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Nancy Gilbert: Give pollinators a boost in your garden

Wooly Sunflower and Mylitta Crescent Butterfly. Example of a native plant and a pollinator.
Nancy Gilbert |

While there are many non–native plants that benefit pollinators, our California native plants, especially those native to our local Sierra Nevada region, offer the maximum benefits because they are perfectly adapted to our climate and soils. The insects and birds that live here have co–evolved with them.

By choosing to garden with native plants, you create a win–win landscape that is water-wise, low maintenance, wildlife–enhancing and beautiful, giving your landscape a sense of place.

“If you plant them, they will come,” and native gardeners know this to be true when it comes to pollinators.



Another plus is that most of our native plants are versatile and make excellent companions for drought-resistant plants from other Mediterranean regions, since these plants have similar soil and watering preferences.

The challenge comes in selecting the best native plants for your landscape, since the California Native Plant Society estimates that California is home to 6,300 native plants, making it the top–ranking state for biodiversity in the U.S.A.




In this article, I hope to make it easy for you to select native plant species for creating a garden buzzing with pollinating bees, butterflies and birds.

Following are seven basic guidelines for creating a successful pollinator and/or butterfly garden:

1. You should select plants that will thrive in your landscape by meeting their basic requirements, and this requires that you first get to know your garden site intimately, including your soil type(s) and drainage properties, cold hardiness zone, amounts and direction of sun exposure, and the types of vegetation already growing there. That way you will choose the right plant for the right place and know what adjustments you may need to make to accommodate a particular plant species you want to include in your design.

2. When designing your landscaping, you should also be sure to group plants with similar requirements and from similar natural habitats together and plan your irrigation system so plants with the same watering preferences and needs are zoned together.

3. Try planting a wide variety of native plants with differing bloom periods so that you will provide a long season of blooms from late winter, through the summer months, and right up through autumn. Cluster plants into drifts composed of several plants per species rather than a one here, one there approach; this will look much more pleasing. For pollinating bees, flies and butterflies, choose native plants that prefer to grow in sunny areas, as that is generally their preference. Hummingbirds will feed in sunny or partial shade conditions, so you can select woodland plants as well as sun–lovers to attract them.

4. Never use any toxic pesticides, fungicides or herbicides in your garden. Utilize natural pest control and Integrated Pest Management (IPM) strategies.

5. For butterflies, provide wind shelter with fencing, evergreen shrubs, and hedgerows. Also, leave some un–pruned wild patches in your garden for overwintering caterpillars and pupae, as well as seed-eating birds. And don’t forget to plant some of the larval host plants for your favorite butterflies.

6. Provide a source of water for bees, butterflies and birds. Shallow birdbaths are best for birds, as are drippers and misters. Butterfly males ‘puddle’, that is drink at mud puddles to get essential minerals for reproduction. Fill a shallow dish with damp sand or mud, mix in a little compost and keep wet. Also provide sunny basking rocks where butterflies can perch to raise their body temperature.

7. Leave some bare patches of ground within your landscape and do not disturb these areas. Many native bee species require areas of bare soil for their underground tunnels and nests.

Nancy Gilbert is environmental educator and landscape design consultant. Nancy and husband, Ames Gilbert, are co-owners of the Far West Bulb Farm near Grass Valley.


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