Choosing a location for your pollinator garden

Are you interested in creating your own pollinator garden, but you don’t know where to start? I want to bridge that gap between interest and action, eliminate barriers, and give you the confidence to start your own garden. You can help pollinators, and enrich your life along the way.

If you feel like there’s too much information to sort through, or that the task seems daunting, remember ‘plant it and they will come’. It really is that simple.

So, let’s get started. Where in your yard should you put your new garden? Well, here are a few things to consider.

As sunny as possible

Pollinating insects must be warm to be active, so your garden should be as sunny as possible. Don’t give up if you have a shady yard though; you can still have a successful pollinator garden in a shadier spot.

When insects cool down, they become less active and can no longer eat, mate, and provision their nests. The sun helps them warm up even when temperatures are still on the cool side. A sunny garden allows pollinators to maximize their foraging time because they can eat and be warm at the same time. You actually won’t find many bees or butterflies early in the morning, but their numbers increase gradually along with the temperature.

Our backyard mini-meadow in the late morning sun (August 23, 2019).

If your garden is on the shady side, pollinators will warm up in the sun and then visit flowers in the shade. They’ll go back and forth as necessary. We see bees and butterflies basking in our yard — resting on leaves, walls, or rocks in the sun to warm up.

A tattered Giant Swallowtail basking in the sun on a lilac leaf (September 25, 2019).

On cool mornings, bumblebees sit on our shed to warm up. Interestingly, we often find them on knots in the wood, presumably because the darker areas absorb more sun and warmth.

A bumblebee warming up on the side of our shed (October 10, 2019)

I sometimes find bumblebees sitting still on flowers. It used to make me sad because I thought they were dead. Instead, they were simply too cool to be active yet. Male bumblebees don’t live in colonies with female workers and queens. They spend their lives hanging out in flower patches, and sleeping on or under flowers at night. When it’s cool, they sleep in until they warm up.

Bumblebees can also warm themselves by vibrating, which is similar to shivering. This allows them to forage earlier and later in the day than other kinds of bees. It also allows bumblebee queens to get an early start to their new nests in spring. Vibrating to stay warm takes a lot of energy though, so bumblebees must drink lots of nectar to fuel up for the task. I’m trying to add more early spring flowers to help give queen bumblebees a good start.

Sheltered too

Pollinators also prefer sheltered sites. Wind can make it difficult for them to fly, and can even damage their wings. In 2017, after a microburst hit our neighbourhood during a September thunderstorm, I found a dead Painted Lady in our pollinator garden. I also spotted another doomed butterfly that had most of its wings missing; it was still able to drink nectar from flowers, but there was obviously no way it could migrate.

Just standing around

While our front pollinator garden attracts lots of bees, butterflies, and birds, it has one big problem — there’s no place to sit and watch the activity. We have to stand on the driveway in the sweltering heat, or on the sidewalk a few feet from traffic. I’ve learned the value of seating in the garden.

I encourage you to create your pollinator garden near existing seating, especially if hardscaping prevents you from easily moving it. Learn from my mistake. We ended up adding a few new seating areas near the pollinator plants. For example, we placed a hexagonal bench under the Spruce tree in our front shade garden. I can now enjoy sitting in the cool shade while I watch bees on flowers and birds at the feeder. In our back yard, I am expanding the old flower border to garden to bring the plants and pollinators closer to our fixed seating area.

My husband built this hexagonal bench around the Spruce tree in our front shade garden. I was tired of standing around under the tree watching insects and birds. This bench makes good use of the dry area under the tree where plants don’t grow well (August 6, 2019).

View from your indoors

Margaret Roach, of the A Way to Garden blog and podcast, recommends designing gardens so they can be viewed from indoors. See her blog post Look out the window: garden design 101 for details. What a great idea! I have gradually reshaped and rearranged both our front and back gardens to make them visible and attractive when viewed from inside.

I can now sit with a beverage or my knitting and watch the activity in the garden, no matter if it’s -20°C or plus 30°C outside. My family always has a front-row seat for watching bumblebees on anise hyssop, or Goldfinch seed-eating acrobatics. I now consider the indoor view before I plant any flowers for pollinators and shrubs for birds.

Rethinking foundation planting

Still not sure where to put your pollinator garden? Kim Eierman, author of The Pollinator Victory Garden, suggests replacing some unused lawn — what she calls the ‘green desert’ — with pollinator plants. Most people don’t use their front lawns, so that might be a good place for you to start.

When you walk down a street, most homes have foundation plantings right in front. This collection of shrubs, and maybe a few flowers, blocks the view of parging on the foundation’s exterior. It’s mainly intended for other people passing by. When you’re inside, you’ll have to press your face against a window to look down at the plants. I speak from experience; I’ve done too much craning my neck to see my plants.

Typical foundation planting. Sample garden plan (Note: throughout this garden planning section, I’ve made a plan for a pretend yard that includes a driveway, a sidewalk to the front landing, a window on the house, and tree.)

Although I also started with foundation plantings, I gradually expanded my garden to see it comfortably from the windows while I’m indoors.

Working out a new garden plan between the foundation planting and added mulch path. The larger garden can be enjoyed from indoors. The mulch path leads to a shaded seating area under the tree.