How to Bring the Pollinators to Your Yard

[SW Colorado | September 2020 | By Mary Menz]

Many types of insects pollinate plants. These pollinators include native bees and introduced honey bees, several types of beetles and flies, moths, butterflies and hummingbirds. Most plants depend on these tiny animals to complete their lifecycle, though a few plants are pollinated by wind or water.

For a healthy, functioning native plants ecosystem—even one in a backyard—pollinators are required. This is especially important for native plants that provide valuable pollen, nectar, berries, seeds, leafy foliage, and shelter for native pollinators, small mammals and birds. Native pollinators, depend on native plants to thrive and vice versa.

Organizations like the Xerxes Society and Pollinator Partnership have done a great job creating buzz for the pollinator movement and people are taking notice.

Celebrating Pollinators and Other Insects

Amy Yarger, horticulture director at the Butterfly Pavilion in Westminster, explains. “People have all sorts of reasons to want pollinator habitat in their gardens. Increasing and improving yield of their fruits and veggies is one reason. So, we see gardens are a powerful tool of change.”

The Butterfly Pavilion leads a global effort through science and education to increase public awareness about the value pollinators add to agriculture. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, three-quarters of the world’s flowering plants and about 35 percent of the world’s food crops depend on pollinators. Unfortunately, pollinator habitat is declining for many reasons due to chemical pollution, parasites, and pathogens or disease.

Yarger encourages planting diverse and structurally complex landscapes to encourage biodiversity in areas that typically support very little variety, such as in a backyard. The pollinators provide gardens and native plants with the ecological services that keep native plant communities going. Those native plants then prevent erosion, help to conserve water and provide suitable habitat for pollinators and other animals.

“Of course, pollinators and other insects provide quite a show throughout the warm seasons,” said Yarger. “If you pay attention, they are beautiful creatures that offer visual stimulation. They also do something vital for growing food and plants around the world.”

Native Habitat for Pollinators

“I think most people understand the need for nectar and pollen in a pollinator habitat and, therefore, pollinator gardens are synonymous with lots of flowers,” explained Yarger.

Yarger suggests that backyard gardeners include as many “niches, layers, growth habits and messy spots for pollinators.” She referred to places for bees to nest, for butterflies to lay eggs and for larva of all types of pollinators to find shelter and food in the form of foliage.

“We also see pollinators in early spring and late fall, so making sure that food and foliage are available to them through the entire season is quite a challenge,” she said. Finally, Yarger said the right kind of garden maintenance promotes plant health while allowing pollinators to access the shelter and other resources they need. This may mean timing certain garden cleanup chores, like fall and spring garden cleanup, so that pollinator habitat and their overwintering nests aren’t destroyed.

Need Inspiration?

Visit the Montrose Botanical Gardens for native plant gardening ideas. MBG features seven specific gardening areas, including one dedicated to native plants. It’s here visitors find pollinators swarming in the warm sun among the various blooming plants.

“This is a good place to see native plants in a landscaped area,” said Sara Ungrodt, a Montrose landscape architect and horticulture consultant for MBG.

“Native plants don’t necessarily equate to a messy garden, like some people think” she explained. Ungrodt explained that even though native plants aren’t manicured and cared for like cultivated plants, they can provide visual interest, even when mixed with typical ornamental plants. The most important thing, she said, is to consider specific pollinator and plant relationships. Hawk sphinx moths (often called hummingbird moths) love the white flowers of the native tufted evening primrose and other evening bloomers, she said. Other pollinators have favorite blooming native plants as well.

“Even the rock and crevice gardens at MBG feature specific pollinator-plant relationships.” Ungrodt says she specifically guides clients away from the ideas that native gardens aren’t as refined or structured as other types of ornamental gardens.

Said Ungrodt, “I like to incorporate natives in waves or large groupings that provide movement and layers in any garden.” The Prairie and Native Grass exhibit at MBG is an example of her vision.

There is no admission fee at MGB, though donations are appreciated. It’s open Thursday through Sunday during the Covid-19 Safer at Home period.

If visiting the Denver area, the Butterfly Pavilion in Westminster is also open, but reservations and tickets must be purchased online. Timed exhibit entry limits the number of people visiting the pavilion for both social distancing and to allow for personal encounters with the butterflies.

Other opportunities to see butterflies in action abound, especially on your favorite Western Slope hikes and at the Western Colorado Botanical Gardens in Grand Junction. At Currently WCBG is closed due to the pandemic; check its website for reopening dates.

Mary Menz is a freelance writer and Colorado Native Plant Master® living in Ridgway. She’s also the coauthor with Jim Pisarowicz of Common Wildflowers of the San Juan Mountains. She advocates for native landscaping on both residential and commercial properties.
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Weidermeyer’s admiral butterly on Colorado blue spruce leaves. (Mary Menz)

Garden Pollinator. Bumble bee on snowberry blossoms. (Mary Menz)

Ladybird beetles on yucca leaves. (Mary Menz)

Queen Alexandra’s sulphur butterfly on heart-leaf arnica. (Mary Menz)

What is a Colorado Native Plant?

Colorado native plants include herbaceous wildflowers, shrubs, and trees found naturally in our state or a specific region of the state. Some plants can be endemic and occur only at certain sites, while other plants occur state-wide. For example, the state flower Rocky Mountain Columbine occurs at 5,500-13,500’ and is found everywhere in Colorado, except for the Eastern Plains. The Shelton’s Violet, on the other hand, lives at 6,000-9000’ and is only found in a handful of counties on the Western Slope.

Native plants have evolved over hundreds of years to thrive in specific soil types and are accustomed to local precipitation amounts. They require less care (no annual shaping and pruning) and less water than plants that are not native to Colorado. While native plants may be more challenging to locate in some years, several local nurseries do their best to locate those requested by their customers.

It’s rare that landscape architects like Sara Ungrodt of Landscape Designs by Sara LLC need to educate their clients about the importance of including native plants in the landscape.

“My clients now ask me specifically to incorporate natives in a landscape design,” said Ungrodt. “They want to bring birds to their yards and provide food and shelter for them and small mammals. They are aware of the need for pollinators and are asking to either create all native landscapes or, at least, work in native plants to create a natural and pleasing design.”