Bees, Butterflies, and Birds: How to Welcome Flying Friends Into Your Garden

After years of urban and apartment dwelling, I finally moved into a real house with a real backyard. I knew I wanted to create an environment that would attract birds, bees and butterflies and so the seeds of this article were planted.

Here in the Pacific Northwest (as in many parts of the country), blackberry and raspberry bushes abound – they’ll easily take over your yard. Clearing them back or confining them to a designated section of fence can open your yard up and increase the amount of sun and space available to you. But don’t get rid of them entirely! Birds love berries, and a small patch can keep a flock happy for days. A key element to attracting wildlife is a reliable water source. My yard isn’t big enough for a ‘water feature’ – a pond or waterfall – but I hung a birdbath in a shady, protected, corner and make a point of changing the water every few days and refilling it daily during the summer. Most people have room for a birdbath, whether standing amidst a bed of wildflowers, or hanging from a fence or porch.

Like many gardeners, I prefer to cultivate a mix of perennials and annuals, leaning more towards the plants that renew themselves naturally, gradually decreasing the amount of time I have to spend putting in and taking out plants. Old-fashioned roses have a gorgeous scent, and love to climb the fence, softening the lines that mark the boundaries of the yard. I particularly like ‘Gallica roses’ which are an Old World rose hybrid. They produce a long-lasting and spectacular show of pick, red, or purple flowers through the summer with a heady fragrance. Bees love them. Another section of fence boasts a covering of clematis (clematis jackmanii) which boasts large dark purple blooms that the butterflies and bees particularly love.

Lilies are easy to grow and propagate on their own, providing an ever-renewing and expanding collection of plants that honeybees love. Daylilies (Hemerocallis) are hardy, drought-tolerant, and come in a variety of colors; a particular favorite in our household is the Stargazer lily (Lilium stargazer), which has an intense fragrance and bloom in mid to late summer. Most years we don’t even bother to take the bulbs out of the ground, but leave them overwinter and watch them bloom again the following year. A border that includes Queen Anne’s Lace (dacucus carota), lilies, Echinacea (I especially like the purple ones, Echinacea purpurea), and sweet alyssum (Lobularia maritima) is a fragrant and pollen-filled welcome for bees and butterflies.

In a shady area, the stalwart hosta (Hosta plantaginea has a wonderful fragrance), grows beautifully along with Siberian iris (Iris sibirica), vinca (both major and minor), astilbe, azalea, and crocosmia (Crocosmia aurea). This garden will grow well and attract our flying friends, expanding the possibilities of your garden.

Other plants the bees and butterflies will love are some of the most common found in gardens: hydrangea, which produce flowers from early spring to late autumn; spring-blooming violets (viola); rosemary (severn sea is a spreading cultivar with deep violet flowers); lilac (Syringa) which is used as a food plant by several species of butterfly; honeysuckle (lonicera); and sweet-scented, night-blooming jasmine. Not as common, but my absolute favorite plant for bees and butterflies, is the gorgeous buddleja (often mis-spelled as buddleia). Appropriately, its common name is Butterfly Bush and there are nearly 100 species, the most popular of which produce white, pink and purple flowers. Zebra Longwing butterflies find buddleja flowers irresitable.

Slightly more exotic plants that feed the bees and butterflies include lamb’s ears (Stachys byzantina); black-eyed susans (rudbeckia); the evocatively named love-in-a-mist (nigella) and dragon’s blood sedum (sedum spurium); blue bugle (ajuga genevensis); and smokebush (cotinus coggygria). If you don’t have allergies, planting goldenrod (solidage) will provide a bright spike of yellow, and bees make a spicy-tasting honey from it. Fleabane (erigeron philadelphicus), a relative of the Aster, does well in the Northeast, producing feathery pink or white flowers. Spiderwort (tradescantia) is native to the United States, although more rarely found in the West and Northwest. Bee balm (monarda) produces wildly varying flower colors ranging from crimson red to deep purple and is also known as bergamot. Bright yellow coreopsis (Florida’s state flower) blooms from June through August, and leaves seeds for songbirds to enjoy during the winter.

Butterflies are attracted as much by bright colors as by taste, and they prefer yellow, purple, and pink flowers. Providing a broad variety of flowers will call them to your garden. They start appearing in your garden as soon as nectar is produced, which can be as early as March, depending on the climate. Feed these early visitors with spring-blooming shrubs, such as lilac, weigela, and witch hazel (hamamelis).

Early spring is the most important time to feed birds, because the natural food supplies are at their lowest. Even if you don’t otherwise, this is a good time to stock bird feeders with the seed they most prefer. (This will vary by species and habitat, so ask at your local garden center or use the oracle of Google.) Suspending feeders between trees increases bird’s protection from predators, and keeps squirrels from eating it all. The rest of the year, birds will forage on insects, seeds, and fruit.

Flowers whose seeds are especially attractive to birds include aster, bluebell (campanula rotundfolia), coneflowers (which include Echinacea), dianthus, four-o’-clock (mirabilis jalapa), gaillardia, delphinium or larkspur, sunflowers, marigolds, and zinnias.

Ground covers provide insect homes, a haven for earthworms, and a rich diet for hungry birds. Ivy (hedera) and ferns (Pteridophyta) are beautiful to look at, easy to care for, and help keep your hillside soil stable. Pachysandra is especially popular on the East Coast, tolerating cold winters and humid summers with ease. Bugleweed (Ajuga) shows bright blue flower spires in the spring, and vinca produces multiple waves of soft purple flowers that provide an early food source. I like mint (Lamiaceae), although it needs to be watched carefully so that is doesn’t take over the whole garden. Sweet woodruff (galium odoratum), verbena and thyme are other favorite groundcovers.

Adding to your garden’s perennial beauty, nectar-rich annuals attract butterflies and bees as soon as their flowers open. Zinnia (especially suited for the Northeast), cosmos (native to the southwestern United States), and Mexican Sunflowers (tithonia) are butterfly favorites. Marigolds, cosmos, and salvia are also food sources for a wide range of butterflies. Annuals keep your garden in continual bloom, providing color, fragrance and a unending source of food for bees, butterflies, and birds. Keep clipping blooms as they fade to encourage new flowers, but late in the season just let the flowers dry to preserve their seeds for winter birds.

A garden setting that attracts birds, bees, and butterflies doesn’t have to be purely ornamental. Black swallowtail caterpillars, for example, happily feast on the leaves of parsley, carrot, fennel, and dill. Other herbs you could include in your garden are: yarrow, mint, chamomile, borage, chive, sweet basil, comfrey, and lavender.

I hope it goes without saying that avoiding the use of any chemical pesticides is strongly advised. Most garden problems can be solved with organic or natural solutions; a little research can provide a wealth of answers. Remember too that the caterpillars munching your leaves today are tomorrow’s butterflies. If they are eating your cabbages down to the ground, try planting nasturtiums nearby to lure egg-laying butterflies away. Onions, thyme, or wormwood have strong scents that can keep caterpillars away from your edible plants.

Finally, I suggest that you research the plants native to your area and see how you can incorporate them into your landscape. Native plants are what will best attract the birds and butterflies in your area as it is their original diet. Native species are best accustomed to the area’s weather, soil type, and moisture levels. Once established, most native plants need very little coddling and often do well in areas where other species fail.

Creating a garden that attracts butterflies, bees, and birds is a simple way to create a wonderful place to spend time for many years. Plan a viewing area and you’ll have hours of entertainment year after year.


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