How to Attract Pollinators in Your Yard
Writer // Janelle Morrison Photography // Laura Arick
Have you peered out into your yard and wondered, where did all the butterflies and bumblebees go? I can recall as a child traipsing around our wooded property and seeing all kinds of fascinating insects and birds that I haven’t seen much of as an adult. It got me thinking about my own yard now and what am I doing or not doing to attract the pollinators that used to inhabit my mother’s gardens throughout my youth.
I sat down with a local expert, John Scott Foster. Foster is the executive director at The Friends of Hamilton County Parks. He is also a zoologist and biologist by training with an affinity for nature and parks. Foster was incredibly generous with his time and knowledge and even demonstrated how to plant your own pollinator garden or planters if one doesn’t have a large yard to attract the various kinds of pollinators that are indigenous to our area.
“What drives me and why I love nature centers and the outdoors is that I really want people to feel a connection with nature and want them to be aware and to observe,” Foster said. “When you start talking about pollinators and get into native plants, there are some people who are very orthodox regarding planting native plants and then there are those who are not so orthodox. The hardcore native plant people would tell you that you shouldn’t plant anything that isn’t native. That is the extreme.”
Foster continued, “What I try to do with my own gardens and what I recommend to people is there are going to be some plants that you just love, so plant those. If you’re looking for color or a particular look in your garden, do a little research. Chances are you can find something native. So, I try to find that balance when I’m doing a garden.”
Foster shared that oak trees and wild cherry trees provide food for hundreds of different types of caterpillars, but they “never eat enough that you notice.” So, it is something to consider if you are treating your yard, shrubs and trees with insecticides. The birds that you want to invite to feed off your bird and/or hummingbird feeders feed their babies insects that are naturally inhabiting these trees and shrubs.
“Your yard can be a very diverse place,” Foster said. “Now, if you’re soaking it with insecticides, chances are it is not. This leads into making your yard pollinator friendly. You’re inviting these things back into your yard, and it’s a chance to look and watch. There are hundreds of different types of pollinators in Indiana. There’s like 16 different species of bumblebees alone.”
What Are Some Native Pollinator Friendly Plants?
“You have to have fresh mint because otherwise, how do you make mojitos?” Foster quipped. “Mint flowers attract such an incredible variety of pollinators. I have some mint in a very controlled space because it will take over a space. You can grow it in a pot as well. There are some other things that everybody should have in their pollinator gardens. Everybody should have some sort of milkweed. We tend to be put off when we hear the word ‘weed,’ but there are all sorts of varieties of milkweed, different species of , and they’re beautiful.”
Foster explained that there is one variety called butterfly weed that is orange and beautiful, but it throws a huge tap root, so once it’s there, it’s there forever.
“There’s another one called swamp milkweed that likes the ground a little wetter, but if you water it and get it established the first year, it will be fine. It has a more fibrous root system, so you can move it around your yard if you need to. Both [milkweeds] will attract monarch butterflies, and they will lay their eggs on them, and almost every pollinator will land on them. They’re great. Monarda or bee balm is great for people who have black thumbs because it is hard to kill.”
Foster shared that there are all sorts of honeysuckles. One honeysuckle, coral honeysuckle, is red with a tubular flower that can run up a trellis, and hummingbirds love it.
“Cardinal flowers are another flower hummingbirds like,” Foster added. “Additionally, coneflowers, almost all pollinators like those, and they’re nice in the garden. Joe-pye weed is a tall plant, and there’s some varieties that are shorter now. It blooms in the fall when there’s not a lot blooming and is an important nectar source for migrating monarchs especially. You want to plant those ‘back of the boarder,’ a buzz phrase in the gardening world, meaning you plant them in the back of the garden for the height. Button bush is another cool one with flowers that look like Sputnik, and you’ll see pollinators all over that bush.”
Foster shared that you can buy almost all of these native pollinator-friendly plants at any of the local gardening supply stores and/or nurseries.
“The other things that are fun to plant are parsley, dill, coriander and fennel,” he said. “Swallowtail butterflies lay their caterpillars on them. Oregano is another one bees love. I plant them partially with the hope that I will be able to use them—I love fresh herbs—and partially with the hope that I will come out and see that they have been completely consumed by a swallowtail butterfly caterpillar.”
Foster concluded, “There are so many websites that will show you a list of pollinators and pollinator-friendly plants. Plant milkweed—that’s the takeaway from all this.”