By Jay Levine
Photos: Courtesy of Laurie Szostak
Reprinted from 2014 August/September
Gardeners garden for many reasons: beauty, exercise, food and shade, among others. One reason not usually considered but that has gained momentum is gardening for wildlife, especially for pollinators. A pollinator is any animal that carries pollen from one flower to another, and pollination is the crucial step in plants’ reproduction. The most common pollinators are bees, butterflies and moths, but beetles, wasps, flies and even larger animals can be pollinators. Some are generalists (will pollinate many different flowers), while others are specialists and only pollinate a particular variety. Some specialists will only lay their eggs on a specific plant, often different from the one they pollinate. If you must use insecticides, be careful that they do not kill off the pollinators you are trying to attract.
If you’re hoping to help the specialists, you need to use plenty of native plants. Generally, a native plant is one that evolved in the area where you live. However, there is debate among plant professionals as to what constitutes “the area where you live.” Some people will only use plants occurring within 50 miles, while others will use plants from a wider area, such as their state or region (for us that might be New York and New England). I tend to lean more toward the broader end of the spectrum.
Perhaps what’s most important, if you’re concerned about planting for wildlife, is to avoid plants known as invasive exotics. These plants are most commonly from a continent other than ours and will spread very quickly both within your garden and out into the environment. Many exotic invasives have become a major problem because they outcompete (sometimes to extinction) native plants, which local animals depend on for food and shelter. Among the worst of these are Norway maple, Japanese barberry, purple loosestrife, burning bush, Japanese honeysuckle and vinca.
If you want to garden for wildlife, you need to carefully plan your garden. First, you should install a wide diversity of plants. This is important to feed a variety of pollinators and also to have plants producing flowers from very early until very late in the season. In fact, the ends of the seasons can be the most important times because there tend to be fewer plants in bloom at those times. Include a mix of perennials, vines, shrubs and trees. Using flowers of different colors and shapes is also important, because these will attract different pollinators.
In my experience, the following plants are some of the best for pollinators, though there are many others: Echinacea (purple coneflower), butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa), oregano (the herb), Agastache (hyssop), Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium), flowering onions (Allium), Viburnums, St. John’s Wort and buckeyes (Aesculus). Two books written by William Cullina, Growing and Propagating Wildflowers of the United States and Canada and Native Trees, Shrubs, and Vines, are great sources for learning about native plants generally, but they also have lists of plants beneficial to wildlife.
A benefit of this current interest in native plants is that most nurseries will have a good selection of them. Some even specialize in them, as their mission is to maintain and protect our natural environment. In our area, the Catskill Native Nursery is one of those specialists. █