Bringing Habitat Home: Planting A Pollinator Garden!

Conservation // May 20, 2020

Sitting at the cusp of summer, it’s always a pleasure to think about the Wissahickon’s memorable wild spaces. From the meadows, with their bunches of wildflowers in a sea of native grasses, to woodland trails hemmed with spicebush, ferns, sedges, and wild ginger, the landscapes are always lovely – and full of life. So as you prepare for a second round of summer planting, why not bring a little bit of that wild feeling home by adding native plant species to your garden? 

What makes a native plant? According to the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), native plants are known to have grown locally since before European settlement. Since they’ve been here a while, local wildlife species have become reliant on them for food and habitat, and many native flowering plants attract birds, bees, and other pollinating insects looking for food. Planting more native plants in your garden and increasing the biodiversity of what’s growing there often leads to it becoming a habitat hotspot. 

Moving to native species in your garden isn’t hard, but they require a bit more planning than annual beds –  though these plants make up for it by being low-maintenance and resilient. Native plant and pollinator gardens do best when they mimic how plants grow in the wild, with three distinct layers of vegetation. When getting started, it’s helpful to think about which species do best on each level.

To begin making your native plant garden, look at the spaces and species that you have currently planted, the relative sun exposure of your garden, and the area you have for plants to spread out. Start at the bottom, or rather, the ground cover layer. Extremely important for stormwater management, erosion control, and ground cover, and essential for plant health, this typically consists of grasses or leafy perennials in the wild but is often mulched in a backyard garden. Consider substituting the mulch with native shade or semi-shade plants, like wild ginger, green-and-gold, and Solomon’s seal to control weeds and provide a green base for more sun-loving and colorful species. 

The middle layer is best for sun or partial-sun plants, including attractive flowering plants like bee balm and joe-pye-weed, while you can plant milkweed to feed Monarch butterflies and enjoy its small, sweet-smelling and star-shaped flowers. Black-eyed-susans, blue flag iris, and phlox species are also great options for any native plant garden, and their nectar will attract pollinators looking to refuel. Finally, you should focus on the top layer of plants: tall plants like goldenrod, ironweed, and narrow sunflowers add color on top of a bed. It’s also exciting to have tall grass species like switchgrass, bluestem, and indiangrass for this layer, to give your garden the meadow effect.

Ready to plant a pollinator garden? Be sure to purchase plants from a reputable source and purchase only nursery propagated native plants, as collecting plants from the wild causes the depletion of native species and disruption of the ecosystem. You can visit your favorite nursery or seek out native plant nurseries and sales sponsored by conservation societies to start your wild garden sustainably – and bring a little bit of that wild feeling to your backyard!

Some more resources:

For more gardening advice, watch this video on native plant gardening with FOW Trail Ambassador Lisa Stout.

Penn State Extension has lists of native species to plant in your garden, here!