Why did we create this toolkit?
Our environment is at risk because of precipitous declines in habitat, native plants and the insects, birds, and other animals that depend on those plants. The pollinators that are an essential part of making the whole system work are in serious decline.
The toolkit contains information about the problem and some easy steps you can take to help alleviate it—while creating a fascinating and vibrant garden at the same time.
The toolkit focuses exclusively on native plants that attract pollinators.
- Native plants are important because they co-evolved with the creatures that pollinate them. Non-native species, which are most of the plants you find at most nurseries, don’t provide the same high-quality resources for the pollinators—and often do not even attract them.
- Pollinators help plants to reproduce and, in turn, are fed by those plants and then provide food for birds and other animals. This cross-fertilization provided by pollinators results in the genetic biodiversity necessary for a healthy planet.
The popular book Nature’s Best Hope, written by wildlife ecology professor Douglas Tallamy, is subtitled A New Approach to Conservation That Starts in Your Yard. Dr. Tallamy explains that we should make our yards into parts of a collective wildlife web or network to provide the wildlife habitat that is vanishing throughout the world.
“Envision your property,” he writes, “as one small piece of a giant puzzle, which, when assembled, has the potential to form a beautiful ecological picture . . . In the past, we have asked one thing of our gardens: that they be pretty. Now they have to support life, sequester carbon, feed pollinators and manage water. We can work together to be “Nature’s Best Hope” by creating native plant gardens that support the pollinators we need.”
Who are our local pollinators?
Although non-native honeybees (which we imported from Europe) are the biggest pollinators of agricultural crops, it is our solitary native bumblebees that do most of the work pollinating our gardens, and they are at great risk.
Bumblebee expert Professor Robert Gegear notes that the number of native bumblebee species in Massachusetts “has dropped from 11 to 7, with three of the seven . . . in danger of being extirpated from the state in the next decade should current trends continue.”
The bumblebees are at risk for several reasons. One of the most important is that each species depends on a specific group of plants to provide pollen and nectar. Without those specific native plants, the bees will not survive.
While native bees do most of the pollination, there also are many other pollinators: butterflies, moths, other insects, and bats. The Mass Audubon Society provides a brief introduction to those other pollinators.
What can I do to bring our local pollinators to my garden?
- Plant native plants.
- Create good habitat.
- Look for plants that aren’t sterile, i.e., those cultivated to have double blooms instead of reproductive parts.
- Avoid plants grown with neonic pesticides because the chemicals remain in the plants and kill pollinators. (Nurseries usually identify neonic-free plants.)
What plants will attract pollinators?
The following six charts present a selection of native perennials, shrubs, vines, and trees for sunny, partly sunny, or shady gardens in our area. The charts also indicate what type of pollinators are attracted to each plant and the type of soil in which they grow best.
The links below take you to the charts. If you click on the name of each plant in the charts, you will see a photo of it. Have fun perusing them!
- Pollinator Friendly Perennials for Mostly Sunny Gardens
- Pollinator Friendly Perennials for Part Sun/Part Shade Gardens
- Pollinator Friendly Perennials for Mostly Shady Gardens
- Pollinator Friendly Shrubs
- Pollinator Friendly Vines
- Pollinator Friendly Trees
Where can I buy native pollinator plants?
Once you have decided what plants you’d like to grow in your garden, it’s time to figure out where to get them. There is an increasing number of good sources available for gardeners.
Two nonprofit organizations in our area conduct native plant sales each year. Through those sales, you should be able to find most of the plants in the Toolkit charts.
Throughout the growing season, you can find native plants at these local nurseries:
- Blue Stem Natives in Norwell specializes in growing native plants from seed so as to encourage genetic diversity, and grows only straight-species, no cultivars.
- Garden in the Woods in Framingham has a great selection of native plants, many grown at their Nasami Farm in the Connecticut River Valley.
- Russell’s Garden Center in Wayland has an extensive native plants section, many from Van Berkum Nurseries, which does not use neonic pesticides on their stock.
- Weston Nurseries in Hopkinton and Lincoln includes many native plants in their large selection.
- Prairie Moon Nursery and Prairie Nursery sell native plants and seeds (Not all of their plants are native to eastern Massachusetts. Their website provide useful information for gardeners.)
- Ernst Seed grows and sells hundreds of species of native and naturalized seeds and live plant materials for sustainable gardening.
- Wild Seed Project of Portland Maine sells seeds for 75 species that are native to Maine, and many of them are native to our region, too.
What if I want to grow the plants from seed?
Sowing seeds is a great way to generate native plants at a low cost. You can buy seed from one of the sources listed above or collect it from local plants. Please note: if you collect seed from public land, you should never take more than 10% of the seed from any plant, and you should ask permission of the landowner.
However, success often is not as simple as putting a seed in the ground and have a seedling appear a week or two later. Many plants native to our region evolved to require exposure to a New England winter (with fluctuating cold temperatures over a period of months) before they will sprout in the spring. During those months, they may be become food for birds, rodents or other creatures or be washed away by rain or melting snow. Sowing seed in protected containers (such as gallon milk jugs) creates an environment that enables many more seeds to sprout and survive until spring.
You can learn winter seed sowing by attending a local workshop. The Wild Seed Project, a nonprofit organization in Maine dedicated to growing native plants from seed, provides excellent information on the process. Their recording of Heather McCargo’s Seed Sowing 101 is a good place to start. The Audubon Society of Maryland also has a helpful Winter Sowing video.
