Pollinator Patch Perfection!

Posted on Updated on

On Saturday, we hosted Day 1 of our “How to Plant a Pollinator Patch” Workshop Series. By the end of the session, participants were buzzing with excitement over ways they could make their backyards pollinator friendly!

In case you missed it, or if you’re looking for more resources, we’ve put together a quick summary of our workshop. Make sure you scroll down to find a jam-packed list of helpful webpages, how-to guides and plant lists you can use to create your very own pollinator patch!

We started off the afternoon with a great presentation by Brenda Van Ryswyk. Brenda is an ecologist at Conservation Halton, where she’s been working for the last 14 years.

Brenda started off by busting some common bee myths. We learned that:

  1. Many of our native bees can’t or won’t sting us, because they’re either too small to sting or don’t have a hive to defend. Plus, a feeding bee is a happy bee! For this reason, planting flowers WON’T increase your chances of getting stung.
  2. The European honeybee is an introduced species and is only 1 of many pollinators. We have over 500 native bee species in Eastern Canada that are great pollinators! A lot of these species are facing the same threats that honey bees are facing, so they need our support too! In addition to bees, many other insects (e.g. flies, beetles and butterflies) and non-insects (including hummingbirds and spiders) can be valuable pollinators.
  3. Most bees DO NOT live in hives! In North America, only bumblebees and the non-native European honey bee build hives and live in colonies. The rest of our bees are solitary and nest in the ground or in plant stems or holes in wood.
  4. Unlike honeybees, bumblebees colonies are “annual,” meaning they have to start fresh with a new queen (who produces new workers) each year.
  5. Not all bees make honey! Only bees in the genus Apis (like the European honeybee) make honey. Our bumblebees make and store small amounts of a honey-like substance, but they don’t make large amounts because they do not need to support a colony over the winter.

After a brief lesson on bee life cycles, Brenda moved on to talk about ways that we can help pollinators in our backyards. Here are her bee-friendly backyard tips:

  1. Provide ground nesting habitat by leaving some barren ground. You don’t need to have mulch covering every square inch of your garden! Leave some space for ground nesting bees to dig in (preferably in a sunny spot).
  2. Plant more flowers! More nectar and pollen = more pollinators.  Try to plant in patches (at least 1m across) and choose plants that bloom at a variety of different times so pollinators always have something to forage on.
  3. Bee Diverse! If you have more species of flowers (at least 8 is a good start) then you’ll be able to support more species of pollinators.
  4. Don’t use fancy cultivars. Plants that have been bred to have extra petals or other features may be beautiful, but they often contain less pollen and nectar than the wild species.
  5. Avoid invasive species! Exotic species that have a tendency to spread into natural areas can disrupt our natural ecosystems. This is not good for pollinators, or any other wildlife for that matter. Make sure you do your research and ask questions at the nursery so you don’t end up with an aggressive invasive in your garden.
  6. Don’t get a backyard beehive. Brenda recommends leaving the European honey bee to the professionals. In a backyard setting, overcrowding can lead to starvation if there aren’t enough nectar resources to go around. Plus, many experts are concerned that diseases carried by the honey bee may get transferred to our wild bee populations.
  7. Go Native. Native plants and native pollinators have evolved together, meaning native plants are often better at supporting pollinators. Aim for plants that are sourced locally so they are adapted to our climate and soils. Native plants can also attract other beneficial insects and caterpillars that feed our birds.
  8. Be non-toxic – pesticides can harm our pollinators! At the nursery, ask for plants free of systemic pesticides, and don’t spray pesticides in your yard.
  9. Provide nesting habitat for wood-nesting bees. You can bundle up hollow stems from your shrub clippings, drill holes in a wooden block, or simply choose  not to clip your woody shrubs in the fall. Make sure you clean out your wooden block or stem bundles yearly (but wait until the bees have emerged in the spring).
  10. Provide puddles. Just like us, pollinators need to keep cool and hydrated on hot sunny days. You can create a depression in some mud or sand, or put out a shallow dish with mud or sand in it – make sure to keep these areas moist!
  11. Leave the leaves. Piles of leaves provide cover for overwintering bees, butterflies and moths, so consider raking your pile into a corner and leaving it be!

We are so grateful to Brenda for joining us on Saturday to share her wealth of knowledge with us!

Next, it was time to hear from Cathy Kavassalis, Master Gardener and past president of the Oakville Horticultural Society. Cathy focused more specifically on how you would go about creating a pollinator patch, step by step:

