On more than one occasion I have stressed the importance of attracting pollinators to your backyard garden. Not only do they facilitate the pollen exchange that is necessary for the development of a mature fruiting body (aka your fruits and veggies) but they are part of the big picture food chain that includes predatory organisms responsible for keeping pest populations in check. At this time of year, I find myself planning out my garden space and container allocations so that I can start seeds and/or buy plants accordingly. To help you navigate this process, I have put together a list of my 10 favorite flowers to include in the garden, for the purpose of attracting and supporting pollinators.
Before we get to the list of blossoms here are 5 fun facts about pollinators:
- Did you know that many pollinators are actually omnivores? This means that they consume both plant based material, like pollen, and other insects. Ladybugs are a great example, as they consume both pollen and soft-bodied insects such as aphids, a well known garden pest. From a gardener’s perspective this is the best of both worlds. They can be lured into the garden with beautiful blooms, facilitate the exchange of pollen by moving from flower to flower AND eat their fill of unwelcome foes.
- Honey bees make more than just honey. According to the American Beekeeping Federation, “Some crops, including blueberries and cherries, are 90% dependent on honey bee pollination. One crop, almonds, depends entirely on the honey bee for pollination at bloom time.” Whoa!
- The Painted Lady butterfly has the longest butterfly migration, traveling roughly 7,500 miles round-trip from Europe across the Sahara. The study was published by Biology Letters in June 2018. Painted Lady butterflies are also found in North America and enjoy a variety of flowers such as asters, milkweed, zinnias and Mexican sunflowers.
- Hoverflies, though not as well studied as bees, are considered by many scholars to be the second most impactful family of pollinating insects. They are critical contributors to pollination amongst orchard plants where open, flat flowers allow for easy feeding despite their poorly adapted mouth parts. Incing on the cake? Their larvae feed on aphids and leafhoppers, so plant some Alyssum or chamomile and encourage these guys to make themselves at home in your garden.
- Cantharophily – the cross-pollination of flowers by beetles that feed on the pollen or on some of the juicy tissues of the flower. Some beetles are a blessing and some are just bullies, life is all about balance.
10 Flowers for Your Vegetable Garden
Alyssum – According to specialists at Oregon State University’s Extension service, bee’s are particularly attracted to blue, purple, white and yellow flowers. Sweet Alyssum is available in all of these colors and buzzing bumblebees just LOVE to visit blankets of these tiny flowers. Alyssum makes a great choice for ground cover but it also thrives in containers alongside other annuals. I picked up a pack of these seeds at Walmart a few weeks ago and germination rates were high, granting me many seedlings.
Asters – These colorful blooms serve as a host plant to multiple species of butterflies and provide nectar for an assortment of other pollinators. Most cultivars are around 24 inches tall, making them a great choice for cut arrangements but there are dwarf varieties available as well that are better suited for containers.
Borage – Also known as “Bee Bush” and “Bee Bread” this edible medicinal has a reputation for attracting buzzing bees to the garden. Plants are 18-30 inches tall and covered in star-shaped blue blossoms. They mature quickly and add a delightful fragrance to any garden.
Candytuft – These small, delicate flowers make a great container option reaching less than 12 inches in height. Available in a variety of colors they attract bees, butterflies and many other beneficial insects to the garden. They also serve as a fragrant ground cover in full-sun areas. The cultivar shown above is offered by West Coast Seeds.
Cosmos – If you plant cosmos butterflies will come. Given the fact that these whimsical blooms look like something straight out of a fairy tale, who can blame them!? Cosmos are typically tall, clocking in around 36 inches, but there are dwarf varieties available that do well in containers. The beautiful orange blossoms shown above are Bright Lights cosmos, an heirloom variety from which seeds are easily saved since they dry out right on the stem when fully mature.
Marigold – It is said that, while Marigolds do attract beneficial insects, they are less likely to attract bees due to their pungent scent. Bees tend to be attracted to sweet smelling flowers, a category in which Marigolds notoriously do not fall. So, if you’d like to attract beneficial pollinators and add a pop of color without attracting an abundance of bees to your garden, Marigolds may be just what the doctor ordered. Mexican Marigolds, like the ones shown above offered by Park Seed, come highly recommended for those trying to avoid bees.
Milkweed – If you are hoping to attract Monarch butterflies you should plant Milkweed in your garden. According to the National Wildlife Foundation Monarch caterpillars feed exclusively on Milkweed leaves, making it the only known host plant for the Monarch species’ juveniles. I received several packs of these precious seeds in swaps, last fall, but you can buy some here. Plants grow between 36 and 48 inches tall and start blooming in late summer.
Nastrutium – An edible addition! Both the leaves and the blossoms of the Nastrutium plant are edible. Cultivars are available in both sprawling and dwarf style growth habits. Though they are best started inside they can be directly sown outside in late spring to add beautiful blooms and draw in an assortment of pollinators. Nastrutium does well in poor quality soil, making it a great choice for the novice gardener.
Sunflowers – These can be sown directly after chance of frost has passed. There are a number of varieties available with heights ranging from 2 – 18 feet. Flowers cover the warm color spectrum from pale yellows to deep burgundy, with varying head and petal sizes. Pollinators of all kinds are fond of sunflowers but the bees love them most. If you’re planning to save the seeds you’ll need to net the heads because insects aren’t the only ones who seek out sunflowers for a mid-morning snack. Birds and squirrels are also drawn to this garden addition.
Zinnias – These gems attract a wide variety of pollinators but are well known as a butterfly favorite. Low growing zinnia cultivars are available, such as the Heirloom 1962 All-America Selections winner Old Mexico, in addition to tall varieties typically ranging from 20-40 inches. They cover a wide color spectrum with sharp whites, lime greens, yellows, purples and all shades of pink, red and orange. Long robust stems also make Zinnias a delightful cut flower for arrangements. The assortment shown above was grown last year by my dear friend, Amee Lewis.
This is by no means a full list of pollinator-friendly annual flowers but they are some of my favorites and I hope this list proves helpful for you as you plan your 2020 garden. If you have any go-to choices that you’d like to contribute please share them in the comments below for our fellow gardeners. Cheers, friends!