How can I support pollinators all year long?
Pollinators need good host plants to lay their eggs on and other flowering plants for pollen and nectar, but they also need good homes in your yard throughout the year. Here are some tips for creating good habitat for them.
- Avoid using harmful chemicals on your property. The pesticides you use to kill “bad” insects also will kill the pollinators—as will herbicides you use on your lawn. Once your native plant garden is established, other insects and the birds they attract will help to maintain a healthy balance in your yard. The chemical fertilizers used on lawns can harm the native plants, which evolved to grow in low-fertility native soil.
- Provide a source of fresh water. All living creatures need water. The best source of water is a bird bath or other small dish with a small fountain in it.
- Consider leaving some bare soil or sections of duff (decomposing leaf litter) somewhere in your yard. Most native bees live underground.
- Rake your lawn if you feel that’s necessary, but don’t rake your garden beds. Leave the leaves. Leaf litter provides winter homes for bees and caterpillars.
- Leave stalks of your plants (especially those with hollow stems or remaining seed pods on top) over the winter. They provide good homes for pollinators. (And birds will enjoy the seeds as well.)
- Hold off on spring cleanup until temperatures are consistently (for at least 5 days) over 50 degrees. The bees and caterpillars overwintering in leaf litter and hollow stems need a chance to emerge.
- Mow your lawn less often, and set the mower level higher. Letting grass grow taller discourages weeds.
What else should I know about creating a pollinator garden?
- Bumblebees are much less likely to sting than honeybees. They do not form swarms as do honeybees, and they sting only when truly provoked.
- Don’t be afraid of planting goldenrod. It does not make people sneeze! That’s a common misconception, probably because it is confused with ragweed, which blooms at the same time. There are many types of native goldenrod, all wonderful and all extremely valuable to pollinators.
- It’s great to start with a small plot or even just a container. You don’t need to turn your whole yard into a native plant paradise. Consider converting a small portion of your lawn into a pollinator garden.
- Choose plants so that something is in bloom throughout the growing season, providing constant food for pollinators.
- Plant the native species and not the cultivars that horticulturalists have developed but that usually are not as attractive to pollinators. (Usually, you can recognize cultivars because they have additional parts to their names, such as Rudbeckia ‘Autumn Sun.’)
- Plant at least three to five of each plant to make a patch large enough for pollinators to locate them.
- All new plants need to be watered for their first year. Eventually, your native plants will need less attention than exotic (non-native) plants—because they evolved to be suited to our environment.
- Have fun with your garden. Experiment with the selection and placement of your plants. Many plants that prefer sunny exposures will do well in partly sunny locations. Wetland plants often thrive in hard-packed urban soil—because both are low-oxygen settings.
Where can I find more information?
William Cullina. Native Trees, Shrubs, and Vines: A Guide to Using, Growing, and Propagating North American Plants. (2002)
Rick Darke and Douglas W. Tallamy. The Living Landscape: Designing for Beauty and Biodiversity in the Home Garden. (2014)
Heather Holm. Pollinators of Native Plants. (2014)
Heather Holm. Bees: An Identification and Native Plant Forage Guide. (2017)
Mark Richardson and Dan Jaffe. Native Plants for New England Gardens. (2018)
Donald J. Leopold. Native Plants of the Northeast: A Guide for Gardening & Conservation. (2005)
Uli Lorimer. The Northeast Native Plant Primer. (2022)
Douglas W. Tallamy. Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants. (2009)
Douglas W. Tallamy. Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation That Starts in Your Yard. (2020)
Douglas W. Tallamy. The Nature of Oaks. (2021)
Grow Native Massachusetts is a nonprofit that advocates for native plant landscapes across the Commonwealth. The website includes information about their great educational programs.
Homegrown National Park, Dr. Douglas Tallamy’s new website, presents a call-to-action to restore biodiversity and ecosystem function by planting native plants and creating new ecological networks.
Native Plant Trust, a 120-year-old organization, is dedicated to conserving and promoting New England’s native plants. Its website contains a wealth of information and a Garden Plant Finder. Its GoBotany feature is the ultimate authority on plants native to New England.
The Beecology Project is run by UMass Dartmouth bee ecologist Dr. Robert Gegear. His website contains information about pollinators and also recruits citizen scientists from across the region to collect and submit ecological data on native pollinator species using the project’s smartphone and web apps. Dr. Gegear’s website contains a list of plants that are most beneficial to endangered native bees and butterflies in our region of New England.
Demonstration pollinator garden
While working on the Pollinator Toolkit, we realized that it would be helpful for people to see a working example. Wonderfully, the Mayor’s office and the Parks, Recreation & Culture department granted permission for us to create a demonstration pollinator garden at City Hall—just on your left as you turn into City Hall from Homer Street. A generous grant from Newton Conservators enabled us to buy plants for the garden.
We planted the demo garden late in May 2021. You can see updates on the Newton Community Pollinator Project Facebook page. If you have questions, please send them to us at email@example.com.
Please stop by to see what’s going on in the demonstration garden. And have fun using the Toolkit as you work on your own pollinator gardens! Our gardens and container plantings can be both beautiful and life sustaining to the pollinators on which our environment depends.