Ecology + Design

Designing an Organic Pollinator Garden: Tips from a Landscape Ecologist | Fairfield County, CT

First of all, Happy Earth Day! We’re celebrating our favorite holiday with a deep dive into one of our main raison d’être for working in our field pollinators!

We are so thrilled by the growing cultural shift toward awareness and appreciation for our native bees, butterflies, dragonflies, wasps, syrphid flies and other ecological superstars in the pollinator family.  Local support has been particularly impressive, with the growing Pollinator Pathways movement in Westchester County and Fairfield County.

(Check out our previous post: Uniting the Buzz: The Case for Pollinator Pathways in Westchester County and Fairfield County).

There’s no better way to commemorate our pollinator friends than to design a habitat that invites them to your own yard! With insect populations in decline globally, every square foot of land we can convert into a useful and productive habitat is worthwhile.  Trust us when we say, plant it and they will come!

Site Evaluation: Work With What You’ve Got!

When we think of a pollinator habitat, we often picture vast sunny meadows of wildflowers.  These are certainly important habitats for pollinators, but there are plants for every light requirement that provide habitat for local wildlife. Check out our Native Woodland Pollinator Garden blog post.

Tips from a Landscape Ecologist:

  • Monitor how much light your site gets. Six hours or more is considered full sun. Some plants are more sensitive to strong afternoon sun, so take note if your site faces West.
  • Get your hands in the soil (it’s good for you!) and determine the soil texture. Is it sandy or thick and clay-like?  If it is heavy clay, many of the meadow plants will not work without serious soil amending, as those plants evolved in lean prairie soils.
  • Observe topography: is your site on a slope? Will storm water drain quickly from your site at the hilltop, or will it collect sheet flow in the basin? Is any part of your site a wetland? Pay attention to moisture requirements when selecting plants.

Picking Plants: Succession, Shelter & Biodiversity

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: plan your planting for bloom succession! Pollinators don’t just eat in spring or mid-summer.  They need pollen and nectar from late winter to fall, and without careful planning, you can leave gaps in their pollen buffet!

Succession doesn’t just apply to flowers.  Late season berries and seeds, and early-season branches and leaves provide critical food and shelter sources; as such, be sure to consider shrubs, trees, grasses, ground cover and bulbs as well as flowering perennials.

There are numerous sources of information on native pollinator and bird-attracting plants.

Some of our Favorite Online Resources for Pollinators & Native Plants:

Xerces Society

Audubon Society Native Plant Database

NRCS Wildlife Habitat in Your Back Yard

NWF Certified Wildlife Habitat Guide

EcoBeneficial with Kim Eierman

US Forest Service Pollinator of the Month – fascinating details on Pollinator lifestyles!

Our Top Pollinator Book Resources:

Pollinator Victory Garden – Kim Eirman

Bringing Nature Home – Doug Tallamy & Rick Darke – appendices in the back are very helpful!

Attracting Native Pollinators — Xerces Society

Some of our Favorite Pollinator Plants

Clethra alnifolia ‘Ruby Spice’ — a native shrub and favorite of bees!
New England Aster — fall blooming perennial
St John’s Wort (Hypericum) is a repeat blooming shrub, begining in early spring. It has interesting foliage and the bees love it!
New York Ironweed — a tall, late-summer wetland native.  Self-seeds easily so you will need to edit (weed) to keep it in place.
Coneflower (Echinacea) with Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia) and Geranium — all native, long-blooming perennials!
White Coneflower (Echinacea) compliments many planting combinations.
Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium) and Goldenrod (Solidago) are insane pollinator-attractors for late summer / early fall.
Blue Mist Spirea (Caryopteris) is not native but does attract numerous butterflies and bees from July – September.
Bee Balm (Monarda) can tolerate part-shade and can be pruned for multiple blooming periods.
Winterberry (Ilex verticilata) is a favorite winter food source of birds like this Northern Mockingbird. Photo courtesy of Audubon Society.

Prepare for Organic Success

A successful organic garden does not stop at the garden bed border; rather, your entire landscape should be organic! We cringe every time we see exterminators, tick treatments, and mosquito spraying…these chemicals are indiscriminate and kill beneficial insects, as well as being ineffective at their purpose! We are strong believers in attracting biodiversity and letting Mother Nature correct itself.

For example, parasitic wasps (especially the larvae) naturally control numerous pests including aphids, gypsy moths, mealy bugs and scales. Ladybugs also feed on aphids and provide a natural pest control.  If you notice a pest outbreak in your organic pollinator garden, be patient… infested plants release air-born herbivore-induced plant volatiles (HIPV) to attract insect predators, and it may take a few days for the predators to arrive in full force.  Mother Nature has a system for everything!

Read this book for more information on beneficial insects and plant profiles:Attracting Beneficial BugsJessica Walliser.

Also check out our previous post on The Truth About Pollinator Pathways and Organics.   

Encourage Soil Microbes

We begin every installation with a soil test and on-site evaluation. All of our gardens receive (at a minimum) a topdressing of organic, natural-source compost with biochar.  We particularly like Organic Mechanics. Many prairie plants, as mentioned above, adapted to grow in lean soils, so we generally reduce the amount of compost for plants from that ecoregion.  However at least some compost is essential for providing host conditions for soil microbes – they key to healthy, thriving gardens! If you are including woody trees and shrubs, they will need a more fungal-dominant soil microbial community.

Garden Evolution & Maintenance

Nature’s beauty is in its evolution; your pollinator garden should be the same! Sometimes it is impossible to know if the microclimate conditions will favor one perennial you selected over another. For example, last year was particularly wet, and our gardens saw an abundance of growth form moisture-loving plants and the lost some others that weren’t as well adapted.

Prepare to edit, add and/or subtract in subsequent years to achieve your desired aesthetic and optimal bloom/seed/berry succession. Pruning certain tall perennials mid-season can encourage a second bloom and prevent them from shading out shorter plants nearby.

Lastly, always leave hollow-stemmed perennials on-site through winter!  Many pollinators lay eggs to over-winter in hollow stems.  Winter habitat is just as essential as spring and summer in supporting pollinator populations.

For more information on how to start your organic pollinator garden, contact us for a landscape design consultation.

Jay Archer

Landscape Ecologist, Designer & President

Green Jay Landscape Design












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