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Ask a Master Gardener: Plan Your Pollinator Garden

By: Mary Townsley, Mobile County Master Gardener


Pollination is the process of transferring flower pollen from the male (stamen) to the female (pistil) part of flowers.  Some plants such as pines produce a large amount of pollen and rely on wind dispersal to do the job of pollination. You see the byproduct of that in spring as your cars and decks take on that yellow pollen hue. However, many plants rely on animal pollinators to pick up and transfer pollen. Pollinators are "paid" for their work with flower pollen and/or nectar as food. For some pollinators such as butterflies, additional payment comes in the form of leaves and stems that serve as food in the larval part of their life cycle. Finally, these gardens offer shelter and nesting space for pollinators.


Who are the pollinators? You might immediately think of bees, and you would be correct. They are an important group of natural pollinators that collect and transfer flower pollen from plant to plant. However, pollinators are much more diverse, including birds, bats, butterflies, moths, flies, beetles, wasps, and small mammals, in addition to bees.


As natural habitat for pollinators declines due to land clearing, urban development and insecticide use, pollinator numbers and diversity are negatively impacted. You can help by creating new pollinator garden space. Consider the benefits of converting some lawn space to pollinator garden space: less mowing, more pollinator wildlife viewing!!


It's not too early to start your planning. Here are some important steps and considerations as you plan.


1.       Choose your site. Plants for pollinator gardens typically require full sun, but some appreciate afternoon shade in our south Alabama climate, and some will tolerate partially shady sites. Think about a large enough space that will allow you to plant massed groupings of several types of plants. The addition of woody shrubs or small trees to your pollinator garden will require a larger planting footprint. If you've chosen a grassy area, begin site preparation by removing sod or smothering it with plywood, newspaper, or cardboard. Non-persistent herbicides may be used if ingredients are not toxic to pollinators - check with the Extension Office and read the label carefully. Till or dig to loosen the soil before planting.

2.       Choose plants appropriate to the site and your garden hardiness zone.  Note that Mobile County is now classified by the USDA as having hardiness zones ranging from 8b in the northern part of the county, to 9a in central and southern areas to a small slice of zone 9b around Mon Louis and Dauphin Islands.  So, consider your zone, the number of hours of sun per day your intended site will get, whether there is afternoon shade, and the site's typical moisture level.  Note that native plants such as milkweed and coneflowers are best at attracting some pollinators, particularly bees and butterflies, and have the advantage that natives are adapted to our climate and typically require less care. But plants that grow here as annuals can attract pollinators as well, such as marigolds or Porterweed. Some good resources for plant ideas for our climate include blog postings from the Alabama Cooperative Extension (Protecting pollinators and Fall flowering plants for bees), Mississippi State Extension (Creating a pollinator garden), the University of Florida Extension (Bee plants) and Mobile County Master Gardeners (Butterfly gardens and Plants for soggy sites).

3.       Optimize your garden plantings to best support pollinators. These strategies can include planting multiples of the same plant in massed groupings so that pollinators don't have to go far to forage. Flying takes energy, so short distances between blossoms help pollinators preserve their precious energy. Include plants with varied bloom times to extend availability of pollen and nectar to feed pollinators through much of the year. Provide a variety of flower shapes.

Plants with long tubular flowers - think of coral honeysuckle or firebush - are a good match for butterflies, hummingbirds, and some bees.  In contrast, plants that have a flatter shape - think of sunflowers or Caryopteris - provide a good landing platform with easy pollen and nectar access for many pollinators. Include plants that serve as hosts for developing butterfly and moth larva, i.e., caterpillars. 

Finally, consider plants that meet multiple purposes through the growing year - flower pollen and nectar for pollinators, hosts for butterfly caterpillars, berries for birds, etc. Herbs can be a great addition to a pollinator garden. Parsley, dill, and fennel serve as host plants for swallowtail butterflies. Herbs that produce flowers - such as chives, basil, and rosemary, attract bees and butterflies. Finally, include watering "holes" for pollinators. Bees in particular need a water source. A fountain with stone landing sites or a tray filled with sand and water will be appreciated by visiting pollinators.

4.       Plan to avoid insecticide use.  Insecticides kill pollinators, and even low doses can negatively impact pollinator foraging and nesting behaviors.  Systemic insecticides can persist in pollen, nectar, and plant tissue for long periods of time. So, in addition to building new pollinator garden habitat, converting from insecticide use to other less toxic forms of pest management will help to improve pollinator numbers and diversity in your garden space over time. It's a good investment!


A final resource that you may find useful: the Illinois Natural Resources Conservation Service has developed a terrific design guide for pollinator gardens. While some of the specific plant choices will not be optimal in our growing climate, the guide provides some great ideas for how pollinator gardens can be adapted to differing site characteristics. Enjoy your planning and planting!

Swallowtail on Pentas by Mary Townsley

Caryopteris and firebush in pollinator garden by Mary Townsley

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