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How to Attract Birds, Bees and Beautiful Butterflies to Your Garden

Welcoming pollinators to your yard is good for your landscaping and the ecosystem

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There are easy ways to create habitats and food sources for pollinators, such as bees, birds and butterflies — and great reasons to do it. 

“By creating a creature-friendly garden, you are creating a network or a web of relationships that support biodiversity and lead to ecosystem health,” says Lorraine Johnson, gardening expert, cultivation activist and coauthor of A Northern Gardener’s Guide to Native Plants and Pollinators: Creating Habitat in the Northeast, Great Lakes and Upper Midwest.

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Pollinators feast on the nectar and pollen of plants as well as snack on caterpillars and insects.

“If you’re going to have a vibrant garden, you’re going to have birdsong ... bees buzzing ... butterflies fluttering [and] hummingbirds darting around, but you’re also going to have caterpillars and things like that, that will eat your plants,” says Rhonda Fleming Hayes, garden expert and author of Pollinator Friendly Gardening: Gardening for Bees, Butterflies and Other Pollinators.

Here’s how to cultivate a buzzworthy garden.

Grow native plants

One of the best ways to help pollinators is to grow native plants because they create food and shelter for pollinators.

Why? Your local pollinators have evolved right along with the plants so they depend on each other, says Deborah Landau, director of ecological management for The Nature Conservancy’s Maryland/DC chapter.  “Some insects might be queued to emerge and become active right when that food source is available,” she adds.

Not sure what plants are native to your area? Visit Homegrown National Park native plants finder or Audubon native plant database for what thrives in your geographical region. But also take the time to research what native plants will do well in your specific garden’s conditions, says Hayes.

Landau adds that it’s also a good idea to go slowly when introducing native plants.  “Start small, start diverse and plant a variety of different natives and see what happens. Some will thrive, some will disappear — let your yard tell you what works.”

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Create good homes for butterfly eggs and caterpillars

While plants that provide nectar and pollen are important, you also want to make sure there are plants that can act as habitats for butterflies to lay their eggs and support caterpillars.

A classic example is the monarch butterfly, which depends solely on milkweed as a larval (the developmental stage) host plant. Milkweed is the only plant that supports monarch eggs and caterpillars. Some butterflies rely on several larval host plants where they lay their eggs and the caterpillars can eat the leaves.

“The best larval host plants [for most butterflies] as far as flowering plants would be milkweed, anything in the mallow family, like hollyhocks and perennial hibiscus,” says Hayes. She adds any in the wild carrot family, such as dill, parsley and fennel are good too.

Landau says many nonnative plants will attract butterflies, but if they don’t support them through the life cycle (feed caterpillars when they hatch) then you’re actually starving them to death in the life cycle and providing a false sense of habitat.

Butterflies are attracted to butterfly bush for the nectar, for example, but it isn’t native to North America, nor is it a larval host plant. When a female butterfly lays her eggs, the caterpillars won’t survive because it’s not the right type of leaves for them to eat.

“Those caterpillars will all die and starve to death,” Landau says. She explains you may feel good that you’re attracting pollinators to your yard, but if the plants don’t support the entire life cycle of a butterfly or bee, you could be causing more harm.

Use a variety of plants that will bloom at different times of the year

When designing your landscape, think about flower blooming times year-round, not just in the summer months. “Some of the most limiting times for pollinators are early spring and late fall,” says Landau. Pollinators need food and habitat in all seasons.

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“A lot of people don’t realize that [monarchs] need nectar from any plants in the fall when they’re moving back south,” says Landau.

Keep your yard a little messy

Maintaining a brush pile of leaves, sticks and branches in your yard is important for many insects, especially in the colder months.

“A brush pile is a wonderful space for wildlife to seek refuge,” says Landau. “If you clean up your yard in the winter, then you’re removing the next generation [of insects], which is still trying to take advantage of your wonderful yard as a place for safety.”

But your pile doesn’t have to take up a lot of space or be an eyesore. “If you can just devote a corner of your yard to your little messy area where you leave these sticks and the leaves, even that little bit will help tremendously,” she says.

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Leave dead stems standing

You may want to clean up your garden when the season ends but leaving flower stalks and stems provides homes for cavity nesting bees.

According to Johnson, “Leaving those plant stalks standing over the winter is just one simple way that gardeners can create habitat to ensure the next generation of those native cavity-nesting bees have a place to grow and then emerge from and be the next generation of bees.”

Video: How to Grow Vegetables in Pots

Create a water lifeline

Providing a water source in your front or back yard, porch or balcony is a simple way to bring in wildlife.

“Water equals life when you put water in a garden,” says Hayes. “It changes the dynamic for both the wildlife and humans; water introduces a different feeling … you get reflections, you get movement.”

Put in a nonslippery bird bath or a shallow receptacle so birds and insects can have water to drink and birds can also bathe. Hayes suggests placing a rock in the middle so there is a place to perch. 

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Limit your lawn area

The classic grass lawn  is far from garden-creature friendly — what Landau calls an “ecological desert.” 

Some alternatives to traditional grass are ornamental grasses — plants or actual grasses that not only add texture and color to a garden, but provide great wildlife habitats. “Grasses are really important in your planning because lots of bees nest under ornamental grasses, especially bumblebees, and they also provide shelter,” says Hayes.

Go pesticide free

If you create a biodiverse garden, it will mimic nature and won’t need chemicals to ‘control’ pests.

“Your garden will be healthier [and] you’re going to be able to reduce and eliminate pesticides because you’re going to be letting nature do the work,” says Hayes. 

Another benefit of not using pesticides, herbicides or insecticides is that you avoid harming wildlife and negatively impacting the ecosystem.

Plenty is happening that the eye can’t see, says Landau. “If you’re applying pesticides to your lawn, then shrubs might be taking up that pesticide and then when the bird eats the berry, you might be negatively impacting that bird. Everything is connected.”

​Without pesticides, your garden will also begin to balance itself, Landau adds. You’ll be “creating a welcoming place for all different kinds of insects … you’ll have a balance of predators and herbivores, which will keep the ones you don’t want down,” says Landau. 

Garden size doesn’t matter

Whether you live on several acres of land or in a small apartment, you can create creature-friendly spaces.

“You can plant native plants in containers and have those on balconies or patios,” says Johnson.

And if you don’t have any outdoor space, consider using windowsills. “If all you have is a window box, then plant the native flowering plant there. Every little bit counts, and you will be astounded at how many insects you can attract to just a window box,” says Landau.

“The more and more people who do that, even if it’s just the tiniest of spaces, you’re creating connections, you’re making a bridge and you’re allowing these insects to continue their migration; you really can make a difference with even just a small little bit.”

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Keep rats and deer at bay

There are a couple of precautions to take when creating a critter-friendly garden. For example, if you put out bird seed to attract birds, then be sure to clean up any seed on the ground that might attract rats, says Johnson.

As for deer that may eat your plants? Landau recommends speaking with your local nursery for natives that deer aren’t interested in snacking on.

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