On transitioning to a pollinator garden

Front garden on tour day

The Greenbelt “Less Lawn” tour that I organized finally happened on Sunday and it was, by all accounts, a raging success.  But before assessing its impact on the town, it actually had one on my very own garden.

After all the sprucing up for the tour I concluded that the five Apricot Drift roses in my sunny front garden had not earned their real estate in their second season, and had to go.  I was holding onto the excuse that this particular Drift was the dog of the whole family (according to a couple of Drift salesmen I met at a trade show) until I saw Apricot Drifts in another tour garden looking much better.  That gardener was willing to give them the extra love they needed, and I just wasn’t.   I think my heart just isn’t in landscape roses anymore, now that I have so little space.

Anyway, I have designs on their space – plants that will attract more of the bird and bees and that love to watch: pollinators of all kinds, hummers that fight in the air, birds in all seasons – you know, wildlife.  Not that I’m going to lecture you about all that.  I’m being totally selfish here.

Visions of interesting critters swarming in this tiny space had crossed my mind when I woke up exhausted the day after the crazy-busy garden tour and decided to treat myself to a shopping spree at my favorite nursery – for pollinator-friendly plants.  There I consulted with my pal Karen in the perennials department, who watches plant-animal interaction all day long, so knows what attracts what.  (Earlier this season she was the first to alert everyone to a nest of duck eggs among the ornamental grasses.)


So here’s what I brought home, all sure-fire pollinator-attractors:  Nepeta ‘Junior Walker,’ Agastache ‘Purple Haze,’ Calamint ‘Blue Cloud,’ Coreopsis ‘Gold Nugget,’ Monarda ‘Coral Reef,’ Lobelia cardinalis and lobelia vedrariensis (with purple flowers) and one Mountain Mint, which Karen says wins the prize for attracting a greater diversity of pollinators than any other plant on the lot.  She also tells me that purple Lobelias gather hummingbirds just as well as the red ones; they just love the shape of those flowers.

Yes, Karen warned me that Mountain Mint is a vigorous spreader by runner, and my garden is tiny, so I’ll be planting it in a pot.  I’ll also hack it back once or twice before the end of June to keep it from getting too tall (the mint is the tallest plant on the cart in the photo above).

Today’s purchases will join these other plants that have been attracting critters I like to watch from my little patio all season long:  Anise Hyssop, Black-eyed Susans, Goldenrod, dill and annual Salvias that I fill in with, as needed.

The Wildlife Garden
So here are my totally amateur thoughts on how to include some of the weedier-looking plants that are great for wildlife (e.g. mountain mint, milkweed) and maintain a gardeny look. You know, tended.  A seating area, made of stone, pavers or even wood chips, and plenty of evergreens like the azaleas, boxwoods and arborvitaes surrounding the perennials and annuals here.  Oh, and paths.  No mistaking all this for an unkempt patch, right?

I don’t know.  What do YOU think makes it these elements work together in a small or medium-sized garden?

Another view of the pollinator-garden-to-be.



  1. Planting in patterns, maybe? You know, rows of identical plants, surrounding “specimens”? Just so it looks really deliberate.

  2. I had some flat leaf parsley go to seed. I counted 7 different kinds of tiny wasps bees whatever, in a frenzy. These were volunteer plants in between the pavers of the patio. I thought it looked “tended to”.

  3. I have virginia mtn mint and it is not aggressive. Nebraska, zone 5, clay. It absolutely brings in a very wide diversity of pollinators, and every garden should include this plant.

  4. I think you’ve got it right, Susan, paths and evergreens, short and tall show it is not an empty lot that has been taken over by so called *weeds*. Thoughtful placement and mixing, use grasses to make it look more natural and watching out for the giant species of ironweed and goldenrod, there are shorter ones available, make your garden look divine. Seeing wildlife and pollinators at work means your garden is healthy and happy. Well done!
    ps.-I have short toothed mountain mint, Pycnanthemum muticum, it is not at all aggressive and pollinators adore it.

  5. As a Sustainable Landscape Designer, I feel you can always find a native plant to substitute for an ornamental plant. I am currently removing my daylilies and replacing them with three varieties of Blazing star, columbine, and geranium that are all native to Zone 5 Northern Illinois. If you place the plants using the design principles, they will look deliberate. Natives get a bad rap because many times they are planted by seed in public areas that can look like a field of weeds to the uniformed eye.

    • God I despise daylilies, and hosta, and roses. To me, wasted spaces in gardens which are now wildlife refuges as 3,000 species of life vanish each year. I have to say something about seeds and field of weeds — prairie could be defined as such, but here in Nerbaska people walk through prairies (remnants now) and are literally transformed, often by the “simple” grandeur, more often by the plethora and diversity of life compared to the typical home landscape. But that’s life we can bring home, as you are when you replace with Liatris, etc.

  6. Great post! Small space gardening is quite a challenge, isn’t it? Mixed exotic- native gardens are certainly valuable, particularly those that act as a hybrid between traditional and naturalistic garden styles. It sends the message that valuable wildlife plants can be worked into any garden style. I find that to be a much more appealing message than “Daylilies suck; plant more natives.”

