You can do that anywhere.”
Monarch butterflies are perhaps all pollinators’ most widely recognized ambassador, and they are among the most endangered. Millions of acres of the natural habitat of this flashy orange-and-black butterfly have been lost to development and to the use of agricultural herbicides. The Monarch Watch program encourages gardeners to plant milkweed, the leaves of these plants are the only food monarch caterpillars eat; the program is among the 25 partners in the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge.
Perhaps the most prominent pollinator garden in the world is the Butterfly Habitat Garden at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History on the Mall in Washington, D.C. The garden was established in 1995, and next year, it will have a new name: the Pollinator Garden.
“A lot of people are fearful or just don’t like insect activity,” says James Gagliardi, lead horticulturist with Smithsonian Gardens. “But it’s very positive. Flowers and fruits are not going to be around without these pollinators.”
A gardener’s role in all this is easy: Plant flowers.
Native plants rub shoulders with non-natives in the Butterfly Habitat Garden. Gagliardi grows native perennials such as goldenrod, which blooms in the fall, and mountain mint, which has silvery leaves and tiny pink flowers, and attracts an abundance of pollinators. He also grows bright annuals, among them zinnias, which are a magnet for butterflies, and Mexican sunflower, a tall plant covered with bright orange flowers — and pollinators — in late summer and fall.
Big sweeps of colorful flowers blooming through the summer are important, but the most effective and successful pollinator gardens have blooms throughout the season. Trees, shrubs and vines also fit into the picture.
“Just by planting one tree, you can really make a difference,” says Peggy Anne Montgomery of American Beauties Native Plants, another partner in the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge. A mighty oak would be great, she says, but so are many small trees.
Montgomery relies as much as possible on native plants, with which North American pollinators are likely to have well-established ecological relationships. She recommends long-blooming native perennial coneflowers, phlox and ironweed. Include butterfly milkweed and ornamental grasses in your pollinator garden, too, she says, creating layered plantings that look rich and full, help hold each other up through summer wind and rain, and provide shelter for insects during the winter.
Annual flowers grown from seed are every gardener’s gateway plants to a colorful and easy pollinator-friendly garden, says Renee Shepherd, owner of the seed company Renee’s Garden. Annual sunflowers, cosmos, zinnias, cleome and alyssum all attract butterflies and other pollinators. Herbs should be part of the mix, she says: Plant plenty of them, let them bloom and see how many pollinators they attract. Shepherd likes cilantro, arugula, basil and chives both for their taste and because they attract so many pollinators. She practices succession planting, so she always has fresh herbs for the kitchen and blooming herbs outside for the pollinators.
Of course, pollinators find their way to vegetable gardens, too. Beans, squash, tomatoes and cucumbers all attract pollinators, but you’ll have more pollinators — and more impressive harvests — in a vegetable garden that includes flowers.
Above all, a pollinator garden is no place for pesticides. “We don’t use them” in the Butterfly Habitat Garden, Gagliardi says. “Our garden is very healthy and very balanced, too.” Visitors might notice holes in the leaves of a few plants, or they may discover curious striped caterpillars on the fennel or dill, “but if you want butterflies, you have to have food sources, and there are going to be holes in the leaves,” Gagliardi says. Instead of fretting over insect damage, get to know the insects. In a pollinator garden, you’ll have plenty to discover. Together with the flowers, these pretty pollinators put on quite a show.