Grow like a pro: pollinator plants

By Mark and Ben Cullen

July 7, 2016 12:00 AM

You live with a balcony, patio or yard and you are thinking about how you can do something interesting with it.
The decline of the honey bee and monarch butterfly population has your attention.
“What if I planted something that helped to attract and nurture the beneficial insects in my neighbourhood, provided natural beauty and colour and was low maintenance?”
My response: Consider planting native plants in your outdoor space.
You will provide a source of nourishment for pollinators while enhancing the local environment in measurable ways and you could have a beautiful, low maintenance garden. 
Here are my top five tips:
1. Explore your options. 
If you just plant Purple Cone Flower you will have masses of colour from mid July through late August but little else to show for your efforts over the balance of the season.
I choreograph my pollinator garden with crocus, daffodils and narcissus—late April through early May—Lungwort (pulmonaria), Foamflower, cilantro, oregano, Columbine and sweet woodruff takes over mid-May through early June.
Come early summer I feature cardinal flower—a hummingbird magnet!—catmint, coral bells and many hosta varieties.
As the season progresses, there are many plants that provide opportunities for foraging butterflies and feeding hummingbirds includingEchinacea, rudbeckia, late flowering hostas and one of my favourites is borage.
Come September and October, butterflies and bees love sedum spectabile, asters and monarda in my garden.
Annual flowers that are pollinator magnets right into the fall months include sunflowers, zinnias, sweet alyssum and cosmos—one of my favourite ‘cutting’ flowers. Note not all of my suggestions are native plants.
In my opinion, if a plant is rich in nectar and/or pollen and therefore attracts pollinators it should be considered.
2. Plant host plants.
Monarch butterflies lay eggs exclusively on native milkweed.
While it’s late to start them from seed, it can certainly be done and you will succeed in producing a healthy crop for next year if you get started now.
Once monarch larvae have hatched and fed on the milkweed they move on to other food sources in your garden.
Milkweed seeds are available on many seed racks at your local garden retailer.
3. Place habitat.
Garden retailers now offer a wide selection of habitat for many beneficial insects.
Mason bee houses are available in a variety of models including a British import that features paper straws in a 10-cm round nesting box that you hang on an east or south facing wall.
Mason bees lay their eggs in the straws and you encourage an increase in effective pollinators to your neighbourhood.
Look for ‘insect hotels’ and of course nesting boxes for birds, like the tree swallow.
By the way, I predict insect hotels and bee habitat will be as common in Canadian gardens 20 years from now as bird feeders are now. Find more info in my new book, The New Canadian Garden.
4. Water.
This is the single most impactful feature you can add to your garden if you’re interested in attracting pollinators and beneficial wildlife.
Your yard can become the watering hole for a host of butterflies, native bees, dragon flies—yes, they are beneficial—frogs, toads and you name it.
All you have to do is make sure the water is fresh and available to all who pass by.
And when they do, watch out because babies will result and that means more beneficials!
Many insects will bathe and drink where shallow water occurs.
Filling a container with water and lining it with marbles, with water just below the top of the marbles, will help provide access to the water, without the risk of drowning.
5. Relax.
We attempt, in so many ways, to create a sanitized world for ourselves.
I’m not against cleanliness, but where pollinators are concerned a little bit messy is a good thing.
Bees love dandelions.
Fallen trees can provide crucial habitat for many species of cavity nesting bees and other insects.
A stack of firewood that’s allowed to decay can be very beneficial for many insect species and the toad population grows where they have shelter from the heat of day and a nearby source of water.
Attracting pollinators to your yard or balcony provides benefits to your entire community: 30 per cent of the food that we eat is pollinated by insects and hummingbirds.
Keep in mind bees are attracted to white, yellow, blue and purple flowers more so than other colours.
For more information go to and
Mark Cullen is an expert gardener, author and broadcaster. Get his free monthly newsletter at Look for his new best seller, ‘The New Canadian Garden’

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