Planting with a purpose

Looking for tips on how to have a prosperous pollinator garden? We can help.

|  Story by Meghan McMahon |


As spring inches ever closer and we begin to think about getting outside to get our yards and gardens in order, now is the time to consider the importance of pollinators in our world and how our gardens and flowerbeds can ensure their success and, in turn, ours.

Pollinators are the bees, butterflies, birds, bats, beetles and other small insects and animals that pollinate plants, according to the Pollinator Partnership. These creatures visit flowers to drink nectar and feed off pollen and then transfer pollen from plant to plant in the process. 

Pollinators are vital to our world, because between 75 percent and 95 percent of all flowering plants need help for proper pollination, the Pollinator Partnership reports. One-third of every bite of food we take wouldn't be possible without pollinators and, beyond supporting our food supply, pollinators also support other wildlife and contribute to healthier ecosystems. 

"We need pollinators to exist," said Angie Opiola, an interpretive naturalist at the Forest Preserve District's Plum Creek Nature Center. "Pollinators create seeds. Seeds create plants. Plants provide soil, air, food. They are the bottom of just about every food chain on the planet."

Despite their importance, the populations of many pollinating species are declining. The reasons for the decline are varied, but key factors include habitat loss and destruction; pollution; use and misuse of chemicals and pesticides; disease; and climate change, according to the Pollinator Partnership. 

Native plants are key 

Butterfly milkweed at Sugar Creek Preserve. (Photo by Glenn P. Knoblock)

We can help pollinators like bees and butterflies by planting plants in our yards and gardens that serve as a food source for them. The National Pollinator Garden Network recently achieved its goal of registering 1 million gardens and landscapes that support pollinators, but still encourages people to plant with this purpose in mind.

Native plants are key when planting a pollinator garden. These plants are indigenous to a particular area, so they adapted to the climate and soil conditions where they grow, according to the U.S. Forest Service.  

Because they are well adapted to the area, native plants are quite easy to plant and get established. 

"Planting native will be the easiest thing in the world to take care of," Opiola said. "After planting and watering for a week or two, it’ll be fine. And if it decides it won't be fine, it’ll come in fine the next year."


Native plants don't require fertilizers or herbicides, the U.S. Forest Service reports. They also help reduce air pollution, offer shelter and provide a food source for wildlife.

Illinois and the Midwest were once home to millions of acres of prairie, but very little remains in what now serves as the country's agricultural heartland. While that farmland is necessary to the health of us and our economy, Illinois has lost its prairie roots. Besides agricultural land, much of what remains is private property owned by homeowners, and that creates an opportunity to increase the populations of native plants. 

"This provides much potential for creating areas that are functional and pretty," Opiola said. Many American lawns and gardens are somewhat of "biological deserts," she said.

"Kentucky bluegrass, hostas, yuccas, impatiens, daffodils, Japanese maples, etc. You might as well buy silk stuff from the dollar store," she said, adding that ornamental plants support 29 times less biodiversity than anything native and also require more regular care and attention.

Getting started

Bergamot at Hadley Valley Preserve. (Photo by Glenn P. Knoblock)

Now is the time to get started if you are thinking of adding a pollinator garden to your outdoor space this year, Opiola said. This is the time to form a game plan and do some research — think about color schemes, varied plant heights and bloom seasons.

"This is where you get to be creative," she said. 

Don't let the planning and implementation overwhelm you. You don't have to spend hundreds of dollars buying plants to plant everything all at once, Opiola said.

"If you buy a handful of natives every year and supplement your existing garden, you will immediately see results," she said. "There is no effort too small."

And don't worry about ripping out your current garden space or manicured grass areas. "The existing stuff in our gardens and lawns isn’t necessarily bad for the fauna, it’s just not as useful," she said. 

When planting a pollinator garden, make sure to consider the sun and soil, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service advises. Pick a spot that gets some sun and also has some protection from the wind, and prep the soil by removing any existing plants and grass and raking it to loosen it for planting.

What to plant

A monarch caterpillar on milkweed at Monee Reservoir. (Photo by Glenn P. Knoblock)

Many wildflowers, grasses, bushes and trees are native to Illinois, providing plenty of options for your own yard and garden. 

What you plant may depend on whether you are trying to attract a particular species to your yard, such as butterflies or hummingbirds. Monarch butterflies, for example, rely solely on milkweed to lay their eggs, Opiola said. Without milkweed, we would not have monarchs. Common milkweed and butterfly weed are both good choices for attracting monarchs, she said. Hummingbirds, on the other hand, love the color red and seem to like the columbine Opiola has planted in her own yard.  

Because Illinois was once a tallgrass prairie, choosing plants that originated in these habitats is best, Opiola explained. Common prairie plants that people tend to love for their color and appearance include yellow coneflower, purple coneflower, common milkweed, butterfly weed, bergamot, purple prairie clover, black-eyed Susan, spiderwort, Joe Pye weed, prairie blazing star and ironweed.

"This really is just skimming the surface," she said. 

Keep in mind that when choosing plants for your yard, you need to consider their particular sunlight and soil needs to make sure your garden area is a good match. 

The Illinois Department of Natural Resources includes a list of prairie plants and wildflowers native to Illinois on its website. The Morton Arboretum maintains an online plant directory, which you can search for plants native to Illinois.

(Lead image of purple coneflower by Glenn P. Knoblock)


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