Eugene Magazine recently got on the phone with Janet Sluis, a Sunset Western Garden expert, for tips on how to make a yard more pollinator-friendly. Just in time for the spring planting season, here are her top tips for inviting more winged critters into your yard.
Opportunities For Yards That Are Mostly Grass
There’s a lot of opportunity with grass, as it’s really a sinkhole of nothingness as far as sustainability is concerned. When we use a lot of pesticides, chemicals, and water on lawns, we’re getting nothing back from it other than aesthetics. Any time a homeowner can replace even a small part of their lawn with something that is going to help sustain any type of wildlife, whether it’s a pollinator like a bee or a butterfly or bird, that’s a plus in my book for sustainability and helping the environment.
As a country, we’re losing millions of acres each year to new development and that acreage is coming out of mostly meadows and fields that are supplying the nectar and the pollen for these insects. As we develop and take away that open space, we should also be creating some sort of habitat for insects in our urban gardens. If that doesn’t happen, what we are seeing with some of them already on critically endangered species lists will continue.
Incorporating Pollinator- and Butterfly-friendly Gardens for Our Local Climate
Many plants that pollinators thrive on, like milkweed for monarch butterflies, spread aggressively. There’s a reason they are called weeds! So encouraging municipalities to plant some of these types of plants along roadways and in larger spaces might be a better solution than trying to put something that’s going to be really aggressive in a small urban garden. But if you have the space, there are two milkweeds native to Eugene, the showy milkweed and the narrowleaf milkweed.
There are 241 species of butterflies and moths that are indigenous to Lane County. If you visit the Butterflies and Moths website and search for Lane County you can find a list.
I grew up around California swallowtails, which are also native to Lane County. These butterflies are really easy to provide host plants for because their host plants are in the parsley family, especially fennel. So if you have an herb garden and you’re growing parsley, dill, or fennel, just let those plants go to seed.
Nectar Sources Don’t Matter
Butterflies are the same as humans. When we consume sugar, whether it is cane sugar or honey, our body absorbs it the same, and the insects are the same. So if you’re looking for nectar sources, it’s not as important to look at native plants, per se, as it is to look at what plants will give you the biggest amount of nectar for your buck. Many of the newer cultivars of perennials, in particular, are bred to be sterile so we don’t have to worry about them escaping into nature and becoming invasive.
If you have a small amount of space in your garden, choose a plant that will bloom for three or four months, instead of a plant that might only bloom for three or four weeks. Two good examples of that are the ‘Totally Tangerine’ Geum and the ‘Real Goldcup’ Leucanthemum or Shasta daisy. The Geums are native plants, but this one won’t reseed. They will bloom from spring all the way through to the fall. The Leucanthemums are drought-tolerant, and in the Western garden we are always trying to promote plants that are not as thirsty. ‘Real Goldcup’ plants can go with just a once or twice a month watering versus, two or three times a week. These also make good cut flowers.
Plant Things That Will Bloom As Long As Possible
With climate change becoming an increasing problem, what we’re seeing is that weather warms up earlier and then gets cold again, which can be problematic. With butterflies, emergence from their cocoons or chrysalises and when they lay their eggs are temperature related.
So when we have an earlier-warming spring, they all come out of their dormancy and they need flowers to sustain them. If they don’t have flowers in the landscape they’re not going to survive. So go into the garden store and find things that have an earlier or a later bloom. ‘Soft Caress’ Mahonia is a great option. They bloom early, they’re good for all the pollinators. Hummingbirds love them, and they set berries that birds can eat later on. This is a way that what we plant that can bloom early has way more impact than what blooms in the summer because they have more choices that time of year.
Janet Sluis is the Sunset Western Garden Collection‘s plant expert. She wrote a chapter called “How To Plant A Butterfly Garden” in a book that’s available now called The Fallen Stones: Chasing Butterflies, by Diana Marcum. Connect with Janet on Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/janetsluis