How to Grow a Bee and Monarch Butterfly Garden

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If you’re a homeowner, no doubt gardens and landscaping ideas are on your to-do list this time of year—and there tends to be a lot to do. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a yard that’s gorgeous and low-maintenance? It’s possible! Using a variety of plants that attract pollinators like bees, butterflies and hummingbirds, you can have a lush, colorful garden, as well as the free time to enjoy it.

The Birds and the Bees (and the Butterflies)

Photo used with permission from Thangaraj Kumaravel.

Why pollinators need us

Sure, it’s fun to watch hummingbirds, bees and butterflies flit, fly and buzz around your yard, but there’s so much more to it than that.

Pollination is what kicks off seed production, so it’s crucial for creating the dense, prolific gardens we drool over. For some species, the wind is enough to transfer pollen from plant to plant. Others need a little more help, which is where pollinators like honey bees, butterflies and hummingbirds come in.

These creatures come to your garden looking for food, typically in the form of sweet nectar or pollen. As the birds and insects feast, some of the pollen gets stuck to them. When they move on to the next flower of the same species, they facilitate pollination—leading to more of the plants we love.

Why We Need Pollinators

You’ve probably heard that many pollinator populations are in decline—from colony collapse disorder in honey bees to weather systems and loss of habitat affecting Monarch butterflies. There’s a lot of evidence pointing to mankind’s role in this, but there is some good news: we can step up and make a difference!

It requires a bit of planning, but once you get started, you’ll be well on your way to having a gorgeous, sustainable garden that’s environmentally friendly and the envy of your neighborhood!

How to Start Your Garden

Photo used with permission from Susy Morris.

The first step is to select your garden site. You’ll need a spot with lots of sun and minimal tree roots, which will compete with your plants for resources—especially the roots of ash and maple trees. Bur and white oaks are a little more compatible with prairie plants.

Get your soil tested, and take note of how well it drains. This will determine the best plants for your yard. Soil composition can vary greatly in prairie ecosystems, so rest assured there are plenty of species that will thrive in your yard.

Prep your garden site by removing any plants that are already growing there. There are a few different ways of doing this. If you’re up for using a little elbow grease, you can turn the soil and cultivate the area every couple weeks to bring seeds to the surface and kill anything that’s germinated. Another method requires less work but more time—simply put a tarp over the garden site for at least two months to kill grass and other plants. Avoid using herbicides in your garden!

Determine which plant species are native to your region. Here in Iowa, we’re right in the middle of the tallgrass prairie ecosystem. We have a temperate, continental climate with impressive biodiversity, which is exciting for gardeners looking to create a space with loads of visual appeal. In addition to flowering species, you’ll want to plant native grasses and host plants, which protect tiny creatures from the elements and provide food for larvae.

Finally, decide whether you want to start seeds yourself or purchase plants from a nursery. Both options have their pros and cons. Seeds are inexpensive but require time and special care to reach maturity. Potted or bare-root plants will establish themselves quickly in your garden but require a higher initial investment.

Pollinator-Friendly Garden Ideas

Photo used with permission from Jason Mrachina.

Certain foods are more appealing to some people than others are—cilantro, anyone? Pollinators are the same way. You’ll need a good mix of flowering plants to attract a wide variety of birds and insects.

Bees are primarily attracted to blue, purple and yellow flowers. They can’t detect the color red, but they love red flowers like bee balm that reflect ultraviolet light. Make sure to choose some plants with packed clusters of tiny flowers, like marigolds, so that smaller bees with short tongues can easily feed.

Butterflies are equal-opportunity eaters and love flowers of every color. Keep in mind, though, that they need to land before they can feed, so be sure to include plants with flat-topped flower clusters like zinnias, calendula, yarrow and butterfly weed. Butterflies also need safe places to lay their eggs, and hungry caterpillars need to eat. Milkweed, aster and lupine are great options for attracting butterflies throughout their life cycle.

Hummingbirds are so tiny and quick that they’re hard to spot, but you can easily tempt them into frequenting your backyard with tubular, nectar-rich flowers in bright shades of red, orange and purple. Bee balm, columbine and lupine are great options, as are foxglove and hollyhock.

Are you creating a prairie-inspired, pollinator-friendly space to enjoy from your porch? We’d love to see your work! Share your pictures by tagging us on Facebook or Instagram.

Header photo used and modified with permission from Karen Viste-Sparkman.

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