Important Notice ~ as you seek bedding plants from nurseries, please read this message from Carol Dunk, an advocate for pollinators, and former president of the Ontario Horticultural Society

Whether pollinator-friendly gardening sounds daunting or adventurous, it is in reality quite a simple and do-able task. By making an urban garden, regardless of its size, a welcoming place for insects and animals, you are helping to preserve essential pollinators, which in turn will help to make any garden thrive. The urban environment is not always best suited to pollinators, but planting a garden focused on supplying their needs is one step in the right direction.


Why are pollinators essential to an urban garden?

You may not always be able to observe pollinators in a garden, yard, or green space, but they are constantly present, and are actually working to your advantage. Not only are pollinators, such as bees, wasps, flies, beetles, butterflies, moths, bats, and hummingbirds an important part of the natural environment, but they also benefit us by their services to plants. As a group they pollinate fruits, vegetables, and flowers, both wild and domesticated, making plants healthier and more likely to produce a better quality harvest. The presence of pollinators in the urban garden can only be positive. Some solitary bees, for example that nest in the ground build tunnels that improve soil texture, mix nutrients into the soil, as well as increase the movement of water around plant roots.1

Worldwide evidence shows that pollinator populations are declining. By creating attractive environments for pollinators in an urban setting you can provide essential habitats for these insects and birds. Habitats may not be widely available in a setting such as a new subdivision, unless otherwise provided or helped to develop. Pollinators, such as bees and butterflies, are also very interesting to observe, and when you foster a pleasant pollinator-friendly garden you can experience a piece of pure, wild nature in your own backyard.

What do pollinators need to thrive in an urban garden?

Surprisingly enough, pollinators’ basic needs are identical to the basic needs of all life: shelter, food and protection from pesticides. Pollinators need flowers that are rich in nectar and pollen, and that are easily accessible. There are many different pollinator species, so it is more beneficial to provide a wide range of flowers, instead of potentially limiting the number of possible pollinators by the choices of plants. Pollinators also require various places to find shelter, to build nests in which to live, and have safe places for eggs and larvae. Many wild bees, for example, make burrows in the soil, while others build nests in snags, dead or dying standing trees, or holes in dead wood. Pollinators will thrive better in an area that is sheltered from wind, with a mix of sunshine and shade throughout the day.3

Please also see the following: Flower Fragrances to Attract Pollinators

How can a pollinator-friendly space be created where pollinators will remain active?

To begin with, you do not need copious amounts of space to create a garden that will be attractive to pollinators. Plants can be planted anywhere, from pots and flower boxes to actual flowerbeds. Pollinators are attracted to flowers by their colour and scent,4 not by where they are planted. Consider designing your garden so that there is a continuing sequence of blooming plants from spring to fall. This will ensure that the garden can supply nectar and pollen for a variety of pollinators with different foraging habits and different flower preferences.5

Flowers with bright colours, especially blue, yellow, red, and violet are attractive to pollinators. In terms of what kind of flowers to grow, it is better to pick plants that are native to your region, or at least native to North America. Native plants are better adapted to your particular area and are therefore more able to provide for pollinator’s needs than are non-native plants. 7

Some examples of pollinator attracting flowers are the cardinal flower, bee balm, gray-headed coneflower, black-eyed susan, purple verbena, native asters and native goldenrods (by the way, goldenrod is insect-pollinated and does not cause allergies -- ragweed, a wind-pollinated plant blooms at the same time and is the reason for allergic reactions in the fall). 9 Simply keep in mind while planning an urban garden that gardens with a high density of diverse plants are most attractive to pollinators. 10

Some insects like to nest in the ground, so it can be helpful if you preserve open patches of muddy soil, or open soil with direct access to it. 12 As dead wood can provide nesting areas of various pollinators, for example bees, wasps, beetles, ants,13 another way to encourage the nesting of pollinators near your garden is to retain dead tree branches or trees, but only if it is safe to do so.

Providing water to all wildlife is another action you can take. Do this by hanging a dripping bottle, or placing a small container of water full of rocks or marbles for landing pads, out in the open. Know that native bees do not need a source of water -- their water needs are met via nectar. The water supplied will also specifically provide water to pollinators. Butterflies, for example, will gather and sip at shallow pools, mud puddles or even birdbaths.14 However, change the water often, as stagnant water in never healthy, and specifically encourages mosquitoes.

In creating a pollinator-friendly garden one last important aspect to address is the use of pesticides. Pesticides can be very deadly to pollinators, who will later alight on the sprayed plants, as well as damaging to the environment as a whole. Avoid using chemical pesticides whenever possible. Try using an organic pest control. There are a variety of options available, such as insecticidal soap, diatomaceous earth, kaolin clay, neem oil, or beneficial insects, which include nematodes, green lacewings, and ladybird beetles.15 Diatomaceous earth is a fine powder, primarily consisting of crushed diatoms and silica, which scratches away an insect’s outer waxy layer, and causes dehydration. This organic option is non-toxic, but has residual effects as long as the power remains. It can be applied directly to soil or pest. Use on target insects, but carefully, as it can also injure good insects.16 Kaolin clay is effective as a foliar spray, what creates a non-toxic film that acts as a barrier between pest and host plant. Kaolin clay reduces damage from a variety of pests that attack fruits and vegetables, including the leaf roller, leaf hopper, pear psylla, apple maggot, plum curculio, cucumber beetle and the coddling moth.17 Regardless of what preventative measure is taken, it is important that small amounts be used at one time, applied to specific spots, and only applied after sundown, when most pollinators are no longer active.18

Creating a pollinator-friendly garden at your urban home is a fairly simple task to undertake. However, it is an action that has the potential to make a larger impact on the environment, and most importantly, a positive impact in the lives of essential plant pollinators.

  1. “Our home and native bees.” David Suzuki Foundation: 2007.
  2. “Your Urban Garden is Better with Bees.” North American Pollinator Protection Campaign.
  3. “Pollinator Friendly Practices.” North American Pollinator Protection Campaign. p 2.
  4. “Your Urban Garden is Better with Bees.” North American Pollinator Protection Campaign.
  5. “Creating a Pollinator Garden.” National Gardening Association.”
  6. “Pollinators in the Garden.” Reiman Gardens Iowa State University: 2002.
  7. “Facts from the NAS National Research Council Study: Status of Pollinators in North America.”
  8. “Creating a Pollinator Garden.” National Gardening Association.”
  9. Ibid. AND
  10. “How to Build a Pollinator Friendly Garden.” p 1.
  11. “Home Made Sweet Homes: how to make your own home for bees.” The North American Pollinator Protection Campaign.
  12. Vaughan, Mace, and Scott Hoffman Black. “Enhancing Nest Sites for Native Bee Crop Pollinators.” National Agroforestry Centre.
  13. “Facts from the NAS National Research Council Study: Status of Pollinators in North America.”
  14. “Creating a Pollinator Garden.” National Gardening Association.”
  15. “Organic Pest Control Guide.” Extremely Green Gardening Company LLC.
  16. “DIATOMACEOUS EARTH: A Non Toxic Pesticide.” Ecological Agriculture Projects. 1986.
  17. Atlantic Canadian Organic Regional Network.
  18. “Your Urban Garden is Better with Bees.” North American Pollinator Protection Campaign.