Pollinator Friendly Gardening

The current period of warm weather surely doesn’t signal the end of El Niño rains, but it does bring to mind the coming of spring. And with that cyclical change comes the inspiration to plan for garden development.

Our gardens can support many different objectives. One timely objective to consider is to support healthy lives for nature’s pollinators, primarily bees and butterflies.

We have frequently touched upon the vital role that bees and butterflies fill in the propagation of plants. The development of fruits and vegetables, which are essentially seed cases, often depends on bees, and butterflies are important pollinators of wild and cultivated flowers.

Our pollinators are threatened by civilization, notably habitat loss and agricultural chemicals. In May of 2015, the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency, in response to a directive by President Obama, established the Pollinator Health Task Force. That multi-agency group has begun reporting on studies and releasing recommendations to help bees and butterflies. We can expect a continuing flow of constructive new directions.

In June of 2015, with endorsement by First Lady Michelle Obama, environmentalists created the National Pollinator Garden Network and launched the Million Pollinator Challenge, with the goal to create one million new pollinator gardens by the end of 2016. Clearly, individual gardeners are invited to join in nationwide efforts to support pollinators.

In this context, we have a new book by Master Gardener Rhonda Fleming Hayes: Pollinator Friendly Gardening, (Voyageur Press, 2015).

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This is a valuable resource for developing a garden that supports healthy lives for bees and butterflies. Fleming, a dedicated advocate of pollinators, provides a readable and complete introduction to the subject and maintains a calm and informative style. (We respect fervent commitment to a cause, but the strident alarms and urgent calls to action we sometimes see can be trying.)

Fleming offers three principals for pollinator-friendly gardening: provide blooming plants all year, allow nesting and overwintering sites, and avoid uses of pesticides.

She also focuses on native plants, which have co-evolved with many insects and developed reciprocal dependencies. These relationships are site-specific so that the plants and insects that are native to California are not the same as the plants and insects of the east coast of the U.S. Many garden books, including this one, address national readerships, so each reader should adapt plant lists to his or her own garden environment.

Also, note that honeybees were imported to the U.S. long ago from Europe and other regions, and do not relate to U.S. native plants in the same way as the thousands of species of U.S. native bees. Imported bees particularly appreciate plants from their native lands that have been introduced in the U.S.

Here are sources for more information on pollinator-friendly gardening:

The Pollinator Partnership

National Pollinator Garden Network

Xerces Society

Monarch Watch

Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center

A pollinator-friendly garden has direct benefits for the bees and butterflies, and also serves the gardener with the pleasure of beautiful surroundings and the satisfaction of ecologically sound practices. Also, an enjoyable and educational counterpart to bird-watching is the emerging activity of bee-watching. There is much to learn from the bees!

Million Pollinator Garden Challenge

We are in the midst of National Pollinator Week (June 15–21)! An unprecedented group of twenty-four conservation and gardening organizations has formed the National Pollinator Garden Network and, with First Lady Michelle Obama, launched the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge.


The Network challenges the nation’s gardeners to create one million additional pollinator gardens by the end of 2016.

This campaign encourages home gardeners to help reverse the decline of honeybees and native bees, butterflies, hummingbirds and other pollinators. This extraordinary initiative underlines the importance of pollinators to our food supply and invites home gardeners to take effective personal action even as the nation’s Pollinator Task Force mobilizes more than fifteen federal agencies to improve pollinator health.

In a recent column, we urged keeping your garden free of synthetic chemical pesticides and herbicides, and using less-toxic alternatives. The Pollinator Partnership (www.pollinator.org), a member of the new Network, offers specific advice:

  1. Plant for Pollinators (the website includes a link to a cellphone app that lists 1,000 pollinator friendly plants native to the United States)
  2. Reduce or eliminate the impact of pesticides.
  3. Register as a SHARE site (see more about this below)
  4. Reach out to others – inform and inspire
  5. Buy local and organic produce, including honey
  6. Conserve all of our resources; use less and reduce your impact.
  7. Support the work of groups promoting science based, practical efforts for pollinators

The Network concurs with these recommendations, as expected, and adds these complementary ideas:

  1. Provide a water source
  2. Situate your garden and/or plants in a sunny area with wind breaks
  3. Create large “pollinator targets” of native or non-invasive plants
  4. Establish continuous blooms throughout the growing season

Once you establish your pollinator habitat garden, visit share.pollinator.org/ to register your garden on the Pollinator Partnership’s SHARE site. Adding your garden to the site’s map of the United States gives you personal bragging rights as a friend to pollinators and supports the effort to encourage others to participate in the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge.

