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Plant a pollinator pocket: Create a pollinator-friendly garden

Published March 6, 2015

URBANA, Ill. - Just imagine your dining table without the delectable fruits of apples, blueberries, cherries, and peaches or the versatile almond or pumpkin. Flowering plants and their associated pollinators are responsible for an estimated one out of every four mouthfuls of food and beverage. Unfortunately pollinators are in perilous decline, reported a University of Illinois Extension educator.

Pollinators include butterflies, moths, beetles, hummingbirds, bats, flies, and wasps. In North America, 99 percent of pollinators are insects and, of those, most are bees.

“The causes of pollinator decline include a combination of habitat loss, infectious disease, and pesticide misuse; however, the implications ripple through our native areas and crop lands,” said Sandra Mason. “Not only does pollinator decline affect our food production, but pollinators also sustain plant communities by pollinating native plants that provide food, nesting, and shelter for wildlife.

“Yet gardeners can be a positive influence on pollinator populations and diversity if we all do our part to plant pollinator-friendly gardens,” she added.  

A “pollinator-friendly garden is also a people-friendly garden,” as we enjoy many of the same plants, Mason noted. “We just need to add a few elements to provide pollinators with food, water, shelter, and a nice place to raise the ‘kids’,” she said.

Mason provided a few of the basics for a pollinator-friendly garden.

Food for pollinators is generally provided by flower nectar and pollen; however, some pollinators such as butterflies need specific plants such as milkweeds for monarchs to serve as food for caterpillars. To attract particular pollinators, conduct additional research to determine their needs during each of their life stages.

Good pollinator plants include asters, beebalm, native roses, Joe Pye weed, purple coneflower, great blue lobelia, white indigo, lead plant, blazing stars, beard tongue, bellflowers, hollyhocks, monkshood, snapdragons, sunflowers, foxglove, mints, butterfly weed, goldenrod, larkspur, milkweeds, herbs, and many more “bee-utiful” flowers.

When possible choose native plants and not cultivars of native plants. Ornamental changes within cultivated plants may not provide the necessary attributes of a good pollinator flower. Exotic plants such as butterfly bush can provide food for bees and butterflies but cannot sustain the complete life cycle of pollinator insects. In addition, native plants provide food for a greater diversity of pollinators.

Plant masses of similar flowers and design areas to have flowers blooming all season. Aim for a variety of flowers blooming at once. Add easy-to-grow annual seeds such as zinnia and sunflower to existing perennial flower gardens to support flower diversity.

Convert a section of your lawn to a “Pollinator Pocket,” a suggested planting plan developed by Mason, Master Gardeners, and Master Naturalists. Designs are developed for an approximately 5-foot by 5-foot space and include options for a variety of sun, shade and moisture conditions. Check out “Pollinator Pockets” at for designs and additional pollinator information. 

Allow spaces between masses of flowers to provide shelter from wind and cold. Leave dead stems over the winter to provide shelter and nesting areas.

Limit, or better yet, eliminate pesticide use. Plants tolerate some leaf damage without affecting plant health. Learn to live with some plant damage. Check with your local U of I Extension office for plant problem diagnostics and least toxic options. To find the office nearest you, go to

“If you are worried about luring something into your garden that can sting, keep in mind bees are not bullies looking for a fight,” Mason said. “A happy bee is like a gardener in a garden center, focused on each flower.”

News Writer:

University of Illinois Extension