Planning for Spring, Part 2 Best Plants for a Pollinator Sanctuary

An important part of spring garden planning is deciding what new plants to add to your outdoor spaces. One of the ways that you can have a huge impact on increasing both local biodiversity and the abundance of your 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. Valerian (Valeriana officinalis)

IMG_0111Valerian is a non-native perennial that starts growing as soon as the snow melts and blooms in early June. It has a fairly long bloom time, it remains a cheerful, tall (up to 7 feet) garden presence for most of June. As soon as valerian blooms it is buzzing with insects of all kinds: honey bees, various kinds of native bees, wasps, hover flies, and butterflies.

Valerian is a medicinal herb that can be used to relieve insomnia and traditionally, also mild anxiety. It has a strong flavour in tea or tincture form. From my personal experience, I have found valerian to be hardy, doing well in slight shade.

2. Anise Hyssop (Agastache foeniculum)

anise hyssop bumble bee

Anise Hyssop is a glorious plant. It is a native perennial 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 bloomed from mid-summer to mid-fall.

Anise Hyssop attracts a wide variety of bees and butterflies and has an anise smell and taste. I found 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 used to receive cold symptoms including congestion. The flowers are also edible in salads.

3. Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium spp.)

joe pye weed bbJoe 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. The leaves are nothing special. But your patience will be awarded 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 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 heavy 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, another perennial native to North America, is a glorious plant. It 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 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 also a medicinal plant, especially good for respiratory infections, and can be made into a tea or tincture.

5. Catnip (Nepeta cataria)

bee on catnip2

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 growing 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. If you are in Ontario, I recommend buying your seeds and plants from Richter’s Herbs. I have absolutely no affiliation but I have ordered plants from them for years with good results.

Good luck planning your pollinator garden! Spring planning, part 3 will focus on choosing and starting veggie seeds.


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