Bringing pollinators to the garden: Plantings that create habitat - Sonoma West Publishers : Weekly Discoveries

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Bringing pollinators to the garden: Plantings that create habitat

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Posted: Wednesday, March 28, 2012 3:29 pm

Birds, bees, butterflies and other beneficial insects have particular palates.

So a gracious hostess gives them what they want and in return they grace her garden with their presence.

A variety of plants, trees and shrubs offer food and shelter for these beautiful winged creatures; a bird bath, pond or fountain, gives them a water source. Large rocks can also be added to the mix, and gives butterflies and lizards, too, a place to rest upon and warm up, according to Sonoma County Master Gardener Sandy Metzger, also known as Sandy Baker, author of two children’s gardening books, who calls this “habitat gardening.”

“One of my favorite plants for butterflies is buddleia, also known as a butterfly bush. It attracts many species of butterflies. The monarch, the swallowtail, the buckeye … The minute that bush starts blooming, which is all summer long, it attracts all these different species, so it’s always there for the butterflies,” Metzger said, noting these plants are also very fragrant and their cuttings work well in bouquets.

Butterflies — and bees — also favor yarrow, a drought tolerant plant that has a long bloom cycle and comes in a variety of colors including paprika, terra cotta, yellow, white and lavender.

One reason butterflies like yarrow and buddleia so much is because they need landing pads, Metzger said.

“They don’t hover like hummingbirds do; they need a place to actually stand. A lot of plants such as the purple coneflower, daisies, black-eyed Susan’s … any of the plants like that, whether perennial or annual, that are flat open, butterflies love ’cause they can land on them,” she said.

Lantana, verbena, fanflowers, calibrachoa, and annuals like zinnias and marigolds, also attract butterflies. As do milkweed, blood flower and parsley, referred to as “larval plants” in an article by Garden Gate Magazine, because butterflies like to lay their eggs on them.

Many of the plants that attract butterflies, also attract bees, Metzger said. “Sometimes you will see the bees and the butterflies, kind of competing with each other.”

Asked why she prefers a garden of butterflies, birds, and bees, Metzger said: “Because they are all pollinators. The butterflies and the hummingbirds, when they go to a plant their bodies brush up against the pollen and they take it to the next plant they go to. The bee’s main job is to pollinate, but these other creatures; the butterflies and the hummingbirds are incidental pollinators.”

Butterflies are also beautiful, she said, noting some people refer to them as “flying flowers.”

“They just beautify a garden and when I look at them they just make me happy. Butterflies are magical, they are fantastical, and their colors are brilliant,” she said.

They also appeal to birds, who prey on butterflies, according to Metzger. The good news for some butterflies is that they have their own self-defense mechanism. For example, the monarchs are toxic to birds because they eat milkweed plants, and the buckeye has those two big eye spots on its wings, which if seen by the birds, will scare them away, Metzger said.

Hummingbirds, however, aren’t interested in butterflies. They prefer tubular or trumpet shaped plants. Phygelius, fuchsias, lobelia, trumpet vine, honeysuckle, salvia, phlox, manzanitas that are in bloom, and of course, the color red, all appeal to hummingbirds.

Hummingbirds also like camellias, begonias, and abutilon, according to Carol Mitchel, owner of Grow Gardens in Sebastopol, which carries over 100 varieties of camellias, many of which are very fragrant.

“Camellias also attract bees, especially the ones with the big stamens that create a lot of pollen. A lot of the herbs also bloom and are very good for all the bees and the butterflies,” Mitchel said, referring to oregano, saliva, and thyme for example. Bees also adore roses (again very fragrant), and butterflies like statice, which is also good to use in dried and fresh cut flower arrangements, she said.

“Habitat gardens attract lots of beneficial insects,” Mitchel said, noting she finds them entertaining and also beautiful. “I am a real passionate gardener. I have been since I was a little girl. Gardening feeds your soul, you get exercise, you are out in nature and you create habitats for bees, butterflies, hummingbirds, etc.” she said.

Creating a habitat garden using California natives is Metzger’s preference.

“I try to use a lot of California natives when I can because these creatures have grown-up together with our California native plants. So they are used to the same conditions and they kind of work together. The insects the plants attract are also attracted to our native plants, because they have been here together for eons. The reason I like to use the natives to attract these creatures is because you have good bugs and bad bugs. The good guys take care of the bad guys; they eat them,” she said, noting this natural balance keeps her from needing to use any toxic sprays, which can kill butterflies, among other things.

For the birds

A habitat garden with trees, shrubs, plants and a water source provides birds with shelter, food and h20, among other needs, but there’s nothing like a good old-fashioned store-bought feeder or two to boost bird activity.

In fact, if feeders are placed in secure locations away from predators, like cats, and filled with the right kind of food, bird attendance will rise dramatically, as any backyard birder can attest.

But one type of seed does not serve all.

While a mixture of seeds, especially one that is heavy on the black oil sunflower seeds, will attract a wide variety of songbirds, specific seeds and even feeder styles, will attract specific species.

For example, finch prefer eating nyjer thistle from a tubular feeder with tiny holes, which prevents larger birds from accessing the seed, thus reducing the intimidation factor, according to a magazine called Backyard Birding, from the editors of Wild Bird magazine.

Hummingbirds like sugar water (generally four parts water, to one part sugar) and red food coloring is not required, especially since most feeders are already brightly colored. Orioles also like sugar water, and are attracted to the color orange. They also eat orange slices and jelly, which require a different type of feeder than those made for their sweet beverage.

Western bluebirds will chow down on mealworms, sparrows, white millet … and the menu for a diverse bird population goes on and on.

Birds and Blooms Magazine is also a good source for information, as is the Audubon Society ( and Wild Birds Unlimited in Santa Rosa — a retail store for bird enthusiasts — which also has an informative website at

— Laura McCutcheon

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