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Enticing pollinators to the garden

Butterflies flit in the salvia at the Historic City Cemetery. Grow plants that pollinators like and they will follow.
(Photos: Kathy Morrison)

It's not just bees we want to stick around

On a May morning, there was so much life in the cemetery that it took my breath away.

Coreopsis is an excellent bee-attractant.
The coreopsis hummed along with the honey bees. A big gold carpenter bee attached itself to a flower spike, reminding me of Winnie-the-Pooh wiggling in delight at his favorite treat. And there were so many butterflies in the salvia that the tall purple stalks looked like they had sprouted wings.

This joyful sight in Sacramento's Historic City Cemetery doesn't have to be a gardening anomaly. If we plant right, we each can have a lively, living garden that pleases the pollinators as much as it does us. And not just in May.

Here are suggestions for enticing pollinators to your garden. In general, think pollen, nectar and variety -- small and large blooms during different times of the growing season. Many of the plants will attract more than one type of pollinator.

One more thing: Insecticides kill the good bugs as well as the "bad" ones.  Try organic defenses or spray just plain old water to protect your plants. If you decide you must use a product, be very careful, read ALL the information on the container, and then target-spray as specifically as possible.


Oh, boy, do bees love sunflowers. Plant seeds now!
Did you know that California has more than 1,600 species of native bees? The honey bee was imported, and has been hurt by colony collapse disease, but the native bees are out there, too. They range from the big carpenter bees to tiny sweat bees.

Bees like yellow flowers, especially, but also gravitate to purple and blue. For flowers, plant alyssum, coreopsis, cosmos, Iceland poppies, seaside daisies, sunflowers and wallflowers. Flowering herbs such as basil, bee balm, borage, lavender, rosemary and thyme also are good.

Don't forget the edible plants: Artichoke buds left to bloom produce fluorescent purple flowers that are irresistible to bees. Strawberries and squash and melons also will bring them in.


Butterflies need a place to land when they feed -- they can’t hover like bees and hummingbirds. They love the big-bloom zinnias, for example, but will also appreciate asters, calendula, coneflowers, cosmos, Shasta and other daisies, gaillardia, lantana, marigolds, scabiosa (pincushion plant) and yarrow.

This butterfly just couldn't quit the lacy phacelia.
Native plants are even more important to butterflies than to bees, I think. Earlier this spring I watched a painted lady butterfly just about lose its mind in a patch of native lacy phacelia ( phacelia tanacetofolia ). It would fly away and circle back, fly away and circle back again, as if it was hooked on what the plant had to offer and couldn't leave just yet.

And, of course, native milkweed is a crucial plant for the endangered monarch butterfly.

Do remember that butterflies come from caterpillars, so allow for some chewed leaves in your garden. (I make an exception for tomato hornworms -- they can quickly devastate a tomato plant, including the fruit. I pull them off the plants and throw them to the neighborhood birds.)


Hummingbirds are perhaps the most obvious pollinators -- they get right into the blooms. They love trumpet-shaped flowers such as petunias and calibrachoa (often called “Million Bells”), but they also go nuts for salvias that bloom red, such as the “Hot Lips” variety or pineapple sage.

The native California fuchsia, which has a red-coral bloom, is a hummingbird favorite. And hummingbird sage, also called pitcher sage, is a natural.

Other birds can be pollinators, too, so don’t fuss too much if they poke holes in your sunflower leaves. They are fruit thieves, of course, but they’re also helping the garden stay healthy by eating grasshoppers, crickets and tomato hornworms that can plague our vegetable crops.

Other pollinators

Wasps and some moths and flies also contribute to life in the garden. Hover flies, also known as syrphid flies, are the most active of the pollinating flies. These flies, which resemble bees, like small flowers but are also drawn to orange and yellow blooms, such as calendula and marigolds. (Another garden benefit: The larvae of hover flies feed on aphids.)

This dragonfly is on stakeout.
Dragonflies aren't known as pollinators but they do prey on mosquitoes, so they are a gardener's friend, too. Give them some 5-foot poles or stakes in the garden; they like to land on them and watch for prey.

( This post expands on a story Kathy originally wrote for her community garden's newsletter .)


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Dig In: Garden Checklist

For week of March 19:

Spring will start a bit soggy, but there’s still plenty to do between showers:

* Fertilize roses, annual flowers and berries as spring growth begins to appear.

* Watch out for aphids. Wash off plants with strong blast from the hose.

* Pull weeds now! Don’t let them get started. Take a hoe and whack them as soon as they sprout.

* Prepare summer vegetable beds. Spade in compost and other amendments.

* Prune and fertilize spring-flowering shrubs after bloom.

* Feed camellias at the end of their bloom cycle. Pick up browned and fallen flowers to fight blossom blight.

* Feed citrus trees as they start to blossom.

* Cut back and fertilize perennial herbs to encourage new growth.

* Seed and renovate the lawn (if you still have one). Feed cool-season grasses such as bent, blue, rye and fescue with a slow-release fertilizer. Check the irrigation system and perform maintenance. Make sure sprinkler heads are turned toward the lawn, not the sidewalk.

* In the vegetable garden, transplant lettuce and kale.

* Seed chard and beets directly into the ground.

* Plant summer bulbs, including gladiolus, tuberous begonias and callas. Also plant dahlia tubers.

* Shop for perennials. Many varieties are available in local nurseries and at plant events. They can be transplanted now while the weather remains relatively cool.

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