The number one objection you get if you mention pollinator gardens or native plants is that they look “weedy.” People worry the garden will look like an empty lot. And, as much as I love native plants, I’ve seen enough of them to know why people have this objection. Luckily, this is not so much a problem inherent in pollinator gardens as it is a design problem. So here is how to design a pollinator garden that even the skeptics will love.
1) Use classic landscape design techniques.
Unless you are restoring acres of prairie, you will want your native plants to be designed much the same as a traditional garden. Tall native plants don’t look weedy when balanced out with shorter, mounding native plants. The “empty lot” look can also be avoided by the use of a few boulders artistically placed within your design. You can also add a winding path to help visitors enjoy different parts of the garden. So resist the urge to scatter a bunch of seeds and, instead, spend some time creating a beautiful design.
2) Make sure something is always in bloom.
Traditional gardens make use of lots of annuals that bloom all summer long. Native plant gardens, on the other hand, consist of perennials that bloom for only a set period of time. The trick, then, is to select plants so that something is in bloom from very early in the spring to very late in the fall. Then take it one step further and give some thought to the shape of each plant’s stalks and leaves, as well as their seed pods. That way even plants that are not in bloom can still give shape and interest to your garden.
3) Define your space.
Traditional gardens use mulch and edging to let us know that they are an intentional space, distinct from any surrounding lawn or weeds. So use the same approach with your native plant gardens. Add mulch to let passersby know that your space is a garden. Use brick or stone edging to define the garden. Even a simple mown grass border can help people understand that they are seeing a garden, not a patch of weeds.
4) Add signs.
People don’t like what they don’t understand – so we have to help them understand. Signage is one of the best ways to address this because it educates people in the moment they are looking at the garden. Signage can go beyond labeling each plant to explaining when it blooms and who eats its seeds. You can also explain the lifecycle of a specific pollinator that uses that plant species. You can explain why you leave the stalks up all winter and the leaves on the ground. Signage can also make a garden interactive by asking visitors to see if they can find a butterfly or a seed pod or a bud.
5) Invest in a gardener.
Too many people get discouraged because they believe native plant gardens are “set and forget” gardens. But actually they require some effort to get established. They also still require some maintenance – just different maintenance. You won’t need to mow them frequently like grass and you won’t be spraying them with fertilizers, herbicides, or pesticides, but they still require care. For this reason, it is best to budget from the start for someone to spend a few hours each month weeding and tending the garden. And, if you don’t have a native plant gardener you can hire to do this, you should also invest in educating your maintenance crew so they understand the different requirements of a pollinator garden, and can tell native plants from invasive species.
Pollinator gardens don’t have to look messy.
If you design your native plant garden with these simple steps in mind, you will have a beautiful garden that even the skeptics in your town will love.
Photo by Stephanie Wubben on Unsplash.