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Creating A Real Pollinator Garden

By: Sandra Nelson

woman digging

I came home from the Perennial Plant Association’s National Symposium determined to tear out every single one of my garden beds and start completely over. In my mind, as I judged them against the images and designs I had seen, there was no question  –  mine were shameful and had to go!  Thankfully, my husband pulled the shovel out of my hands and talked me down from the cliff. My reaction to an educational seminar may seem just a bitClaudia West extreme, but if you ever have the opportunity to hear Claudia West, landscape architect and co-author of one of my favorite books Planting In A Post-Wild World speak, I guarantee you will understand.

Over a decade ago, the staff at the Penn State Arboretum began discussing the possibility of adding a new pollinator garden. Their vision was of a space that was not only devoted to native pollinators, plants and birds, but was also a place for research, education and enjoyment. Bringing together a unique team of experts in fields such as garden design and construction, entomology, ornithology, soil science and forest biology, the vision slowly took shape and an   butterfly om purple coneflower   ambitious goal was set. The team wanted the three acre garden to become home to   every variety of native pollinator in the Pennsylvania area.

With nine years of fundraising bringing in over 9 million dollars, the team was finally able to begin construction of this revolutionary garden space. Claudia West, who stands as a leading voice in the push toward ecologically sound planting, helped guide the project toward its goal. By the time the original phase was completed, this magnificent garden boasted 143,00 plants from 350 different species, seven different soil types, four different drainage systems and habitats mimicking all of the nearby Pennsylvania landscapes. 


mapDuring her 60 minute presentation at this year’s symposium, Ms West took us through the process of creating the Penn State garden and explained how to tailor the garden’s big ideas to fit our own landscapes. With her research-based knowledge alongside her step by step explanations, the initially overwhelming complexity of the garden’s plantings became surprisingly simple - and achievable –  for residential and commercial settings. 


water gardenShe opened her lecture with the statement that a real pollinator garden is not a jungle, but an ecologically diverse planting made up of abundant habitats for all types of pollinators, not just monarch butterflies or a particular native bee. A real pollinator garden, in her thoughts, is one that supports the local ecology; it contains plant material that is relevant for the specific native pollinators, it reflects the context of the local landscape and has diverse habitat zones. In addition, it is a beautiful and exciting place.

According to Ms. West, the foundation of the garden is the soil. Since diverse habitats are built on diverse soil types, staff at thshovel in soile Penn State garden knew they had to reshape and reform flat, unproductive turf into a series of varied landscapes that would eventually teem with life . Using soil mixtures that mirrored nature, they built mounds and hills, created  ponds, unearthed beautiful boulders buried for centuries and shaped a meadow. 

While such a vastly varied landscape is a utopia for pollinators, it isn’t always feasible in the residential, and even commercial world. Instead, Ms. West advises thoroughly researching the soil in the area you have to work with. Then, knowing both the composition of the soil and its degree of compaction, match  plant selections to the existing conditions. Or, once again, the industry motto:  the right plant in the right place.

( As an aside, a related fact is that contrary to common belief, automatically, running a tiller over a new bed can actually add more problems than it solves.Tilled soil collapses pore spaces, which then causes the soil to slowly settle. Crowns of newly installed plants can become exposed to damaging hot, drying winds. Tilling also brings up dormant weeds seeds that compete with new plants for water and nutrients.)

As the form of the garden took shape, the arboretum staff, led by Ms. West began selecting plants and planning installation designs for each unique habitat. While the plant palettes differed according to the microclimates, the guidelines for selecting plants remained the same. Even better, the guidelines for gardens at the Penn State Arboretum are the same for us, whether we are professional designers or avid home gardeners.



  • Choose a majority of native species since they already have a relationship with the local environment. Within each selection, choose as many combinations of family, genus and species as possible. 


  • Focus on productive plants, which means lots of flowering plants. Ecologically dead plants, those that nothing eats (think ferns), can add interest and texture, but do little to support native pollinators, birds and other wildlife.

butterflies on oak slime

  • Add a high performing tree to the design whenever possible.. Oaks, sugar maples and willows are examples of trees that support wildlife. The leaves of native oaks support over 500 species of butterflies and moths, while sugar maples are a source of pollen for bees. The early spring blooms of willows are an especially rich source of nectar for bees, butterflies and other hungry pollinators.

bees on lilac

  • Make sure that the pollinator “salad bar” stays open as long as possible. Blasts of blooms need to continue throughout the entire season, beginning with early spring ephemerals and lasting well into the short, chilly days of fall. 


  • Strive for abundance in plantings. Masses of blooms are more likely to attract pollinators. Layering and underplanting beds keeps them full throughout the season and helps to suppress weeds.

flower with bare ground

  • Leave some ground areas bare for insects such as ground bees that need to burrow. 

Thinking rationally (without the shovel in my hands), I realize that my tiny yard can never begin to duplicate the pollinator garden at the Penn State Arboretum. In fact, it doesn’t need to. What it does need to do however, is to create a space that is an ecologically sound space for my pollinator visitors and a beautiful space for me. That’s an achievable goal.