Ask Elaine: Pollinator Gardening

Dear Elaine, 

With remote learning, home school supervision and warmer weather, do you have any ideas for flower gardening? We would love to get out of the house and grow something gorgeous and useful.

Thank you and stay well. 


Dear Nate,

Outdoor gardening is just what you need – fresh air, great weather, and wonderful colors and scents.

As temperatures rise into the 60s, pollinators are looking for food, both the sweet syrupy nectar and protein-rich pollen found in flowering plants.

Pollinators are insects and animals that pollinate our food crops and wildflowers. Pollinators include bees, flies, beetles, butterflies, bats and birds. There are over 300 different species of native bees in New Jersey, and the honey bee is our state insect. Pollinators need pollen and nectar from flowers and a place to live. Nectar is the sugary fluid in plants that is collected by bees to make honey. You can help pollinators find a home in your yard by providing food and shelter. Trees and lawns are not enough for bees and butterflies to survive. Pollinators need plant diversity and a place to nest.


Save garden cleanup until spring. Pollinators overwinter in different life stages — eggs, larvae, pupae and adults. Some overwinter in hollow stems or twigs and logs of dead trees and shrubs. Others overwinter in leaf litter. Keep fallen leaves intact through the winter, and do not cut down the perennial garden flowers until early April. Seed-heads that are allowed to remain over the winter contribute to the plant’s continuity by reseeding, especially coneflowers, and provide food for several songbirds.


Good pollinator plants have pollen, nectar and/or seeds that bees, butterflies, other insects and animals need to survive. The best pollinator gardens have three to five different species of flowers each season. There should be a variety of flower size, color, height and shape or type. The mint family has bell or tubular flowers that hummingbirds love (catmint, sage, lavender, beebalm). Small flowers that form an umbrella shape are in the carrot family and attract black swallowtail butterflies, beetles, moths and bees (dill, celery, parsley, Queen Anne’s lace, carrots). Star-like composite flowers attract honeybees (sunflowers, daisies, yarrow, zinnias, goldenrod, and coneflowers).

Most flowers for pollinators like full sun (six to eight hours of sunlight a day in summer). If you have the space, plant in drifts of three or more of one kind of flower. Try to avoid modern hybrids that have been manipulated for larger blooms and brighter colors but may have lost their ability to produce nectar and pollen. Older heirloom varieties (open pollinated) have the nectar and pollen that pollinators need. Native plants are most desired. Reduce fertilizer use and limit pesticide applications.

Butterfly larvae (caterpillars) need host plants to eat. Many butterfly larvae can only feed on one or two specific host plants. For instance, monarch caterpillars only eat milkweed. Black swallowtail caterpillars depend on plants in the carrot family (parsley, carrot, dill, fennel and Queen Anne’s lace). Spicebush swallowtail caterpillars feed mainly on spicebush and sassafras. Monarch butterfly adults need nectar as a food and energy source as they prepare to migrate through North America in autumn. Some good nectar-producing autumn-flowering plants are Joe Pye weed, goldenrod, asters and blazing star.

Examples of bloom time and plants:

April/May June July August/September
Crocus Flowering onion Milkweed Aster
Lungwort Snapdragon Butterfly weed Lobelia
Pansy Columbine Spider flower Goldenrod
Pinks Coneflower Obedient plant
Foxglove Joe Pye weed Snakeroot
Coral bells Morning glory
Blazing star
Cardinal flower
Flowering tobacco
Scarlet runner bean


Laurelwood Arboretum has a Pollinator Garden in front of the Educational Greenhouse. We are proud to be a Monarch Waystation certified by the University of Kansas because the site provides milkweeds, nectar sources and shelter to sustain monarch butterflies as they migrate through North America.

 Elaine Fogerty, Executive Director, Friends of Laurelwood Arboretum

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