Garden Bloggers’ Bloom Day: Pollinator Buffet

When you plan your garden in early February, what do you consider most important? Do you want fresh vegetables, fruit, flowers, or a mix of each? Do you think only of what you want, or do you also consider the pollinators that will, or won’t be stopping at your pollinator buffet?

Can you see the Sulphur butterfly on the red pentas. It's trying very hard to blend into the green and gold coleus, 'Electric Lime.'
Can you see the Sulphur butterfly on the red pentas? It’s trying very hard to blend into the green and gold coleus, ‘Electric Lime.’

Before you think this post is nothing more than another horticultural guilt trip, wait. The truth is, I never considered insects like butterflies, wasps, caterpillars or bumblebees when I first began planting a garden over thirty years ago. I was terrified of insects especially those of the stinging variety. I was stung several times as a child. Once, I stepped on a bumblebee at the park, and another time, I sat down on a wasp that had crawled out of our morning newspaper. I was unlucky in, or just clumsy. You decide.

I believe this is an Giant Swallowtail butterfly, but I'm no butterfly expert. It was a such a beauty floating around the garden today. Yesterday, there were two of them.
After looking at the Butterflies of the World Foundation, I believe this is a Giant Swallowtail butterfly, but I’m no butterfly expert. It was a such a beauty floating around the garden today. Yesterday, there were two of them.

When I began gardening, I would have enjoyed a Monsanto kind of garden, the type where everything feels very tidy and very sterile. One where weeds don’t dare show their ugly faces, and nothing buzzes about in pure nectar-filled ecstasy. A garden where everything smells of chemicals at least one day out of the week. How do I know what that kind of garden is like? Because, my friends, when I started, I had that kind of garden. Everything was orderly and neat, and if I occasionally burned something I liked with a herbicide, oh well.

Remember, I began with Hybrid Tea roses. In those bad old days, they were on a strict spray regimen of pesticides one week and fungicide the next. I shudder to think about all the spraying I once did.

Common eastern carpenter bee, Xylocopa virginica, on Joe Pye weed, 'Little Joe'
Common eastern carpenter bee, Xylocopa virginica, on Joe Pye weed, ‘Little Joe.’ See the black dot on its back (thorax?)

Spurred on by my success in such sterile, yet blooming surroundings, I began to wish for something more. I decided I wanted a butterfly garden so I read Theme Gardens – How To Plan, Plant & Grow 16 Gloriously Different Gardens by Barbara Damrosch, and I remember being surprised by what she wrote. Here’s one of my favorite quotes in the book, “People often have strange immigration policies toward the insects on their property, dividing them into “good” bugs or “bad” ones.” I thought, heck yeah, those stinging bugs can get out of here, or die. I didn’t know stinging insects don’t sting unless you get near their nests, or accidentally step, or sit on them. While they are busy sipping nectar in the garden, they won’t bother you. I also didn’t realize that if I sprayed pesticides for “bad” bugs, I killed everything else. That’s what broad spectrum means.

The very butterflies I wanted to attract to my garden have caterpillars that munch on their preferred appetizers. Even this summer, I still lost many of my fuzzy black-eyed Susans to Checkerspot caterpillars. It happens. What struck me most about the book was that Damrosch contended butterflies liked an “untidy mess” of a garden. I looked out at my straight and pristine rows and wondered why.

I was a bit uptight in my twenties. Ask my mom. She’ll tell you.

Painted lady butterfly on Joe Pye Weed 'Little Joe.'
Painted lady butterfly on Joe Pye Weed ‘Little Joe.’

Now, I know, and as Maya Angelou said, “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.”

Butterflies and other pollinators need several things to survive. I no longer use much of anything for bugs or weeds, organic or non-organic. Occasionally, I use Bt. on only a few plants, and I pull weeds all the time. I don’t use broad spectrum anything in the garden and haven’t for the last twenty-five years. Gardening takes a lot of daily maintenance, and my garden gets out of control just like everyone else’s. It’s only show ready on show day.

The always delicate Snowberry Clearwing moth on Phlox paniculata 'Bright Eyes.' Pollinators prefer 'Bright Eyes' over the heirloom pink phlox probably because of the "eye."
The always delicate Snowberry Clearwing moth on Phlox paniculata ‘Bright Eyes.’ Here, pollinators prefer ‘Bright Eyes’ over the heirloom pink phlox probably because of the “eye.”

Butterflies and moths need food for their children (larvae) and nectar for the adults. Male butterflies need shallow, wet depressions to congregate and gather salts for mating. They are quite aggressive for such delicate little creatures. I watched some sulphur butterflies today as they swooped and spun in the sky. It was magical, and you can’t buy that kind of magic for any price.

Pink crapemyrtle and blackeyed Susans, 'Goldsturm'
Pink crapemyrtle and blackeyed Susans, ‘Goldsturm.’

I have a very messy garden now, and its condition fluctuates as the weather does. If we get rain, the plants expand and fill the space. If the temperature rises above 100F, plants shed extra leaves and shrink in upon themselves. This used to worry me, but after the summer of 2011, not so much. Yes, the daylily clumps look forlorn in July and August after several days above 104F, but they will be fine as soon as temperatures moderate. We even had rain yesterday morning so some of my photos are full of water droplets. Later, the sun came out, and I ran to capture photos of my beloved visitors.

