Lately the urge to garden has, for some of us—for me, at least—become completely overwhelming. In the community garden near my apartment in Brooklyn, where I’ve planted radishes and tangled with spiked ropes of English ivy, a plot packed with chest-high perennials has started to thrum with sweat bees and bumblebees and other tiny flying insects I can’t identify. Sometimes I sit and stare as they march importantly across the blooms.
Amid an escalating ecological crisis, supporting a diverse habitat—even a very small one—feels crucial and deeply gratifying, even if it can’t on its own fix broken systems. One simple way to do this is by planting what’s known as a "pollinator garden": a space with flowering plants that can feed and shelter bees, beetles, butterflies, moths, wasps, and other animals that transfer pollen from flower to flower.
"They’re important because there aren't that many places for pollinators to live," says Jennifer Hopwood, a senior pollinator conservation specialist at the Xerxes Society for Invertebrate Conservation. "We’ve taken away their homes." For city dwellers without access to a yard or a nearby community space, options for pollinator gardening can appear limited. But you’d be surprised—even one small planter can make a difference, says Hopwood. Once, when she was growing a vine on her fire escape in St. Louis, she saw a leafcutter bee taking leaves from the plant to use for its nest.
"There’s just a lot more happening than we might expect in those small spaces," she says.
If you’re interested in cultivating your own urban pollinator garden, we’ve gathered some tips below to help you get started.
First, you’ll want to decide where you’re planting, and how much sunlight that space gets. Are you blessed with a terrace or a shared rooftop? What about a front stoop with space for planters? An empty window box?
"Sunlight hours and water are the two main determining factors as to what can be planted," says Junior Schouten, head gardener at Brooklyn Grange. Any of the spots above can function as a pollinator garden, but their location and your level of commitment can help you pick the right plants.
For example, "If you have a shady spot, and can’t water regularly, choose shade-loving plants that are drought-tolerant," says Schouten. If you’ve got options, keep in mind that many plants flower best in full sun.
"Humans love the large blooms like roses, dahlias, and peonies," says Schouten. But these don’t provide much nectar or pollen for pollinators. "Pollinators tend to go after smaller or compound flowers and daisy-like flowers with a balled center surrounded by petals—echinacea, asters, cosmos, gaillardia, yarrow, sunflowers."
Choosing plants that are native to your area is often your best bet. "Native pollinators love native plants!" says Schouten—they’ve evolved to have a close, mutually beneficial relationship. In New York City, for example, you might go for milkweed, echinacea, or pycnanthemum ("mountain mint").
That said, some plants that aren’t native to your area may also be beneficial for pollinators (and people, too). If you only have access to shallow window boxes, Schouten suggests growing herbs. "Eat half and let the rest flower," he says. "Native pollinators will flock to cilantro, mint, thyme, and basil flowers."
"No matter how beautiful your garden might be, if it’s exposed to pesticides, it’s a problem for pollinators," says Hopwood.
This is crucial to keep in mind when you’re buying plants or seeds, which may have been treated with pesticides. Pesticides—especially systemic insecticides like neonicotinoids—can kill or injure the pollinators who consume them (and beyond), and can persist in soil for years.
If possible, says Hopwood, head to a native plant producer or a nursery with locally-grown plants. (Farmer’s markets sometimes do the trick, too.) Look for seeds and plants that are USDA Certified Organic, or chat with a knowledgeable staffer about their practices using this Xerxes Society guide.
If you’re serious about supporting pollinators, think about using plants that have long bloom times, or select a variety of plants that will bloom in succession. "This ensures that at any given time, there are flowers blooming and available for pollinators," says Schouten, who notes that pollinators will check back often to see what’s on offer.
And don’t be afraid to leave some dead plant material hanging around. "Some of the stems from plants can be sites for bees or wasps to nest," says Hopwood. If you’re growing a raspberry bush on your terrace, for example, "the older stems from last year can go on to be nests for small carpenter bees."
The fact that these plants can provide habitat in more ways than one, says Hopwood, "is really kind of neat."