An important part of spring garden planning is deciding what new plants to add to your outdoor spaces. One of the easiest ways that you can have a positive impact on increasing both biodiversity in your neighbourhood and the abundance of your own garden is by gardening with pollinators. Think of your garden and yard as co-created spaces with bees and butterflies. As a permaculturist, I am always trying to grow plants that are useful for me and, at the same time, nurture pollinator abundance.
These are my favourite pollinator plants for a vibrant, buzzing garden that promotes multispecies flourishing:
1. Wild Bergamot, also called Bee Balm (Monarda fistulosa)
Wild bergamot is a native perennial that blooms all summer long and smells delicious. It is also a valuable edible and medicinal herb. As soon as wild bergamot blooms it is buzzing with insects of all kinds: honey bees, various kinds of native bees, wasps, hover flies, moths, and butterflies.
The leaves and flowers of Wild Bergamot can be added to salads or brewed as a delicious tea. It is a medicinal herb that has long been used by Indigenous people who live in the regions in which it thrives to treat many ailments including colds, flus, and coughs (most commonly as a tea or infusion).
Wild Bergamot grows in full sun as well as partial shade. It can suffer from powdery mildew so don’t overwater plants and don’t get the leaves wet when watering. Do not plant it near squash or zucchini as they are also susceptible to powdery mildew.
2. Anise Hyssop (Agastache foeniculum)
Anise Hyssop is a glorious plant. It is a short-lived perennial native to North America and is remarkably easy to grow. Unlike some perennials that need a season or two to establish themselves, you will get beautiful flowers the first season you plant or sow it. It has a long bloom time – mine typically blooms from mid-summer to mid-fall.
Anise Hyssop attracts a wide variety of bees and butterflies and has an black licorice smell and taste. I find it to be especially irresistible to bumble bees and digger bees. It can be made into a pleasant tea (flowers and leaves) for people and it is typically used to relieve cold symptoms including congestion. The flowers are also edible in salads. There are other varieties of hyssop that may not have the same medicinal benefits but that are also beloved by bees and butterflies!
3. Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium spp.)
Joe Pye Weed is truly amazing. If you want a garden that is absolutely vibrating with pollinators, plant Joe Pye Weed. It is a native perennial to North America that, once established, is very firmly rooted in place (i.e. it is hard to dig up and move around). It grows very tall – often over 6 ft and blooms in the late summer. A warning: until Joe Pye Weed blooms, it is not an attractive plant since the leaves are not particularly attractive. But your patience will be rewarded with pink flowers that buzz with bees, butterflies, and other insects from August until October (in the Great Lakes region, at least).
There are several species of Joe Pye Weed, all part of the Eupatorium genus. They have been used medicinally for, probably, thousands of years by several groups of Indigenous people in North America for a wide variety of disorders. Several species in this genus have strong effects on the body (especially a related plant called Boneset) so research before you use it medicinally.
4. Goldenrod (in the genus Solidago)
Oh goldenrod, how I love thee! So, let’s get one thing clear from the beginning: goldenrod does not cause seasonal allergies! It is an animal-pollinated flower, which means that its pollen is not floating in the air for people to breathe into their bodies. It just so happens that the very showy goldenrod goes into bloom at the exact time as the wind-pollinated ragweed. It is ragweed that causes some seasonal allergies, along with other wind-pollinated flowers.
Goldenrod species are perennial natives to North America and are glorious plants. Goldenrod is an absolute magnet for bees of all kinds as well as solitary wasps (like the gorgeous one pictured above). I have counted over 20 species of bees and wasps on one small patch of goldenrod in my garden. Goldenrod is essential for native bees because it gives them an abundant supply of late summer and early fall source of nectar and pollen.
There are several species of goldenrod. Canada goldenrod (S. canadensis), which I believe is pictured above (I didn’t actually plant it, it just arrived in my garden), is a vigorous plant. If you want your goldenrod plants to stay where you plant them, I recommend another species such as Zig Zag Goldenrod (S. flexicaulis). Goldenrod is best planted alongside purple or blue species of aster. This classic fall colour combination is gorgeous to humans and to bees.
Goldenrod is also a medicinal plant, especially good for respiratory infections, and can be made into a tea or tincture.
5. Catnip (Nepeta cataria)
Catnip (Nepeta cataria) is a fantastic plant for promoting multispecies abundance. It is loved by generalist bees – including many native bees like the one pictured above. It is also loved by cats. And, it makes a delicious, calming tea for people. Catnip is a perennial plant, native to Europe and Asia. It smells intoxicatingly delicious (I think so, at least, along with millions of cats) and apparently repels some insects such as mosquitoes.
Catnip (also called cat mint) grows enthusiastically, which is perfect for a plant that is loved by so many different species of animals!
Growing these beauties
You can try starting all of these plants by seed. I can guarantee that anise hyssop will grow very easily this way but I have not tried to grow the others by seed. Source seeds and seedlings from native plant nurseries that do not use neonicotinoids or other systemic pesticides. Catnip may already be growing in your outdoor spaces or those of your friends and you can transplant it to where you want it to grow.
Good luck planning your pollinator garden! You will be rewarded by a lush garden absolutely buzzing with life.