Annuals for pollinators

I also grow some non-native annuals. Originally, I grew them to help fill in gaps while my native plant seedlings were still small. A few of them proved so popular with pollinators that I continue to include them every year. I also keep trying different annuals, and different varieties.

Choose non-hybridized varieties; annuals bred purely for large, showy blooms have often lost their pollen and nectar in the process. Choose varieties with simple, open flowers, instead of ‘pompoms’, because the dense clusters of petals make nectar inaccessible to pollinators. Also buy seeds from organic sources to ensure that they are pesticide-free. At the end of the summer, you can collect your own seeds from the flowers to use next year.

Favourite butterfly annuals

In my garden, there are two annuals that attract butterflies consistently — Brazilian Verbena and Mexican Tithonia. Mexican Tithonia is covered in bumblebees and migrating Monarchs and Painted Ladies in late summer.

I have grown lots of other annuals that are recommended for butterflies, but they just don’t seem very popular in my garden. I keep trying different varieties of Cosmos, Zinnias, Alyssum, Lantana, and Hollyhocks, in case I just haven’t found the right one yet.

Bees’ favourite annuals

These annuals are popular with bees in my garden: Bee’s Friend (Phacelia tanacetifolia), Calendula, Cleome (Rocky Mountain Bee Plant), Borage, and Cerinthe.

Sunflowers are also very popular with bees. Avoid pollen-less varieties intended as cut flowers for indoor arrangements. I struggle to grow annual sunflowers because squirrels keep digging up or biting off my seedlings. Because of them, I’ve just about given up on growing annual sunflowers.

For hummingbirds

Each year, I grow Petunia excerta, a non-hybridized red petunia, for hummingbirds. I also grow Cardinal Climber vine and Scarlet Runner Beans for them. I’ve yet to try growing Nicotiana or annual salvias for hummingbirds.

Cardinal Climber, the red tubular blossoms on the right, are visited by hummingbirds in our backyard.

Herbs for pollinators

The flowers of annual and hardy herbs, like basil, cilantro, mint, oregano, and thyme are also frequented by pollinators. Dill and parsley are used by Black Swallowtail butterflies as host plants.

Native annuals

There are a couple of native annuals that I grow as well. Partridge Pea is a prairie annual. You can hear bumblebees using buzz pollination to release the pollen from these cheerful yellow flowers. Jewelweed is visited by bumblebees and hummingbirds, and requires moist soil in some shade.

These annuals are recommended for pollinators by others. I haven’t tried them or didn’t find them very popular with bees or butterflies.

Seed sources for annuals

I stick to Canadian sources for my annual seeds. Shipping costs from the United States can be very high, so ends up being way too expensive to order seeds from south of the border. Here’s where I buy most of my seeds:

  • William Van Dam Seeds: Dundas, Ontario. A wide variety of untreated, organic seeds for flowers and vegetables.
  • Florabunda Seeds: located in Keene, Ontario. Untreated seeds for heritage annuals, as well as some native perennials. See the “Supporting Bees and Butterflies” page.
  • West Coast Seeds: in British Columbia. Wide variety of organic flower and vegetables seeds.

Starting annuals indoors

I start my annuals indoors in small pots and place them in sunny windows in my basement. To find out when to plant the seeds, I use Margaret Roach’s customizable Planting Calendar. Vesey’s Seeds in P.E.I., and other sources, list Ottawa’s last frost date as May 10. My annuals seedlings grow well enough, but don’t look like they came from a professional nursery. I start putting them outside to get better light for part of the day once the warms up.

This winter, I bought my first indoor, T5 florescent grow-light from Hydroculture Emporium in Ottawa. Some of my annuals have grown leggy in the past and insufficient light is the likely cause. I’m surprised by how much quicker the seeds germinated (from the warmth of the light?) and how well the seedlings are growing.

For information and instructions on growing seedlings indoors, listen to the Joe Gardener Podcast episodes 94, 91, and 83.

It’s really too bad that I can’t just buy pesticide-free, pollinator-friendly annuals. The nurseries just seem to offer the same annuals every year.