A garden full of flowers is a beautiful sight! You might think that flowers exist just to please our eyes, but their real goal in life is to create more plants. In order for plants to produce the seeds that grow into new plants, pollen from the male parts of a flower needs to reach the female parts of a flower, a process called pollination. Many plants need help from pollinators for the pollen to make its journey from one flower to the next. Most pollinators are insects, including bees, wasps, flies, butterflies, moths, ants, and beetles. But hummingbirds and even bats are pollinators for some plants!
Pollinators are important to us, for we need their help to be able to produce many of the foods we eat. Without pollinators, we’d miss out on foods like apples, cucumbers, almonds, and strawberries, which develop from flowers after they’ve been pollinated. We’d also lose many food plants that are grown from seed, like beans, cabbage, and carrots, since without pollination they can’t produce seeds needed to grow more plants. This is why it’s so important to learn about and protect all kinds of pollinators. Plants need pollinators – and we need plants!
Unfortunately, both honeybees and many species of native bees are in trouble. Populations of both are in sharp decline due to pesticide use, disease and parasite problems, and loss of food and nesting habitat. Many honeybee colonies have been lost to colony collapse disorder, a devastating problem whose cause is not fully understood.
One way to help pollinators is to plant a pollinator garden — a pesticide-free habitat filled with flowering plants that provides an abundance of food resources – nectar and pollen — all season long. Recently the KidsGardening staff and I did just that at Army Trail Elementary School in Addison, Illinois. Around a small existing pond we planted a selection of pollinator-friendly plants to attract and nourish these vital insects.
First into bloom in the garden is native columbine with its graceful, nodding yellow and red flowers. As spring turns into summer other natives come into bloom, including purple coneflower, black-eyed Susan, bee balm, and blazing star. Later in the summer the large, pinkish-mauve flower heads of Joe Pye-weed and the white spires of Culver’s root act as pollinator magnets. Finally, the arching flower sprays of ‘Fireworks’ goldenrod provide a late season feast for pollinators and end the garden year in a blaze of gold.
The plants we chose were selected to do well in the moist soil and full sun of this Zone 5 garden. The plants you choose may be different, depending on your location and the conditions in your garden. What’s important is to include a variety of flowering plants that bloom in succession from spring through fall (or even winter in mild climates). Try to choose as many native plants as possible, as they generally provide the most benefit to native pollinators. Add some water – a shallow bowl set at ground level that contains a few stones as “landing pads” works well – and you’ll have a garden to both delight your eyes and nurture those all-important garden helpers, the pollinators.