Pots on the deck in the rain.
Pots on the deck in the rain.

You see, pollinators, even the stinging ones, mean more to me than most of my plants anymore. That may mean I’ll neglect planting the fuzzy black-eyed Susans next year, or maybe I’ll plant them again. It’s hard to say. I love what they bring to the table as much as I love Rudbeckia fulgida var. sullivantii ‘Goldsturm.’

Tiered borders in the back garden and the potager and greenhouse.
Tiered borders in the back garden and the potager and greenhouse.

I guess I’m also saying that if you want Swallowtail butterflies, you need to plant what they and their children want to eat. That all depends upon which type of swallowtail you’re wanting to attract and what types are in your area. Here is a list of butterflies common to Oklahoma from the Butterflies of the World Foundation. So, if you’re wanting to attract the Spicebush Swallowtail, for example, you should plant some shrubs in the Lauraceae family like Lindera benzoin, common spicebush, or Sassafras albidum. If you grow a variety of nectar plants like Phlox paniculata, Echinacea purpurea or E. pallida, or the aforementioned black-eyed Susans, you should have the adults covered. Try to grow nectar plants that bloom for a long time, and those that bloom in different seasons to make sure you have enough nectar throughout different butterfly lifecycles. This is one reason I’m so passionate about garden mums and asters, both true asters and Symphyotrichum spp., our native plants still commonly known as asters. These late bloomers peak in September and October and should be part of every garden. They are also so easy to grow.

Zinnia elegans in the cutting and vegetable garden.
Zinnia elegans in the cutting and vegetable garden. They really are elegant.

One of the easiest summer flowers to grow from seed is Zinnia elegansI can hear you groaning from here. I know zinnias get mildew, but if they are grown in a sunny spot (all-day blazing sun), they don’t get it in Oklahoma until the end of summer, and, in the meantime, what a show. Although it’s not best to water them with sprinklers, the ones shown above were, and they still don’t have any mildew. Standing in the middle of this butterfly haven, I felt honored to be there as bumblebees, butterflies and carpenter bees all worked so feverishly. Hopefully, the butterflies will drink their fill and then lay eggs on some of the plants I grow specifically for them like parsley, dill, fennel and butterfly weed. I’ve also been adding numerous native shrubs to help butterflies and other insect species. Don’t forget cosmos either. Super easy to grow. I put them in a cutting garden this year.

You wouldn't think cosmos could hold up a bumblebee, but they definitely do. They are so easy to grow from seed.
You wouldn’t think cosmos could hold up a bumblebee, but they definitely do. They are so easy to grow from seed.

I think more and more about layering my very messy garden with all the good things insects like to eat, except the grasshoppers of course. I still hate them, and they find plenty to eat in my garden all by themselves. I already grow many native perennials, but I needed more shrubs and trees. If you’d like to read more about layering in the garden and how it affects birds and insects, read The Living Landscape: Designing for Beauty and Biodiversity in the Home Garden, by Rick Darke and Doug Tallamy and The Layered Garden: Design Lessons for Year-Round Beauty from Brandywine Cottage, by David Culp. Both are excellent. I turn to them again and again.

Happy Bloom Day dear friends. Thank you Carol from May Dreams Gardens for sponsoring Bloom Day every month on the 15th. I appreciate the opportunity to share.



  1. thefolia says:

    I stepped on a bee too…gorgeous photos…happy gardening!

  2. Stephanie G Hoffman says:

    There are times I can’t even count all the different winged creatures in my untidy mess of a garden. The variety of wasp and bees is amazing. Some people freak out walking in my garden because of all the wasp. They cant seem to understand, like you say that they aren’t, in the least, interested in them. I grow many host plants for my flying painted beauties. I really enjoyed your article. I do my best to help others understand and grow host plants for butterflies. The Monarch’s really need our help. Happy Gardening.

  3. I am also crazy about the butterflies in my garden, so I certainly enjoyed my favorite topic here. I wrote a similar post for an online mag I’ve been working with, so I was nodding along! I do scatter zinnias about in my garden, but now I’m longing for a cutting garden. The veggie garden is getting an update from hubs this fall, I’m wondering if we could squeeze in an area just like that. Hmmmm.

  4. The gorgeous colors are such a pleasure this time of year; I love the bees and butterfly’s that posed for you.

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Thank you so much Charlie. Hope your summer is beautiful too.

  5. Ray says:

    I eventually discovered that tidy = boring. Give me the wild unpredictable garden that have something to hold my interest. I discovered by accident over time that a garden is more than plants – it grows the (6-legged and 8-leggest and 4-winged) inhabitants, too. That makes them interesting.

  6. Aisling says:

    There you are! I was having trouble finding your blog! I think I kept entering it with a blog spot addy, like mine and I got a short page with your pic, but no posts. Thank you for visiting my Quiet Country House. So glad to reconnect!

