Ever felt overwhelmed before you even start, looking at the garden equivalent of a blank page and unsure where to begin? That’s how Jennifer from Cumberland, RI said she’s feeling.

She shared that she’s a very new newbie to gardening and wants to attract pollinators. She asked for suggestions for a low maintenance garden that would accomplish that purpose.

Monarch Butterfly on Butterflyweed 2017

Well, first of all, Jennifer, thank you for asking the question and for wanting to support pollinators. Just knowing that gives you a head start, since you’ve already started to narrow your focus as far as your new garden’s purpose.

Here are some tips for you as you move forward.

First, it may be helpful to think about pollinator needs in human terms. What do you and I need to sustain life? If you pare it down to the very basic, physical categories, we’re looking at food, water, and shelter, right? And not just at one stage in our lives, either; those necessities apply throughout.

Well, it’s not too different when you’re considering pollinators (or any other wildlife, for that matter).

What pollinators need to thrive


Pollinators need flowers throughout the growing season, so we need to be thinking of continuous bloom.

With butterflies, we may tend to think first of colorful, dancing wings – but that’s only one stage in their life span. If we really want to support them, we also need to think about the needs of caterpillars.

Here are a few native forbs (herbaceous perennials) that support a wide range of caterpillars in the Northeast:

  • Goldenrod – I’ve found showy goldenrod (Solidago speciosa) to be well-behaved in a garden setting and it’s attractive to look at throughout the seasons, as well. That said, there’s a goldenrod for every setting and they’re one of the most beneficial plants you can include.
  • Wild strawberry (Fragaria virginiana) – You’ll get pretty flowers and aromatic fruits on an easy-care groundcover. I’ve also found it to be semi-evergreen in Zone 6b.
  • Joe-Pye weedEutrochium maculatum is a nice-looking choice and can be kept at a smaller size by clipping it back in late spring. Native to wetlands. It will grow in ordinary garden soil, but if you have a well-drained, sandy soil like I do, it may need some supplemental watering, so bear this in mind if you want something low-maintenance. Eutrochium purpureum is less showy, but more forgiving about soil conditions.
  • Milkweed If you want to support monarch butterflies, milkweeds are a must. Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) has wonderfully-scented blossoms. However, you may not want it in a garden setting due to its tendency to spread. A lot. Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa) and Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) are well-behaved in the garden.


Pollinators also need nesting and hibernation sites. Many native bees create their nests underground. So, if you have a sheltered, sunny, well-drained area, leave some spots bare of vegetation and disturb those spots as little as possible.

A favorite spot for some species to hibernate in is hollow- or pithy-stemmed plants, such as hollow Joe-Pye weed (Eutrochium fistulosum) or elderberry (Sambucus canadensis), so it’s good to include them in your garden. However, remember that if you cut dead stems down in the fall, there may be living creatures in them. So either leave them standing or pile them loosely in an out of the way spot until temperatures warm up in spring.

Additionally, don’t be too much of a neatnik. (This will make the maintenance-challenged happy.) Many creatures overwinter in leaf litter.

Yes, you’ll need to rake leaves from your lawn. But let them lie in your gardens until spring, when daytime temperatures are consistently in the 50s. No sense making a home for pollinators only to kill them by being overzealous about cleanup.

No Insecticides

This one may seem common-sense. However, I’m bringing it up to make sure you’re aware of systemic insecticides, such as neonicotinoids or “neo nics”, which may be applied before you ever buy your plants. Please look for a source that guarantees not to use neonicotinoids or to sell plants that have been exposed to these insecticides.

If you’re curious, you can learn more about neonicotinoids here.

You can find a list of five questions to ask nurseries if you want to be sure you’re buying plants that haven’t been treated with neo nics here, on Tom Sullivan’s website (which is also a great source for inspiration!).

For the sake of avoiding information overload, I’m going to close here for now. In my next post, I’ll continue this discussion, looking at the question from the needs of the newbie gardener. (Update: You can find that here.)

But before we say, “Bye for now,” I’d love to hear from you.

What do you look forward to enjoying from a pollinator garden?