Building the buzz: Creating bee-friendly gardens & landscapes

A bee feasts on a zinnia at the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens (photo courtesy of CMBG)

A bee feasts on a zinnia at the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens (photo courtesy of CMBG)

By Avery Yale Kamila

Whether a rural homestead or a tiny urban lot, the most attractive gardens and landscapes buzz with bees, butterflies, birds and other pollinators.

Vibrant dome New England Asters. Photo: courtesy of Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens

Vibrant dome New England Asters. Photo: courtesy of Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens

Creating a landscape inviting to pollinators adds interest and action while providing a much-needed lifeline to critical species struggling to survive. It’s something all of us can do to help domesticated honeybees and native pollinators, whose numbers have declined sharply due to a host of suspected factors, including loss of habitat, diseases and pesticides.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Maine is among the states hardest hit by honeybee die-off with more than 60 percent of the state’s honeybees dying between spring 2014 and spring 2015. The national average loss was 42 percent.

In addition to the well-known honeybee (which is a European immigrant), Maine is home to at least 270 native bees, according to the University of Maine.

“Pollinator gardens are so easy and exciting to do and you do see a difference,” says Sharmon Provan, a horticulturalist at the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in Boothbay. “You’ll be starting to attract those pollinators and beneficial insects such as ladybugs. Everybody loves ladybugs and ladybugs love aphids.”

Experts such as Provan agree providing shelter year round and supplying water and food from early spring through late fall are essential to attracting and supporting native pollinators and their honeybee cousins.

According to landscape designer David Homa, who owns Post Carbon Designs in Otisfield, a landscape that is a little less manicured is most friendly to pollinators. “If your yard has little areas of chaos—such as a pile of sticks or ground cover—these areas offer the most diverse and viable habitats.” Undisturbed and unmanicured patches of landscape provide cover and shelter for insects.

In the spring, homeowners can spare some of the dandelions, chicory and clover from the lawn mower, Homa says, to aid pollinators, “by providing a source of pollen favored by bees.” In the fall, homeowners can expand pollinator habitat by leaving leaf litter on the ground and not cutting back perennials until spring.

Pollinator food is the pollen and nectar of blooming trees and plants, and insects need to eat whenever it is warm enough to be active.

Wood betony. Photo courtesy of the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens

Wood betony. Photo courtesy of the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens

Both Homa and Provan recommend planting a diversity of plants (with varied bloom colors) and staggering the bloom times. Homa points to early spring and late fall as particularly crucial times to plan for blooms, recommending daffodils, crocus and coltsfoot for early season blooms and Maximilian sunflower and anise hyssop for late season blooms.

Go Native

Since native bees rely on native plants, experts recommend adding these to the landscape and allowing the natives already there - such milkweed and asters - to thrive.

“It’s striking when you plant natives how they start bringing the creatures back,” says Heather McCargo, director of the Wild Seed Project based in Blue Hill and Portland. “All native plants are pollinator plants. Even an oak tree that is wind pollinated still attracts pollinators that eat the pollen.”

The Wild Seed Project is a nonprofit organization dedicated to collecting, selling and propagating native Maine seeds and educating the public about their importance.

Some of its seeds are used by the Portland Pollinator Partnership, which is planting pollinator gardens in the city’s downtown.

“We were originally inspired to create a pollinator corridor along the Bayside Trail and planted our first Bayside Pollinator Garden in September of 2015 just behind Allspeed Cycles and Trader Joe’s,” says Annie Wadleigh, chair of the partnership. “Since then we have grown to include 23 partners.” The organization’s partners sponsor pollinator gardens and support its work.

Working in a challenging urban environment where soils can be marginal and foot traffic is an issue, Wadleigh recommends “planting hardy native perennials that are known to be beneficial to pollinators.”

The partnership offers garden templates for shade and full sun on its website, and Wadliegh says some of the most popular plants it recommends include nasturtium, lemon balm, sunflowers, black-eyed Susan, creeping pholox and scarlet beebalm.

At Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, Provan says favorite pollinator plants include mountain mint, blueberries, sunflowers, elderberries, wild strawberries and fruit trees.

Just as food is necessary for bees, they also need a reliable water supply. When a property lacks a natural water source, it can be added in many ways.

Homa says water for pollinators must be accessible and that means providing water features with an insect-sized landing perch. This could range from, “small ponds with water hyacinth” to “a small saucer with some wine corks in it so bees can land or a bird bath with a couple smooth stones.”

Experts recommend changing standing water daily, and rocks, marbles or plants should be added to give insects a landing perch. A muddy patch of earth - a classic mud puddle - is another pollinator-friendly water source.

Maintenance Matters

“How you maintain your property really affects the landscape,” McCargo says. “If you spray pesticides, that kills all the pollinators. If you rake up every leaf, that’s where a lot of creatures winter over. If you use chemical fertilizer, that kills the life in the soil.”

While it is simple enough to refrain from applying synthetic pesticides or fertilizers, it is not as easy to keep them off of your property. Many plants propagated at conventional nurseries are potted in soil treated with pesticides and even wood chips and mulch are often treated with pesticides.

“The most difficult challenge we face is procuring reliable source plants that have not been chemically treated with commercial pesticides, as most local nurseries buy plants from large wholesalers that do not guarantee the plants are grown organically,” says Wadleigh.

The Portland Pollinator Partnership grows some of its plants from seeds and buys the others from Highland Avenue Greenhouse in Scarborough. (For a full list of where to buy pesticide-free plants, see the sidebar on pg. 45.) When plants have been grown in pesticide-treated soil (or treated with pesticides themselves), these chemicals can linger for a long time and harm or kill the creatures a pollinator garden aims to attract.

“You don’t garden or farm in a bubble,” says Homa, who points out that pesticides can drift or run off from neighboring properties and kill or damage plants. “What happens beyond your property boundaries can affect the pollinators and your plants. Sometimes you need to bridge that subject with your neighbors.”

Provan from Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, which is a certified Monarch Way Station according to, says creating pollinator gardens can be a neighborhood project that adds habitat and “makes places look better.”

Photo courtesy of the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens

Photo courtesy of the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens

In addition to taking care when purchasing plants and assessing what neighbors do to their properties, homeowners should consider the amount of work they want to do. “If you’re not a big gardener, trees and shrubs, if properly sited are really low maintenance,” says McCargo of the Wild Seed Project. “And then you can get into some of the herbaceous plants and ground covers if you’re more of a gardener.” In most cases, McCargo says, native plants will require the least maintenance.

Wadleigh believes that, “ornamental gardens stocked with exotic plants that may require costly maintenance and chemicals in order to thrive are really not the way of the future.” Instead today’s environmentally-conscious homeowners consider function in addition to good looks. “When we had a lot of nature out there in the world, we could get away with our landscapes filled with plants that aren’t doing anything for other creatures,” McCargo says. “But that’s not the case anymore.”

By surrounding our homes with pesticide-free plants and providing habitat and water, we lend a hand to the struggling pollinators. In return, we are rewarded with a beautiful, lively and productive property.

Pollinator Checklist

  • Establish a water source

  • Plan for food all season

  • Provide year-round shelter

  • Retain leaf litter in fall

  • Emphasize native plants

  • Buy only organically-grown plants

  • Propagate plants from seed

  • Plant a diverse species mix

  • Skip all synthetic pesticides and fertilizers

  • Create a smaller lawn and mow less often

  • Encourage wind-sown volunteers such as milkweed and dandelion

Avery Yale Kamila is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.

For more: Nurseries respond to demand for pesticide-free planting