How to Create a Pollinator Garden

Providing habitat and the essential nectar and host plants for pollinators can be done in many ways, from establishing a habitat that is kept “wild,” to creating a new garden bed or adding pollinator plants to an existing landscape, or adding a container garden to your balcony or patio.

In some respects a pollinator garden isn’t unlike any other flower garden—it has colorful blooming plants to the delight of those who look upon it. But it does have certain features that make it a haven for monarchs, other butterflies, bees, and moths, and that meet their needs for all life stages. They are:

  • Diversity of native plants especially rich in nectar and/or pollen;
  • A mix of plants that keep the garden in bloom from spring through fall;
  • Host plants for egg-laying butterflies and feeding caterpillars;
  • Sheltered areas for pupating butterflies and overwintering bees, butterflies, and moths; and
  • Absence of pesticides and herbicides.
  1. The Site
  2. Plants and Their Arrangement
  3. Water
  4. Shelter and Nesting Sites
  5. Maintaining the Garden

Assess what you have. Light, slope, drainage, soil condition, and moisture can all determine an appropriate site for any garden. Most important for a pollinator garden is sun—ideally four to six hours of it, although two to three will work too.  Most nectar and host plants grow and bloom best in sun to partly shady conditions. Sun requirements used for plants are described as follows:

  • Full sun means direct sun for six or more hours per day
  • Part shade means direct sun for two hours per day, with shade the rest of the day. It can include areas of dappled shade.
  • Shade refers to an area that gets no sun or less than an hour of sun per day. It can also include area of dappled shade. It does not include dense shade—any area that gets little to no indirect light. 

Soil condition is important too. Choose an area with well-draining soil. Improve soil texture and fertility with organic compost. Avoid compaction by incorporating stepping stones or the like to reach the inner or farthest portions of the bed.

A site that provides a windbreak, such as a fence, structure, or shrub thicket, is a real bonus. Butterflies prefer to feed in areas sheltered from the wind. The garden features that provide a windbreak can provide another benefit—ready-made shelter for pupating butterflies.

When considering the layout of your pollinator garden, keep in mind that shape and density is more important than overall size. Areas that are dense, round, and close together are more effective than small, odd-shaped isolated patches. Aim for a high area-to-edge ratio.

tropical milkweed flower-3347619

A Word about Tropical Milkweed

The relative virtues and problems associated with Tropical Milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, is a hot topic and focus of research. This well-adapted non-native is the milkweed species found most at local nurseries, and as a result, has been well established. Its proliferation, in the southern parts of Texas in particular, coupled with its near year-round foliage and flower production, has led to issues relative to the health and sustainability of the monarch butterfly species. Tropical milkweed does two things:

  • It interferes with the monarch’s migratory cycle, encouraging them to linger in the southern states and continue breeding and laying eggs, “trapping” them here where they cannot survive temperatures that drop toward the freezing mark.
  • It significantly increases the rate monarchs are infected by the debilitating Ophryocystis elektroscirrha (OE) protozoan pathogen. Because tropical milkweed doesn’t die back in winter, infected plants persist. Infected plants in Texas are especially harmful because they sit in the gateway for the spring and fall monarch migrations. Monarchs that visit infected plants pick up parasite spores and carry them to uninfected plants.

It is, therefore, very important to cut tropical milkweed plants to within four to six inches of the ground each November. It also makes the case for the importance of planting native milkweed species.

Tropical milkweed should be cut to the ground in November to prevent the spread of OE and any interference with the monarch’s migratory cycle.There are other, native, milkweeds that can be used instead, including Swamp milkweed, Aquatic milkweed, Butterflyweed, Whorled Milkweed and Green milkweed.