    • How about: daylilies provide far less in ecosystem services than many native plants. Or: daylilies are everywhere, not unique, and so McDonaldized blah. Or you know I was going to end up here: daylilies are a metaphor for remaking and destroying native landscapes, a reflection of our values toward what sustains us, and a negation of freedom for all life. 🙂

    • I am only a novice when it comes to planting and landscaping, but I agree with Thomas. I happen to like lilies, roses, hostas, but I also like wildflowers and ornamental grasses. I have an image in my mind about how I would like to compose my yard, but it’s going to be years, God willing, before those images are realized here. I think life is too short to be snobbish and judgmental about natural and cultivated plants. I do however, have a strong dislike toward weeds and weed trees that fill my neighborhood.

  7. I had to laugh at the hate for daylilies. I despise them too, but they are very good for holding soil in place on a hill, but do they ever look ugly right now.

    I visited Larkwhistle this summer (and last summer), it was overrun with dueling hummingbirds, bees of all sizes, and butterflies. We were buzzed a few times by the hummers, and I thought “I want this”. So I paid attention to what the hummingbirds were fighting over. Unfortunately my garden has a lot more shade than Larkwhistle, but I’m doing my best.

    I sit in my garden every morning and lunch to watch the bees, hummingbirds and butterflies. It is improving, and I have many more toads.

  8. I garden in a small space, too, and have worked to create a pollinator-friendly landscape that remains attractive to passersby. In my research one of the points stressed is to plant in drifts to provide a clear target and a natural pathway for pollinators, which is hard for me as my natural tendency to gather one of each plant that catches my eye and throw them in willy-nilly. It has required a lot of self-discipline but I now work to purchase multiples of one or two varieties on a shopping trip rather than the assortment that attracts me. For the first time in my gardening life I really like the way my garden is taking shape and I am amazed at the pollinator activity.

  9. I’ve done this very thing recently. After watching a bit of pollinator activity in the landscaping surrounding my pergola, I decided to re-vamp the entire thing as a butterfly garden. I figured the close proximity to the vegetable garden didn’t hurt, either. I’ve noticed that in addition to the butterflies and hummingbirds, several wasps, hornets and bees I’ve never noticed before have made the scene, as well. My only problem now is nothing gets done since I sit and watch them all the time! It’s just fascinating to me!

  10. I know other commenters have said that mountain mint is not aggressive, and I think compared with some other beasties it is not so bad, but I think you’re right to keep it in a pot, Susan, if you don’t want it spreading too much at all. I ADORE mountain mint, I planted one specimen in my garden last year, in a sunny spot next to some other perennials which can usually hold their own (daylilies, hardy geranium, monarda), and this year it has totally marched through the hardy geranium and is cheek by jowl (err… frond by rhizome?) with the daylily and monarda; it’s tripled in size. GREAT plant, lovely in arrangements fresh or dried, and it does attract a wide diversity of pollinators. I’ve observed small butterflies and some really gnarly wasps on it.

  11. My garden is a wildlife garden. I usually don’t plant anything that doesn’t function to attract the most pollinators. And, my Bible for that is here:


    Click on the .pdf at the end of the page and print it out.

    If you haven’t seen it, I recommend it. I also believe in planting a lot of one type of plant to attract the most pollinators. One or two plants here or there don’t seem to attract like a greater number.

  12. No salvias?

    I struggle with keepinh it from looking messy too. I think that using a restricted palette of plants helps. I, at least seem to do better if it isn’t onesy-twosy. Now, ifI could just get the birds who visit to poop somewhere besides the furniture….

  13. I don’t worry about gardens looking a bit unkempt. In fact the gardens I liked the most that I have seen in my life are things like abandoned homesteads where the garden is returning to something a bit more natural in appearance, even if some of the elements are invasives Ie daylily, red hot poker, peonies. There is a kind of tension in a well kept garden that is off putting to me, makes it hard to relax in it’s presence, feels like the gardener is trying to control nature, even if they are planting “natives”. Like one other commenter I like the unkempt look of prairie wildflower plantings or natural areas.

  14. I grow a couple varieties of mountain mint in really crappy conditions and most of it’s fine and not particularly aggressive–but man, you put P. incanum into GOOD garden soil and give it enough water, and it goes CRAZY. So definitely I second keeping it in a pot if you’re not willing to have a stand of it–but you’ll want to do that with Monarda, too, obviously, since that stuff makes mountain mint look like an underachiever. (I’d put mountain mint in the ground WAY before most Monardas…maybe not M. punctuata, which is supposed to be tamer, but good god, M. didyma is thuggin’!)

  15. I put up my bird feeder in the middle of a mess of echinasia that passes as my perennial garden. I don’t deadhead, and I leave the dead canes in place all winter. In the fall, the garden is full of goldfinches, chickadees & titmice eating the seeds. In the winter, the canes hold up fairly well in the snow & provide the cover that songbirds like, and that really draws them in to my feeder. My flowerbed is a gardener’s eyesore, but it is a backyard birder’s delight. It cheers me on through my New England winters. I always mean to fix up this bed, but my laziness brings tremendous rewards.

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