4 tips for planting a pollinator garden this Earth Day

Milkweed, daisies and fruit trees are better choices than a lawn full of grass, if you want to attract monarch butterflies and other pollinators, according to Quebec City gardening expert Larry Hodgson.

Birds, bees and butterflies all benefit from a variety of flowers, instead of a manicured lawn

Planting brightly-coloured flowers instead of just a lawn full of grass will help attract pollinators such as bees to your garden, according to Larry Hodgson, a Quebec City gardening writer. (Getty Images)

Between the plight of monarch butterflies, mass deaths of honey bees and even the decline of some hummingbird populations, it seems that pollinators could use a bit of help this Earth Day.

Gardeners can help sustain populations of pollinating insects and birds by keeping them top of mind when planning their gardens this spring, says Larry Hodgson, the Quebec City-based author of the Laidback Gardener series.

1. Embrace flower power

With mostly asphalt and well-manicured lawns, cities and suburbs aren't always welcoming to butterflies, bees and birds, according to Hodgson. 

"Lawns are pollinator deserts. There's nothing for them," he said. "So when a butterfly hits your neighbourhood, where are the blooms they need?"

He says planting flowers can create "a butterfly oasis" for monarchs hungry from their 5,500-kilometre migration back from Mexico.

Monarch butterflies don't like to hover like bees, so they prefer flowers with wider petals so they can sit down to a good meal, says Hodgson. (Matthew Beck/The Citris County Chronicle/Associated Press)

While bees are attracted to scented flowers, butterflies are looking for flowers with a wide petal for them to land on, or clusters of flowers.

"They're not like bees, they don't hover. They like to sit down and feed," he says.

"A good butterfly flower would be a daisy. You've got this ring of petals all around that would be considered … a landing platform."

But, Hodgson says, most brightly-coloured flowers will do, including annuals like zinnias and cosmos as well as perennials such as goldenrod, milkweed, asters and echinacea.

Serviceberry bushes and apple trees can also help attract bees and butterflies, while hummingbirds like trumpet-shaped flowers, such as columbines and climbing honeysuckles.

2. Ditch the pesticides & herbicides

Herbicides used in farming have been blamed in part for the steep decline of monarch butterfly populations, because they have wiped out milkweed, the sole food source of the monarch caterpillar. 

That's prompted some Quebec farmers to change course and start growing and harvesting milkweed.

The milkweed is the food of choice for monarch caterpillars, but Larry Hodgson says adult monarch butterflies feed from a variety of plants from asters to zinnias. (Tom Steepe/CBC)

Scientists have also increasingly warned of the harm that neonicotinoids, a class of agricultural pesticide used to protect crops from pests such as aphids and spider mites, can cause to honey bees, as well as birds and other animals.

Several provinces, including Quebec, have placed restrictions on their use. 

However, beekeepers have pointed to different causes for bee deaths, such as poor winter conditions and mites.

While the Canadian Association of Professional Apiculturists reported that beekeepers lost 25 per cent of their colonies last year, on average, some beekeepers have argued that bee populations are resilient and not in danger.

Still, if you want to make your own backyard inviting for insects in general, Hodgson does suggest cutting out pesticides.

That means living with the fact that caterpillars may munch on your leaves.

"Learn to accept that there will be damage and that ugly caterpillars give beautiful butterflies," he says.

3. Let it grow wild 

University of Guelph researchers found that the location that milkweed is found can affect how useful it is to monarch butterflies. Small patches on agricultural land and even in backyards appear to help more than milkweed along roadsides. (University of Guelph/Stock)

Your neighbours may raise their eyebrows at your overgrown garden, but the bugs will thank you for it. 

"Don't clean up in the fall. That's a terrible thing to do, if you want to attract pollinators," Hodgson says. 

That means not cutting back plants or cleaning up fallen leaves and branches.

While monarch butterflies migrate south in the winter, other insects stay in your yard and use dead leaves as their habitat. 

Letting your garden grow wild means tolerating some weeds too.

Thistles may seem like an unwelcome and prickly intrusion, but many species of butterfly feed off the plant's leaves, Hodgson says.

And don't worry about filling in bald spots in your yard. Bees and butterflies actually like muddy patches, where they can land and pick up minerals.

4. Water, water everywhere

Bird baths aren't just good for birds—butterflies and bees get thirsty too.

But your standard bird bath may be too deep for insects to use. 

"So put some stones in the bottom so [the water] just barely covers the stones," Hodgson says. "Then you've got a place where you can have the bees and butterflies drinking."

Hodgson says a lightly dripping tap is also a good water source for insects, as long as it isn't leaking too much.


Ainslie MacLellan is a journalist at CBC Montreal. Follow her on Twitter: @CBCAinslie.