There has been a lot more attention paid in recent years to the importance of pollinators and what we can do as designers, gardeners and homeowners to protect them. Pollinators are crucial to human quality-of-life on earth, so we happen to care a lot about their well-being! Learning about our local pollinators and the many ways to make landscapes that are pollinator-friendly is a great place to begin.
When we think of pollinators, we often envision honeybees, butterflies, and hummingbirds – generally the ones we want to see flitting around the garden. Less often do we think of native bees, wasps, flower flies, gnats, moths, beetles, and mosquitoes, however these all serve as important pollinators here in Northern California. The pollinators we might not think of are vital to the continuation of plant species we know and love, such as Magnolias (beetles) Euonymus (Flower flies) and Wild Ginger (Asarum spp, gnats.) A healthy pollinator garden will bring all of these insects around, whether we notice them or not. This variety of insects also means healthy bird and bat populations – just another great reason to increase biodiversity in your yard with a few simple steps.
It may seem that the world of pollinators is far removed from our own. They have their lives and we have ours, and we imagine that if we could talk with them we would have different daily priorities. Unfortunately many pollinators are threatened by human activities. From loss of habitat and widespread insecticide use in agriculture and the urban environment to Climate Change, these species have all been massively affected in the last century. Ironically, we are highly dependent on these same dwindling pollinators for many of our food sources.
Pollinators are important to us selfishly because we love things like farmers markets, backyard orchards, and the well-being of our neighbors in Agricultural livelihoods. We also love gardens, home-grown strawberries, wild meadows, and wildflowers in the Sierras and on the coast. On a different bent, we think it’s important that as humans we protect nature, not just take from it. Besides, we really don’t know… Our lives may not be so different from those of flower flies.
Alright, you say. Pollinators obviously need flowers… and you’re right of course, but there’s more. Insects need safe flowers that have not been sprayed with insecticides, and during the dry months, they need fresh water sources that are safe for them to drink. Moths need natural darkness to do their thing, and hummingbirds need safe places to nest as well as feed. Our native bees need cozy places to live (that’s right, we have over 1,000 species of native bees which don’t live in hives or make honey!) Our native butterflies and moths need specific native host plants to lay their eggs. Since these insects and plants evolved together, they need each other to survive.
This article from the California Native Plant Society really got us thinking about native butterflies and moths. Even introducing a couple of native plants to your landscape as nectar plants or host plants can help keep a species alive! Remember that butterfly host plants are generally devoured as the butterflies go through their not-so-pretty stage (we’ve all been there.) So we wouldn’t always recommend putting host plants front-and-center, but they make a great filler or background plant, and many are stunningly gorgeous in flower. Plus, you might get to see a butterfly hatch from its cocoon, which is absolutely the coolest.
If you want to keep pollinators safe, the best thing you can do is to avoid harmful insecticides, and spread the word to your friends and neighbors to do the same. The class of chemicals known as Neonicotinoids has proven deadly to pollinators through nectar and pollen toxicity, so even applying these chemicals when the pollinators aren’t present causes long-term problems. Systemic insecticides, taken up by the plant tissue to make the plant toxic to damaging insects, also render pollen and nectar toxic. We’ll get off this soapbox, but the Xerxes society is a great resource if you’d like to read further.
So, you’ve decided you want to help pollinators. You also want a beautiful all-season garden – A feast for the human senses as well as for nectar-seeking friends. We want you to know that no matter your landscape style, you can absolutely have both. Often our clients feel that the “pollinator garden look” isn’t their style, either with too many flowers or too messy. But even a minimalist or all-green garden palette can include species that help pollinators. Here are just a very few of our personal zone 9 landscape favorites to feed a whole variety of pollinators throughout the year:
Arbutus marina (Strawberry Tree/Madrone)
Cercis occidentalis (Western Redbud)
Cornus nuttallii cultivars (Flowering Dogwoods)
Citrus species (Lemons & Limes)
Lagerstroemia species (Crape Myrtles)
Abutilon species (Abutilon)
Arctostaphylos species (Manzanitas)
Ceanothus species (California Lilac)
Daphne odora (Winter Daphne)
Myrtus communis (Myrtles)
Deciduous Shrubs & Perennials:
Achillea millefolium (White Yarrow)
Deutzia species (Deutzias)
Heuchera species (Coralbells)
Rosa species (Roses, especially open-flowered)
Salvia chamaedryoides (Germander Sage)
Clematis species (Clematis Vine)
Lonicera species (Honeysuckle Vines)
And so many more…
We hope you enjoyed this brief foray into the world of pollinators! There are so many ways to have a pollinator-friendly, fabulous landscape. Want help designing your new landscape? We’d love to hear from you.