In undisturbed landscapes plants are arranged in layers. The tallest layer consists of the canopy trees (ex. Oaks or Maples) that require full sun. Beneath them are the understory trees (ex. Dogwoods or Redbuds) that can grow in part sun conditions. Below these are shrubs (ex. Witch Hazel). The next layer consists of herbaceous plants (ex. Butterfly weed and other perennial flowers). Last is the ground layer which contains leaves, twigs, etc. Each of these layers have evolved to work together as an ecological community to support populations of insects, birds, and animals by providing food and shelter.
Not every garden is large, but pollinator gardens should reflect this ecological community as closely as possible. As long as it is possible, at least four different species of trees and/or shrubs need to be in the garden. Also, at least three different plant species should be host plants.
Another aspect of natural ecological communities is that they provide for pollinators all year long. Perennial flowers bloom from early spring to late fall. Plant stems and leaf litter provide shelter. Therefore, certified pollinator gardens need to provide blooms for each season (spring, summer, and fall) and provide space for pollinators to live. This could be a bare area on the ground, or brush or rock piles, etc. Additionally, a gardener could hold off cleaning up plant material until spring to offer more pollinator shelter.
Besides having blooms available from spring to fall, pollinators need to be able to easily find these plants. It is easier for them to find large groups of flowers. This is accomplished by planting in groups of at least three. At least 3 plants from at least 3 perennial species per each season (spring, summer, and fall—that’s a minimum of 27 plants in total) will create a garden useful to pollinators.
These lists of native plants will assist you in deciding what plants to include in your pollinator garden. The majority of these are native to New York. They evolved here and will best serve to reestablish the ecological community. There are a few plants listed that evolved in the Eastern United States, but not specifically in New York State. They grow well in our climate and can be used as food sources for some pollinators.
Author: Monroe County Master Gardener Pollinator-Friendly Team
Last updated May 11, 2021