The website for the Challenge (http://millionpollinatorgardens.org/) provides links to each of its members, and most (or all) of these groups identify pollinator-friendly plants.

Still, because gardening is specific to location, Monterey Bay area gardeners should focus on plants to native to the local region. To find such plants, visit these websites:

California Native Plant Society 

Las Pilates Nursery

Xerces Society

Join the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge. The bees and other pollinators will thank you, and your garden will be richer for the effort.

Gardening to Save the Planet

We are learning about humanity’s many impacts on the near and distant future of our planet. Some people are in denial about these impacts, while others are concerned and ready to do whatever we can to ensure that our Earth will support future generations.

To support and encourage such positive action, leading botanist Peter Raven will visit the UCSC Arboretum next week to meet with UCSC faculty and staff, and present a public talk, “Saving Plants, Saving Ourselves.” Raven will present an informed update on the increasing threats to Earth’s environment, and emphasize the special role of public gardens in conserving plants that could be lost through habitat loss and climate change.

Peter Raven has a long friendship with the UCSC Arboretum, and a national reputation as a conservationist and advocate of global biodiversity: Time magazine hailed him as a Hero of the Planet. His visit to the Monterey Bay area inspires us to reflect on the home gardener’s unique role in saving the planet.

Here are ten everyday practices that gardeners can apply to help sustain the environment and protect plant diversity.

  • Irrigate your garden wisely, using drip technology to deliver water only where needed, and mulch (organic or inorganic) to minimize evaporation and weed growth.
  • Recycle household water into the garden, using plant-friendly soaps and detergents.
  • Prune your acquisitions of consumer goods that bury our landfills and clutter our environment…and that you really don’t need.
  • Propagate plants that Nature’s pollinators (bees and other insects, bats and birds) love and need to survive. Clusters of flowering plants will enrich your landscape.
  • Conserve biodiversity by protecting endangered species and including rare and threatened California native plants in your landscape. (Visit the California Native Plant Society’s website, www.rareplants.cnps.org/ for info.)
  • Nourish your plants with organic fertilizers, and discontinue uses of artificial chemicals
  • Control plant-eating insects with insect predators and organic insecticides. Use physical barriers and non-toxic deterrents to control other plant-eaters, e.g., snails, gophers and deer,
  • Select plants that are native to California or other summer-dry climates, to enable their healthy growth, support wildlife and ease your gardening workload.
  • Compost the “carbon-rich” fantasies of climate change deniers with the “nitrogen-rich” facts of the world’s scientists to promote wise stewardship of the environment. (Alto, keep all biomass on the property by composting green garden waste!)
  • Cultivate these good practices among your friends and neighbors.

The UCSC Arboretum employs these practices regularly, and assigns high priority to its work in plant conservation.

pt sur Austin and Tim

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This photo shows UCSC student Austin Robey and Arboretum volunteer Tim Forsell as they replanted endangered California native manzanita shrubs on a steep slope near the Point Sur State Historic Park and Lighthouse. The Arboretum’s Brett Hall coordinated the conservation project.

Your practices in your own garden also could help to save the planet. A good start would be to attend Peter Raven’s talk..


Registrations for the Peter Raven talk sold out quickly. To receive timely announcements of future events at the Arboretum, visit arboretum.ucsc.edu/get-involved/.

If you would like to sponsor an educational event at the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum, contact Jennifer Macotto, 831-427-2998 or jmacotto@ucsc.edu.

For information on how you could help save a rare species: visit arboretum.ucsc.edu/education/plant-sponsorship/.

Monarch Butterflies in Decline

At this time of the year, the Monterey Bay area—and especially Pacific Grove—hosts many Monarch butterflies during their annual winter hibernation.

The butterflies arrive in stunningly large numbers, but we in the Monterey Bay area see only Monarchs that live west of the Rocky Mountains—five percent of the total population.

The larger numbers flow between north Central United States and Canada in the summer and Mexico in the winter. The number of Monarchs has been declining alarmingly. Counting the individuals in a vast flight of Monarchs is quite impossible, so scientists measure them by the area they occupy, measured in hectares (2.47 acres), and then estimate the number of butterflies per hectare. In their prime years, some 450 million Monarchs roosted in Mexico. This year, lepidopterists have estimated that three million will arrive in Mexico.

The decline in the Monterey Bay area’s Monarch population has been less than that of the larger population, but still disturbingly great.

