Bee/Pollinator garden

Asked June 7, 2019, 6:18 PM EDT

Hello! I'm getting ready to plant a nearly 30 foot long garden bed in a terrace on the edge of my front lawn (overlooking a neighborhood sidewalk). I'm looking for information/advice for planting perennial, bee and butterfly friendly plants.

So far my list includes: giant hyssop agastache (lavender variety?), moss phlox, goldenrod, cheyenne spirit echinacea. From what I can tell, these are all very friendly to pollinators in terms of nectar and pollen, except perhaps moss phlox - not sure how helpful that one is, but it provides nice ground cover. This also seems to cover the flowering seasons from spring, summer, and late summer/early fall.

I'd love to hear feedback on whether phlox is a good one to include or if there's a better ground cover option. Any other things to beware of, such as whether any of these would be less friendly to native bees, avoiding hybrid plants, etc?


Denver County Colorado

5 Responses

The moss phlox blooms early so depending on weather, pollinators may or may not be active. However, it's a beautiful plant and a great addition to any garden.

Here is brochure put together by the Colorado Native Plant Society which provides a great list of plants and the species that benefit from them:

Hello, thanks for the response. That is a wonderful and amazing resource! I have since done a lot of research and have a good list of plants I'm interested in using. However, I do still have one area of doubt. I cannot seem to find consistent information about whether bees and other pollinators really prefer heirloom plants as opposed to cultivars or hybrids. It's also difficult to tell when shopping which plants are indeed the native or which are the native species, which are cultivars and which are hybrids.

For example, I'm my garden I am specifically debating:
- native bee balm/wild bergamot vs showier varieties
- anise hyssop vs Sonoran Sunset (blooms longer, showier)
- native goldenrod (can be invasive) vs goldenrod Crown of Rays

Is there a general rule for pollinators about using heirloom plants, varieties, cultivars and hybrids? Or does it depend on the plant?

Thank you!

This is a big subject. Definitions vary but heirloom generally refers to plants that were introduced more than 50 years ago that come true from seed. It's often used in connection with vegetables. A hybrid is the progeny of two different varieties that requires a breeder to transfer pollen from one plant to the stigma of the other plant (ie. cross-pollination). A cultivar is a 'cultivated variety' meaning some breeder has selected a plant for a particular trait (e.g. bigger flowers, better flavor or whatever) and propagated it. The terms don't speak to whether the plant is better or worse for pollinators.
The only way to tell whether a plant is 'native' or not is by reading the tag, knowing a little botanical nomenclature, and having a little knowledge. 'Native' by itself is a very broad term. To be helpful, one needs to know native to what -- region? America? etc. There are authoritative texts and resources that denote nativity and in many instances, one has to look it up. Some savvy sellers mark plants with a symbol or an icon to designate the plant is beneficial to pollinators or is a native but that's hit or miss.

Many native plant buffs argue that native plants (meaning regional natives) evolved with native birds and insects so therefore they are superior to non-natives however, not everyone would agree. I happen to be an avid native plant gardener but I have Foxtail lilies (Eremus) blooming in my garden right now (a non-native) and they are loaded with bees and I love them.

As for the plants you listed, the key is don't overthink it! They are all good plants; which you choose depends on your aesthetic, availability your site conditions, etc.; some will make it, some won't and you will continually be replacing, revising and generally, trying different things to find out what works best. If you shoot for a mix of species so you have blooms throughout the season and try to avoid the use of pesticides, your garden will be lovely and attractive and beneficial to pollinators and birds.

Don't overthink it - that is great advice! Thank you for all of that.

Another difficult to answer question - providing bee habitat. I understand that many native and wild bees burrow and nest in the soil. For this reason I am considering whether perhaps I should forgoe the use of weed guard/landscaping fabric. Since my flower bed is elevated a few feet above the sidewalk, I am cautiously hopeful that weed seeds etc blowing in may not be a huge problem, but I know this depends on the site and what is growing around me.

My question would be: how beneficial would it be for pollinators to allow bare soil between plants rather than weed guard and mulch? Or would barrels of dirt or sand and bee houses elsewhere nearby be sufficient?


When the garden is first planted and there is a lot of open ground, a light dusting of an organic mulch will help to suppress weeds and retain moisture; not laying it to thickly should give ground-nesting bees plenty of opportunity. Eventually if the beds are planted closely enough, the plants at maturity will mulch themselves. I am not a fan of landscape fabric and would encourage you to avoid it. I also would recommend not using sand anywhere as sand mixed with clay soil makes adobe.