Rhonda Fleming Hayes’ garden buzzes, beats and blooms, thanks to the
thousands of hard-working pollinators in her eye-catching Minneapolis
front yard. She’s one of the lucky ones: Nationally, bees,
butterflies, birds and other pollinators are threatened by habitat
loss, parasites and pesticides. In her new book,
"Pollinator-Friendly Gardening," this Master Gardener and
pollinator advocate urges gardeners to attract these winged friends by
planting pollinator-friendly blooms. Her book offers fascinating
insights to plant-pollinator relationships, provides categorized plant
lists and offers practical steps gardeners can take to make a
difference in the pollinator world. We talked with her about how to
plant your own pollinator-magnet garden and more. Here’s an edited
Q: What value do
pollinators bring to our gardens?
A: By now, most
folks have heard the sound bite that bees are responsible for every
third bite of food we eat. Without bees and other pollinators like
butterflies, birds, moths, flies and bats, our dinner plates would be
lacking in color, flavor and nutrients. Bees are in trouble for a
number of reasons, but the major issue is habitat loss, including
millions and millions of acres just in our country. While many
environmental issues are distant, abstract problems, the great thing
about pollinators is we can help them right in our own backyards.
Garden by garden, I hope we can make up for this habitat loss by
planting more food for them, and more food equals more flowers.
Q: What plant
traits do pollinators value?
A: In general,
bees like flowers in blues and yellows with a shallow landing area.
Butterflies are attracted to reds, purples and pinks, and prefer flat,
daisy shapes. Hummingbirds are attracted to red tubular flowers. But,
there are plenty of exceptions — like hummingbirds who are all over
Salvia ‘Black and Blue.’ A good way to identify good, local
pollinator plants is to observe plants in your neighbors’ gardens or
a nearby botanical garden. Walk around and see what flowers have the
most pollinator visitors.
Q: What are five
universal must-haves for a pollinator garden?
A: I recommend
five natives — milkweed, aster, goldenrod, salvia and liatris. A
couple bonus must-haves are zinnias and sunflowers since they’re so
cheap and easy to grow and attract so many species of pollinators. My
favorite moment this summer was when a hummingbird started harassing a
monarch who was sitting on a ‘Moulin Rouge’ zinnia in a stand of
20 other blooms and apparently ignoring a popular purple zinnia from
the previous season. It’s funny what proves popular to every season.
flowers, what trees and shrubs are valuable to pollinators?
A: Don’t just
think of a single flower bed, think about your whole yard — trees,
shrubs, ground covers, vines, herbs, vegetables and fruit bushes. They
all have value for pollinators. Fruit trees are especially important
in the spring time as one of the first major sources of nectar and
pollen. Other sources are crab apples, linden, chestnut and tulip
trees, and shrubs like chokeberry, serviceberry, lilac, raspberry
brambles and blueberries. I have a long hedge of wild rugosa roses and
raspberries along my driveway. In the summertime, it literally buzzes
with bumblebees and bees as they work away.
Q: In your book,
you talk about creating a season-long buffet of overlapping blooms.
What are some of the challenges to making this happen?
A: Spring blooms
are something that people need to really work on. In summertime, it’s
easy to throw out a few flowers and get bees, but in spring, they’re
really hurting. One of the first sources of nectar is one of the most
reviled flowers — the dandelion. So think about leaving some
dandelions in a part of your yard or wait to mow until they’ve
bloomed. Spring blooming bulbs, like scilla and alliums, are other
good early nectar sources. Annuals and herbs can also help fill in
gaps between various bloom times.
Q: You challenge
gardeners to go beyond a single butterfly garden patch to a more
holistic yard approach. Please explain.
butterfly gardens are more than just a few pretty flowers. Unlike
bees, butterflies need larval host plants to feed their caterpillars.
One of the most well-known — monarchs — can’t survive without
milkweed. They’re specialists, and their young need milkweed to
survive and can’t eat any other plant. A lot of people are surprised
to hear trees are one of the major larval host plants for a lot of
butterfly species. So if you already have an oak, willow, cherry or
cottonwood, you’re already providing lots of good food for those
caterpillars. Herbs, especially dill, parsley and fennel, are another
great source for butterfly habitat. Just plant extra for them.
Q: What are a
few easy steps for homeowners to make their backyards more pollinator
A: First, plant
more flowers. The busier people get, the more they choose foliage over
flowering plants. But, those flowers are what are lacking for
pesticide use. My book goes into great depth on this topic explaining
why and when pesticides threaten pollinators and how to avoid using
them. I have a visible, quarter-acre in the city and don’t find the
need for pesticides. Still, I get great compliments all the time.
Third, allow for
nesting sites. Honey bees go back to hives, but many wild bees are
ground nesters and need bare soil for nesting. This can worry some
people, because they don’t want to come upon a nest of bees with
their mower or shovels. So I always say possibly there’s a corner of
the yard, slope or unused area to leave unmulched for these nesting
bees. Other bees use hollow stems or beetle tunnels in old logs for
nesting, so consider leaving pruned debris and fallen branches in a
spot for them.
Q: How can
gardeners also make their pollinator gardens more neighbor-friendly?
native gardens don’t have to look weedy or unkempt. Keep short
plants in the front and tall in back. Add crisp edges or mowed strips
to contain natural plantings. Introduce larger flower and leaf shapes
for balance. Add human touches — like a piece of garden art, a
birdhouse, a chair or other decorative piece — to show "a cue
to care" or hint that the garden is being tended. Consider adding
a "Bee Safe" yard sign and point out pollinator activity to