Attracting Pollinators to Your Garden

     -by Al Barber, Portage County Master Gardener Volunteer

     Especially this spring, we yearn to get outdoors and improve our yards and gardens.  We want our environment to be aesthetically pleasing to us, but what about native plants and animals?  With native habitats shrinking, we have the opportunity to create favorable local habitats around our homes and communities. 

During times of financial difficulty, many also seek to become more self-sufficient by planting vegetable gardens, small fruits, and fruit trees.  During the depression, my grandfather fed many families around his home in Coshocton, Ohio, by growing several hundred sweet potato plants in his backyard. 

One key to successful backyard food production is the ability to attract pollinators.  Important animal pollinators include honey bees, mason bees, bumble bees, mining bees, flies, moths, and other insects, as well as birds and some mammals.  Sweet potatoes, berries, fruit trees, cucumbers, and many other plants require pollinators to produce food for our consumption.  The best way to attract pollinators is to create an environment where they can survive and thrive. 

With that in mind, here are ten ways to attract pollinators to your yard. 

Grow more flowers.  But not just pretty annual flowers.  Trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants can provide food and nesting habitat for pollinators.  Spend time in your yard to see which existing plants attract pollinators and then work to expand those plantings.  A good source for more information is

Plant to provide bloom throughout the growing season.  Early blooming trees such as maples, willows, and redbuds, and late season perennials like asters and goldenrod provide important food at critical times.  Consult for a sequence of native and non-native woody flowering plants for Ohio.

Go Native.  Native plants provide a good source of nutrition for pollinators.  Also, many native plants are critical for pollinators to complete their life cycles.  Native pollinator and host plants include:

  • Trees: Maple, crabapple, linden, serviceberry
  • Shrubs: Ninebark, pussy willow, sumac, viburnum
  • Perennials: Aster, hyssop, milkweed, purple coneflower
  • Annuals: Cosmos, marigold, sunflower, zinnia
  • Herbs: Basil, borage, catmint, lavendar, oregeno

Diversify.  Start with your lawn.  Vast expanses of thick green lawn with no weeds may be pleasing to our eyes, but such a monoculture is unnatural.  Leaving a little clover or other flowering weeds in your lawn and gardens provides essential cover and nutrition for many pollinators and other beneficial insects. 

Mix it up.  Planting flowers and herbs in and around your vegetable garden provides important food sources for insect pollinators.  Consider planting sunflowers, zinnias, marigolds, cosmos, lavender, basil, borage, dill, fennel, oregano, and catnip in and around your vegetable garden.  Also, consider planting vegetables and herbs in flower beds.  If you plant all your tasty vegetables in one place, you are setting the table for garden pests. 

Grow (or tolerate) weeds.  Many “weeds” provide cover and food for a variety of pollinators.  Beneficial weeds for pollinators include dandelions, creeping Charlie (ground ivy), Creeping thyme, Bee balm, Wild geranium, Joe pye weed, clover,and Anise hyssop.  Consider “tolerating” some “weeds” in your yard and gardens perhaps on the edges for pollinators. 

Provide Nesting Sites.  Brush piles, dead standing trees, and clumping grasses provide important nesting and overwintering habitat.  Avoid the temptation to cut down dead grasses and flower stems in the fall.  Leave some leaves and other garden debris for late spring cleanup.

Provide a water source.  This can be a shallow bowl or birdbath (change water frequently) or a small pond. 

Limit pesticide use.  Avoid spraying insecticide on a plant or tree in bloom.  Instead use an integrated pest management (IPM) approach with multiple strategies to reduce pest damage.  .  A good resource for IPM in your yard is

Not all pollinators are created equal.  Butterflies and butterfly gardens are beautiful additions to your backyard, but flies, bees, and moths are actually much better pollinators than many butterflies.  Butterflies typically visit flowers to get nectar rather than harvest and distribute pollen.    A good resource for attracting pollinators to the your garden is

For questions about pollinators or gardening contact Portage County Master Gardener Plant and Pest Hotline by phone: 330-296-6432 or Online:

Plant and Pest Hotline by phone: 330-296-6432 or Online:

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