With such a short growing season, Minnesota gardeners may consider it a personal challenge to have something blooming all season long. But for pollinators seeking season-long blooms, it’s a matter of survival: Flowers equal food.
Everyone benefits when savvy gardeners master the skill of providing flowers for both beauty and food source from frost to frost.
Bees, butterflies and other pollinators are suffering from a number of issues including pesticides and parasites, but habitat loss is right at the top of the list. Gardeners have the unique opportunity to make up for some of the deficit by creating pollinator-friendly gardens. And unlike writing a check or signing an online petition, this is change you can make and see right under your nose, right in your own backyard (or front yard).
To truly understand the importance of spring-to-fall food sources for pollinators, think of it in human terms: Imagine if your only grocery store shut down randomly for weeks at a time several times a year. That’s what it’s like when flowers are scarce within a pollinator’s limited flight range, sometimes as little as 500 feet.
Pollinators can emerge in spring looking for sustenance, only to find a dearth of blooms. The art of choreographing spring-blooming flowers is often complicated by our fickle weather when winter can hang on well into May. So many northern gardeners sit this one out.
Rethink this temperamental time and consider planting native ephemerals like hepatica, bloodroot and trout lily; they may be short-lived but they are long on charm and just what pollinators need in the moment. And they give hope to gardeners as we squint to see some sort of plant life peeking from the earth.
Late spring is another time when the garden goes into a lull before the easy and plentiful blooms of summer begin. Mind the gap with bleeding hearts, iris, Virginia bluebells, ornamental alliums (‘Purple Sensation’, which bees adorn like jewelry), coral bells and foamflower. Some of these plants tend to fade away as they go dormant, making way for the next wave of color.
Once summer is underway, take note of which plants in your garden seem especially popular with pollinators. Add more of these. Large swaths of one flower type provide greater visual impact, as well as making foraging easier since pollinators don’t have to expend extra energy traveling back and forth.
Rather than lots of onesies and twosies of lots of different varieties, look to larger groups of double or triple combos of long-blooming guaranteed pollinator favorites like coreopsis/butterfly weed or monarda/globe thistle/liatris (I can’t say enough about Liatris ligulistylis) or coneflower/yarrow/Russian sage.
Don’t give up once summer seems to be on the wane; some of those late-summer bloomers have the greatest appeal to pollinators. Aster, goldenrod, helenium, helianthus (my favorite: ‘Lemon Queen’), Joe Pye weed, turtlehead and Japanese anemones will see you through, with last-gasp gorgeous colors and covered with more bees and butterflies than you can believe.
Look beyond the perennial patch when it comes to orchestrating a full spectrum of blooms. Flowering trees, shrubs, vines and ground covers count, too.
Cheap and cheerful old-fashioned pollinator-approved annuals like zinnias, cosmos, sunflowers, poppies and nasturtiums are easily grown from seed, and once again will make up for any letup in the perennial parade.
Herbs are a smart and savory way to fill in the holes in your flowering sequence. Lots of herbs like lavender, anise hyssop and basil (go big with ‘African Blue’) have ornamental qualities in addition to their culinary use, and pollinators are all about them.
It may take a few years to achieve this full-flowered style, taking into account the vagaries of the weather, certain flower variety quirks and individual garden conditions. There are a few tricks to extend bloom times like cutting back for rebloom or pinching to delay bloom times in some circumstances.
Look to other gardens in your neighborhood for clues to reliable bloom times and good-looking flower combinations. Botanical gardens, like our very own Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, are a wonderful resource for this type of “in-the-field” research. And of course garden center displays highlight attractive combos at peak of bloom.
Observe and document the results of your season-long flower challenge for future reference, either in a garden journal or smartphone for a “real time” record of what’s happening in your garden. Then take up bee and butterfly watching (it’s the new bird-watching) and learn to ID the different species that visit your garden.
Rhonda Fleming Hayes is a Minneapolis-based garden writer who blogs at thegardenbuzz.com. She is the author of “Pollinator-Friendly Gardening: Gardening for Bees, Butterflies and Other Pollinators,” available at Amazon.com.plt