Starting a pollinator garden can be somewhat confusing. Instructions can be vague, like '‘provide rich sources of nectar with native plants,'’ and '‘select annuals that bloom throughout the entire growing season,’' and '‘use plants that serve as food sources for larvae.'’
I can simplify it. And make it more fragrant. If you would like to provide habitat to pollinators like bees, flies, and butterflies, start with lots of sun and well-drained soils. Four common herbs are easy to grow and will be pollinator magnets in your landscape.
Lavender flowers will attract bees and butterflies all summer long. English cultivars like Lavandula x intermedia (a hybrid of English and Portuguese lavenders), and French lavender cultivars are recommended if you are looking for varieties attractive to insects. The varieties ‘Grosso’ (blue) and ‘Edelweiss’ (white) have been shown in recent research to be the most productive in terms of nectar. The commonly grown small ‘Hidcote’ strain is not reliable as a forage source for insects.
My colleague, Brittnay Haag, shares that timely pruning helps lavender stay compact and optimizes flower production. Prune dead stems down to the first set of green leaves in the spring when the new growth appears. Newly planted lavender should be watered regularly the first year. Once established, lavender is more drought tolerant.
Thyme’s small, lipped flowers attract bees and butterflies. It is a favorite of bumblebees. Scientists hypothesize that antibacterial and antifungal compounds produced by the plant may have some benefit for bees’ health. Creeping thyme is recommended by the University of Minnesota in establishing a bee-friendly lawn because of its low, sprawling habit and prolific flowering. Thyme also attracts hoverflies in abundance. Perennial thyme plants should be divided in the early spring, about every four years.
Borage is a rich source of nectar for short-tongued bees, native bees, hoverflies, and honeybees, providing flowers for months. These bright blue, star-shaped flowers, when planted next to strawberries in a University of Minnesota experiment, improved pollination and increased the size of the berry. Borage is easily grown from seed directly sown in the garden after frost is past. Borage once established does well in dry soils.
Chives may misbehave at times and self-seed, but chives are a bee magnet, much loved by short-tongued bees especially. Pink-blooming common chives provide an early food source in the spring. White garlic chives bloom in the middle of the growing season and attract bees and butterflies. Chives are tolerant of a wide variety of soils.
Allsup is the University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator, and Haag is horticulture educator, specializing in youth, in Livingston, McLean and Woodford counties.
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