  7. Rose says:

    I love this post, but the sentence that really hit home for me was that butterflies like an “untidy mess of a garden.” You’ve just made my day, Dee–I am finally doing something right! Your garden looks anything but messy and is so colorful for this hot August. I’m an insect convert, too, but I’m still trying to convince my granddaughter that all those bees buzzing around my garden are so engrossed with the flowers that they are not going to even look at her:)

  8. vwgarden says:

    We have been enjoying the pollinators here as well! Lots of honey and other types of bees, giant fuzzy bumblebees, all sorts of wasps (some more welcome than others), hummingbirds and several types of butterflies. They certainly add magic to the garden.

    1. Dee Nash says:

      VW, I think they’re the best part. All that busy activity. All that fluttering.

  9. Kathy Sturr says:

    Oh, I love that you are doing better now Dee. I love that I can hear my garden as well as gaze upon it. I was inspired by Douglas Tallamy’s book “Bringing Nature Home” years ago, and have not gardened the same since. To say my garden gets out of control is putting it very mildly. I want to get out there, I do, but it is hot here and humid and I am tired of stinking and sweating. I don’t know how you do it! Such a beautiful, lively garden you have Dee. I love watching the butterflies swirl together up to the sky …

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Hi Kathy, I also read Bringing Nature Home by Doug Tallamy. I liked it very much, but I’d already begun the change by then. Now, I’m even thinking more about layering in the landscape and how much it helps the birds. That’s what makes gardening fun. Oh, don’t get the idea I’m out there all day everyday. I took a whole two weeks off when it was over 100F. I just couldn’t make myself do anything except keep the fountains going and water the occasional pot. Now, it’s cooler, and I’ve been spending mornings working.

      1. Kathy Sturr says:

        Oh, have you read the Layered Garden by David Culp? I love love love that book and need to add it to my library! Also, Doug’s new book “The Living Landscape” discusses “layering” in detail. Very inspirational. I am glad to hear that you don’t work in that heat – I was going to weed this weekend but it was really hot (for here) and I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. I planted some plants in a pot that I was going to put directly in the garden but don’t have the energy to clear a space for them – so into a pot they went – at least they are happier. That was the extent of my gardening ha ha.

        1. Dee Nash says:

          Hi Kathy, yes, I have linked to it here before. I love that book too. Great choice! I don’t do any weeding when it’s too hot. I just wait and tell myself the plants aren’t growing that much.

  10. I love your messy garden. I am sure you speak for many gardeners that began as chemical dispensers and have ended up with the most healthy beautiful gardens when they found that the chemicals only sterilize their gardens. Happy GBBD.

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Hi Lisa, I hope so. I want others to find a way to cut back or cut out chemical use. I didn’t know any better back then, and while we have more information now, the stores still have rows and rows of sterilizing agents. Happy GBBD to you too Lisa.

  11. Good questions! I guess it wasn’t until the past decade or so that I chose specific plants for pollinators. When the kids were very little, I was a freelance writer and stay-at-home mom, so I could putter around the garden while they played in the sandbox. When they were in school and I was working full-time, I didn’t have enough time in the garden. Since they’ve gone off to college and as I’ve been blogging during the past few years, I’ve become much more aware of specific plants that benefit pollinators. It’s quite fun to see which plants they prefer, and to learn which plants are larval hosts. Good post! Happy GBBD!

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Hi Beth, your work course was very similar to mine. I worked though when mine were little for awhile anyway, and I didn’t have much time. Now, I have more time than before. I sometimes wish I could go back and plant more sunflowers houses–maybe with grandchildren one day.

  12. You’re right. I don’t think about attracting insects, but I am happy when I see them in my garden.

    1. Dee Nash says:

      I didn’t think about them much either until I began to notice them.

  13. Lea says:

    And I love the quote from Maya Angelou. It can be, and should be, applied to every aspect of life
    Happy Garden Bloggers’ Bloom Day!

  14. Jen Y says:

    You sure haven’t taken me on any horticultural guilt trip. I’m one of the laziest gardeners around & the pollinators benefit from it. I plant & water, weed occasionally, rarely deadhead – the birds love that part – & view it all through rose colored glassed.

    I used to feel guilty for the messy state of my garden but as I’ve aged I’ve learned to enjoy the blooms & all the wildlife they bring. The weeds even draw some fun things as well though I do try to keep them under control.

    Love your garden.

    1. Dee Nash says:

      You’re a smart woman Jen. We all need to take time to stop and enjoy the garden and not just work ourselves to death.

  15. Great blooms and wonderful advice for attracting pollinators.

  16. Patsybell says:

    I always learn from your beautiful posts.

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Thank you so much Patsy.

  17. Robin Ripley says:

    What a great post, Dee. We all do learn as we go and, as you say, do better. You’re obviously doing very well!

  18. fanofpawleys says:

    Miss Dee your blog is always my “fresh start to the day”! I love that you make us think about pollinators and you have a great list of research books to turn to.

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Thank you so much. You made my day!

  19. indygardener says:

    A wonderful, insightful post, Dee. Thanks for joining in and for promoting gardening for all bugs, and flowers, too.

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Thank you Carol for hosting us each month.

Comments are closed.