  1. Choose a location. When choosing a location, make sure you consider accessibility, how the space is currently being used, and access to a water source.
  2. Get permission. Make sure you understand who owns the land, what bylaws govern planting on that land, and get approval if necessary. Luckily, if you’re planting in your own backyard, you have lots of freedom!
  3. Investigate the site. It’s much easier to choose plants that will suit your site, rather than trying to change your site conditions to suit your plants. You’ll want to take note of the sun, soil and drainage conditions, and water access at your site.
  4. Design the layout of your patch. Key things to consider are: the function of the space (who will use the site? what for?), the size you think you can manage, whether you’ll plant in the existing ground or create raised containers, access, how the garden will be watered, potential pest issues, your own personal style and of course, your budget.
  5. Choose your plants! Cathy focused the second portion of her presentation on plant choice, so more on that below.
  6. Site preparation. The site must be cleared of unwanted material, including weeds, sod and rocks. Most research now shows that you should try your best not to disturb the existing soil, since there are microbes living there that can help your plants grow! Instead, Cathy recommends using suppression layers to control weeds – place wet newspapers, cardboard, leaf bags or suppression sheets on top of the weeds/sod, and then add layers of compost (Cathy’s favourite), top soil, mulch and/or manure on top. You can plant into this new soil that you’ve created, and the newspapers or cardboard will decompose over time.
  7.  Plant! If you’ve done a good job with creating a detailed design of your patch, then this step will be much easier!
  8. Maintain your site. If you’ve chosen plants that are well suited to your site, this will greatly reduce the amount of maintenance you’ll need to do. However, you will need to water your patch regularly for the first 2 to 3 years, while your patch is getting established. In terms of other kinds of maintenance, Cathy recommends leaving things a little “messy” if you can tolerate it. Remember that many pollinators nest and overwinter in wood, leaves and other plant material.
  9. Observe. You can become a citizen scientist by observing what kinds of pollinators visit your patch, and which flowers they like the most! Consider getting a field guide to learn how to identify the plants, insects and other wildlife in your garden. You can even record your bumblebee observations on Bumble Bee Watch!
  10. Enjoy! Make sure you visit the site often to enjoy the fruits of your labour! Turning your backyard into a haven for biodiversity is a truly rewarding experience.

Cathy showed us beautiful photos of pollinator patches of all shapes and sizes, so we were left feeling inspired and encouraged that we could turn just about any space into a paradise for pollinators.

She then turned her attention to giving us as much advice as possible about choosing species for our patches. Here are her top tips:

  • Before you start, think about your goals. While of course we hope your goal is to support pollinators, you may have other goals too – like adding beauty to your yard.
  • Layer wildflowers, grasses, shrubs and trees to provide both food and habitat.
  • Diversity is key! Some pollinators are generalists and will eat many different types of pollen. Others specialize on only a few species. Plant a diversity of species to support a diversity of pollinators.
  • Pollinators need nesting habitat. It’s not all about the pollen! Make sure you provide bare ground and hollow woody stems for nesting.
  • Include early-, mid- and late-season bloomers so pollinators have food for their entire life cycle.
  • Use native species where possible. Pollinators usually prefer native species to nativars (cultivars of native species) and exotics (though there are exceptions).
  • Use grasses and sedges to form a matrix for your garden. Try placing grasses and sedges between your wildflowers instead of mulch – if you fill in the space you won’t have to worry as much about weeds.

After Cathy’s presentation, participants were eager to mingle, ask questions and get their hands on the free native plants we brought with us! Overall, it was an exciting and educational afternoon. We are looking forward to this Saturday (April 14th), which will include a presentation by the super knowledgeable Sean James, as well as a visit to the future site of Oakvillegreen’s newest pollinator patch where we’ll get to practice everything that we’ve learned!

As promised, here is a list of great resources that you’ll definitely want to check out if you’re planning on planting your own pollinator patch:

Plant Sources:

Where to get native plants in and around Oakville – Oakvillegreen

Credit Valley Conservation’s Resources – includes a nursery list

Oakvillegreen Native Tree, Shrub and Pollinator Garden Kit Sale

Oakville Backyard Tree Planting Program



*many of these guides also contain plant lists of some sort*

Cathy’s tips for selecting species and creating your patch – Kavassalis, 2018

Butterfly Gardens – TRCA

Roadsides: A Guide to Creating a Pollinator Patch – Ontario Horticultural Association

Selecting Plants for Pollinators – pollinator.org

Native Plants for Pollinators – Credit Valley Conservation

Protecting and Enhancing Pollinators in Urban Landscapes – Michigan State University Extension

A Landowner’s Guide to Conserving Native Pollinators in Ontario – Susan Chan, 2012

Attracting Pollinators to Your Garden Using Native Plants – USDA

Pollinator Plants for the Great Lakes Region – The Xerces Society


Plant Lists:

Halton Native Plant List – Halton Region

Halton Butterfly Host Plant List and Planting Plan List – Conservation Halton

Halton Native Wildflowers by Season – Cathy Kavassalis

Halton Native Plant Species Checklist– Cathy Kavassalis, extracted from Halton Natural Areas Inventory 2006: Volume 2

Native Plants for Pollinators – Pollination Guelph

Native Woody Species List for Ecodistrict 7E – 4 – Forest Gene Conservation Association


Information on Our Pollinators:

Bee Basics: An Introduction to Our Native Bees – USDA

Bees of Toronto – City of Toronto Biodiversity Series

Butterflies of Toronto – City of Toronto Biodiversity Series

Pollination Guelph – Pollination Guelph

Bumble Bee Watchreport bumblebee sightings here!

Bee-Wasp-Hornet guide, EZ Home Search


Plus, be sure to check out our Supporting Pollinators in Oakville webpage to learn more about what Oakvillegreen is doing to support pollinators, and how you can get involved! This webpage contains links to even more resources!

We hope you’ve found the information and inspiration you need to get Oakville buzzing this spring. Be sure to spread the word to your friends, family and neighbours – with enough patches, we can create pollinator parkways that support pollinators all over town!