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Preparations starting for summer pollinator gardens

Master Gardener
A shallow water source is tucked into a pollinator-friendly garden of perennials with varying heights, colors and bloom times. Submitted Photo

With spring, we greet the warmer temperatures by walking through our gardens, taking stock of our garden perennials, shrubs and trees.

As we assess our landscapes, we can decide how to incorporate pollinator-friendly practices into our gardening endeavors. Almost 90% of plant species rely on pollinators for the transfer of pollen. Without pollinators, these plants would be unable to produce seeds and fruit. When gardeners provide sources of pollen, nectar, water and shelter, we support pollinators as they carry out their important work.

Pollinators’ food sources are the nectar and pollen produced by flowering perennials, shrubs and trees during spring, summer and into fall. Native plant species are more likely to attract pollinators compared to hybridized ones. Modern hybrids with double-petals and other complex shapes are beautiful but can make it difficult for pollinators to find the nectar and pollen.

Natives also require less maintenance because they have adapted well to the climate, soil, and rainfall of the area. To supplement native perennials, buy annuals to fill in; however, check to see if they are known to attract pollinators and perhaps opt for those.

A bee partakes of the nectar offered by a perennial phlox. Submitted Photo

As you evaluate your property, note where plants may need to be replaced or added.

Opt for native plants whose flowers span a range of different sizes, shapes and colors to attract a variety of pollinators. Purchase at least five of each variety of flowering plants and place them close together in clumps or drifts so pollinators can find them.

On a budget? Purchase what you can afford and plan on dividing the plants in a year and adding to your clump or drift. Balance your landscape with plants whose flowers bloom at different times, assuring a continuous source of pollen and nectar during the growing season.

Golden ragwort (Packera aurea) and golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea) are examples of plants that bloom in early spring. Plants that bloom into the late fall, such as Black-Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) and asters (Aster spp.), are vital to providing pollen for bees and migrating monarch butterflies.

In addition to nectar and pollen, pollinators need water sources to survive and thrive. A birdbath or shallow bowl filled with water and placed in the garden can attract pollinators. Protect pollinators from drowning by placing a few rocks in the bowl close to the surface of the water where they can land and perch while they drink. Determine the best locations for your water sources, taking into consideration the distance required to refill, clean and maintain the baths and bowls.

Shelter is important for pollinators’ reproduction, winter survival and safety from predators.

About 70% of native bees nest in the ground. These ground nesting bees need open, bare soil to dig the tunnels into which they nest. Mulching makes this process difficult for the bees, as a 1-inch layer of mulch can prevent bees from making their way into the ground. Consider using untreated, natural mulch such as shredded leaves or chipped wood, which allows ease of movement for ground nesting bees and eliminates toxins used in color dyes from leaching into the ground. When mulching bare soil, mulch can be applied once the ground is no longer frozen.

Mixed in with our perennials, shrubs and trees are weeds, and as a culture we desperately want to have a weed-free landscape. Before reaching for pesticides, ponder the harm these chemicals can inflict on pollinators.

Pesticides can be deadly to pollinators, especially systemic pesticides that move throughout the entire plant and into the pollen and nectar. Early spring weeds, such as the common dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), are important sources of nectar and pollen when other plants have not bloomed.

If you must manage extensive coverage of weeds and invasive species, consider integrated pest management approaches. Penn State Extension offers information about IPM on the following sites: and

With proper assessment and planning, gardeners can create pollinator-friendly spaces in their landscapes. For helpful information on examples of native trees, shrubs, perennials and other ways to support pollinators, download the Penn State Extension worksheet for Pollinator Garden certification at

If you have questions about creating a pollinator-friendly garden, call the Master Gardeners of Butler County Garden Hotline at 724-287 4761, ext. 7, or email the Master Gardeners at

Amy Cirelli is a Penn State Extension Butler County Master Gardener.

Amy Cirelli

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