Several factors contribute to this decline, but the principal contributor appears to be loss of habitat. In particular, the loss of the milkweed plant that constitutes the source of both the principle food for Monarch caterpillars and the alkaloids that make the Monarch unpalatable to most predators. Large-scale farmers are using Monsanto’s Roundup® herbicide to wipe out a variety of weeds, including milkweed.

The decline of Monarch butterflies means we have fewer opportunities to see them in our gardens and other natural environments but the Monarchs are also an important source of food for some birds.

In the larger context, the impacts of commercial farming on the Monarch population are being repeated by impacts on a range of beneficial insects. The decline of honeybees, for example, has been attributed to a class of agricultural chemicals.

This is a large-scale problem that the public and private sectors, working together, should address over the long term. Meanwhile, home gardeners can support Monarch butterflies in two easy actions.

First, provide nectar sources for the adult butterflies by planting brightly colored flowers that are native to the Monterey Bay area.

Second, provide milkweed plants for Monarch caterpillars to feed on. The genus Asclepias contains about 140 milkweed species, including Asclepias californica (California Milkweed), which is native to most of this state.

To learn more, visit the Pacific Grove Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary (Off of Ridge Road near the Butterfly Grove Inn) for a docent-led tour, and attend the free Monarch Butterfly Talk at 1:00 p.m. at any Saturday, November-to-February.


To learn even more about Monarch Butterflies, visit the Monarch Butterfly Website,  and MonarchWatch.org, where you will find fall and spring migration maps.

Monarch Fall Migration map

Monarch Spring Migration Map 

The website for the Center for Food Safety illustrates the areas in which the agricultural chemical glysophate is being applied in the Monarch’s migration path.

Monarch – Glysophate Maps

Attract Pollinators to Your Garden

Synthetic chemicals have a variety of garden uses: adding nutrients to the soil (or directly to plants), discouraging/killing harmful insects and other small pests, and protecting plants from viruses, fungi and other scourges.

These benefits, however, come with downsides, including destroying microorganisms in the soil and beneficial insects, accumulating salts in the soil, and harming (or worse) pets and gardeners themselves. And there’s more, too much to review in this column.

Our present focus is on the harm that synthetic chemicals bring to insect pollinators: honeybees, native bees (which are different) and butterflies. Concerned scientists and citizen scientists have recorded significant population declines among these pollinators, and have pointed to pesticides as the likely cause of these declines.

Our gardens need these pollinators. They are essential in sexual reproduction of plants, including the development of fruits, vegetables and berries, all of which bear seeds, and both natural and human-directed hybridization of plants.

There are also asexual forms of plant reproduction, to be sure, but we’re concerned here with the pollinators.

The first priority in attracting pollinators to your garden is to adopt organic gardening methods, i.e., no synthetic chemicals. Safe organic products are available to address any gardening need, and integrated pest management (IPM) strategies work better and cheaper in the long run than the quick fixes of synthetic chemicals.

The next important priority is to plant more flowers as food resources for bees and butterflies. An excellent resource this subject is The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, a non-profit organization. The Society offers reliable information on all aspects of attracting pollinators.

The Society’s guidelines for California gardeners get to the point:

  • Use local native plants (bees prefer them);
  • Choose several colors of flowers (blue, purple, violet, shite and yellow are good; pink and red not so much);
  • Plant flowers in clumps (a four-foot wide clump of one flower is much better than a scattering of the same number of plants);
  • Include flowers of different shapes (bees come in different sizes and different preferences);
  • Have a diversity of species flowering all season (both the bees and you will appreciate having flowers for most of the year).

Another helpful resource is The Melissa Garden: A Honeybee Sanctuary, which is located in Sonoma County. The owners offer an extensive list of plants that attract bees, and offer tours and classes in beekeeping, attracting pollinators, and related topics. “Melissa” is from the Greek word for honeybee.

Visit ongardening.com for links to The Xerces Society, the Melissa Garden and other resources for attracting pollinators to your garden, as well as for information on organic gardening and integrated pest management.

As you add flowering plants to your garden, choose some for the bees and butterflies.


The Xerces Society

Melissa Garden

Attracting Pollinators to Your Garden Using Native Plants

Organic Gardening: There are many books and magazines on this subject. A classic in the field is Maria Rodale’s Organic Gardening: Your Seasonal Companion to Creating a Beautiful and Delicious Organic Garden (Rodale Press, 1998)

Integrated Pest Management The University of California’s Integrated Pest Management program is a valuable resource for California  gardeners. Another useful resource is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s webpage on IPM Principles.