29
April
2019

Annuals for Pollinators

 Zoos Best
Diefenbacher Greenhouses works with the Cincinnati Zoo for Zoo’s Best Annuals

If you are serious about pollinator support it’s essential to deploy annuals as part of your working strategy. This is true whether you are designing a butterfly bench at a garden center, building a bee support garden at a park or institution, or simply doing your part as a pollinator-conscious landscaper.

Annuals bring important capabilities to bear:

  • Speed: Annuals grow fast, so they set out pollen and nectar quickly.
  • Duration: As a general rule, annuals have very long blooming seasons, providing food over broad windows of time.
  • Volume: For many annuals there is no tomorrow—success hinges on generating high volumes of pollen and nectar.
  • Diversity: Annuals have adapted their genetics to fit the many types of mouthparts, lifestyles, habits, and needs that exist among the pollinator community. 
  • Price: Annuals are reasonable; if you need to create large nectar factories by mass planting for pollinators, you can cover more ground with the same budget.

DIA Jolt Cherry
Annuals like this Dianthus Jolt in the landscape generate high volumes of nectar

STEADY SUPPORT

Continuous bloom production is a significant goal in more ways than one. Pollinator support should be built around a steady supply of food, and annuals go all-out in this regard. As a rule, annuals put a tremendous amount of energy into attracting pollinators because their entire mission in life is to produce seed to ensure the propagation of future generations. For this reason they pump out high levels of what we value even more than their colorful flowers: pollen and nectar.

CEL Intenz Purple
This Celosia ‘Intenz’ planter shows how small spaces can still support pollinators

DIVERSITY AS INSURANCE

Diversity is the best way to approach pollinator support, by planting a wide variety of annuals that bloom continuously through the season. Bees and butterflies can find sustenance in the backyards of neighborhood cul-de-sacs, the container gardens of city roofs and porches, and the open fields of country estates. Weaving urban and suburban refuge into the larger picture makes the entire pollinator strategy stronger and more viable. Every single pollinator-friendly planting in every individual yard can move the needle a significant distance in the right direction.

Planting in floral clumps is another pollinator-friendly move—that is, a garden with a mix of plants is better than a single stand of one variety. Combining five different plants not only widens the blooming season into early and late year, but also courts a wider variety of diners. It serves as insurance, too. Calamities occur in the bug world: wind blows, rain thrashes, humidity soars, and heat wilts. A large event can have a major negative impact on the local population, so including a wide range of material ensures that a sufficient number of pollen and nectar sources will still be around afterward.

ASC Silky Fleece Gold
Yellow Asclepias is just one of many pollinator support tools among annuals

THE TOOLS OF THE TRADE

Annuals are versatile tools for folding butterfly and bee support into most any environment, whether it’s a suburban garden, an urban home, or a country field.

Of course the benefits are multiplied when used on a grander scale. If you have a large plot of land and are serious about pollinator support, you can build mass plantings to serve as pollen and nectar factories. Not only can you tweak a garden for the environment you are working with, but annuals’ fast growth and quick flower production also mean you will be open for business much sooner.

Even better—since annuals have generally long blooming seasons, that factory will produce food and home for a long time, at a price that is actually reasonable. Annuals cover the landscape very well; it’s one of their primary jobs.

SAL Mystic Spires
Like most Salvias, ‘Mystic Spires’ can be used as a mass pollinator planting

BIDENS FOR POLLINATORS

A type of Aster that begins blooming in late spring, Bidens flowers the entire season until frost. This is a short plant, best suited for borders and front-of-the-garden areas. We’ve seen all kinds of bees visit it, along with a few moths and butterflies. Bidens are tough—their compact nature keeps on ticking through a wide range of weather conditions, and they keep themselves tidy and well maintained.

TIT Torch
Tithonia Torch has a center eye built from tiny florets, each one serving nectar

TITHONIA FOR SUMMER FOOD

Part of the Daisy family, Tithonia grows naturally in the hot, dry regions of Mexico and Central America. As a result, it prefers the type of weather that is not quite as comfortable to us. Local pollinators we’ve seen on our Tithonia plants include bumblebees, long-horned bees, monarch butterflies and tiger swallowtails. We’ve grown this variety in several places but our favorite way to use it is as a mixer with other tall pollinators—for a wild garden or prairie cottage look. It also works as a screen against walls and fences.

PEN Lucky Star Pink
Lucky Star Pentas is a showy annual that also feeds the beneficials

PENTAS IS SHOWY AND SUGARY

Back in 2016, our own Cincinnati Zoo got a callout on a Bee Support Bulletin Board (they exist) for planting Pentas, which was covered with honey and mason bees. These plants were grown to support the Zoo’s thriving hives.

Pentas blooms throughout the summer season with clusters of star-shaped flowers. It comes in dwarf and medium varieties. Lucky Star Pentas generally blooms about 16 inches in height, and follow-up blooms don’t eclipse the prior wave.

ZIN Oklahoma Mix
Zinnia shows up on many a list of butterfly favorites

ZINNIA ATTRACTS MANY KINDS OF BUTTERFLIES

If you want to introduce children to the world of bugs and pollinators, we heartily recommend Zinnia. Kids gravitate toward it because of the showy flowers and easy-growing nature, and Zinnia also tops many favorite pollinator lists. Zinnia’s strong stems are renowned as cut flowers, and that same strength makes them excellent landing platforms for heavier pollinators. It also keeps them standing as a defense against the weather. Zinnia tolerates long dry spells while still producing food when other plants have shut down sugar production.

If you are particularly interested in pollinators for veggie gardens, Zinnia is a good companion to plant near or among edibles. It draws in the pollinators that boost veggie production. Lining Zinnia along a nearby fence is a common technique, but we like to put the short ones right in among the plants themselves. You should know that monarchs value Zinnia just as they do milkweed. Zinnia plants become way stations to use as homes along their migration path, and give the butterflies a needed fuel boost for the long journey back and forth to Mexico.

SUN Sunfinity
Sunflower ‘Sunfinity’ produces many flowerheads over the summer season

EVERYONE CAN HELP

Some pollinators are generalists, while others target specific plantings. Many have preferences—foods they like—but can handle other alternatives in the face of scarcity caused by storms, heat, wind, rain, construction, or the variety of local garden taste. Fortunately with annuals we can bring many kinds of solutions to the table, from household staples to children’s favorites and other more esoteric varieties.

People with a wide range of tastes, homes, and situations can pitch in through annuals. Even those without gardens can help through baskets and containers—demonstrating that there is a social side to annuals. Building a pollinator support system is an emotional commitment, and annuals are good at striking those kinds of chords.

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Diefenbacher Greenhouses is a supplier of annuals and creative green goods. We sell directly to Garden Centers and Landscapers in the Cincinnati Area. 

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