Planting native species to support nature and biodiversity is becoming more popular. This is great news for declining pollinator populations. At the same time, there are a number of myths and misconceptions around native plant gardening and pollinators that we are going to dispel in this blog post. Happy gardening for nature!
Native plant gardens are weedy and unruly
Truth: With thoughtful plant selection and design, and proper maintenance, native species gardens are gorgeous. As we do with all ornamental plants, gardeners select natives to serve particular design functions. Is it tall enough to go at the back of the border? Does it bloom when we want it to--either when nothing else is blooming, or when the bloom colour will coordinate with other plants blooming at the same time? Does it have a form or habit (upright, sprawling, arching) that works with the plants around it? It’s simply a matter of researching the plant habit, and understanding that, when placed in rich garden loam with lots of elbow room, many native plants will get bigger, and spread faster, than they would in a natural setting.
Native plants can be enthusiastic re-seeders in a garden. You can minimize the deluge of seedlings every spring by deadheading (cutting off the spent flowers) during the growing season or, if the seed heads are eaten by birds, just leave them. Roguing out seedlings in the spring is a learning opportunity, an excellent way to get up close and personal with your garden while providing plenty of seedlings to give away.
Many gardeners are also concerned with aggressive spreading through runners. It is true that SOME native species are aggressive spreaders but not all are! Canada Goldenrod is one aggressive species but do not judge all goldenrods by this one species behaviour! We have many species of goldenrods that are very mild mannered and will not spread by runners at all. Some well-behaved goldenrods include Stiff Goldenrod (Solidago rigida) for dry sun and Blue-stem (Solidago caesia) or Zig-zag Goldenrods (Solidago flexicaulis), for part shade). Goldenrods are bountiful contributors to biodiversity and are great pollinator plants.
Although common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) has a far-wandering root system, there are several species that work well in gardens. These “clumpers” include: Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata, good for loamy garden soil); Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa, good for drier spots); and Poke Milkweed (Asclepias exaltata, good for part shade.)
There’s no harm in staking or supporting native plants if they get floppy or too tall. You can also cut them back to keep them shorter, although this may delay the bloom time by a week or so. And there’s no rule against mixing native and non-native in your garden--it’s not all or nothing!
For choosing suitable native plants, visit the Ontario Native Plants website. Check out our Resources and Guides page.
Pollinator gardens don’t require any maintenance.
Truth: While pollinator gardens often require less maintenance than a traditional garden once they are established, you should still be prepared to devote a bit of time and effort to caring for the garden. This is especially important in the first few years while the plants are getting established.
I got my plant at a garden centre. It couldn't possibly be invasive!
Truth: It’s easy to buy invasive plants at a garden centre. Goutweed, Periwinkle, Asian and European Honeysuckles, many types of Miscanthus (“Chinese Silver Grass” and “Zebra Grass” for example) are popular retail offerings that are also listed by the Ontario Invasive Species Program. Norway Maples and even Ailanthus (Tree of Heaven) continue to be supplied by the horticulture industry, despite the fact that they are invasive species that harm natural ecology. Norway Maple (Acer platanoides) is currently working its way into Hamilton’s escarpment areas, displacing native trees and spreading the deep shade of monoculture into our urban green spaces. Norway Maples, which have taken over most of the Don River Valley in Toronto, are still sold as residential trees, though they are no longer planted by the City of Hamilton.
Variegated Goutweed may be labeled only by its botanical name Aegopodium podagraria and marketed as a “robust ground cover”.
Unfortunately we can’t tell the good guys from the bad guys from looking at the plant label--or by asking the garden centre staff. We need to do our homework before we go shopping. Know the botanical scientific names, prepare a shopping list in advance, and be alert for “code words” such as vigorous, robust, spreading, colony-forming, naturalizing that signal an aggressive or invasive plant. Source plants from nurseries that specialize in native species – contact your local CA or Naturalists Club for a list of local nurseries, or check out our resources link. prepare a shopping list in advance, and be alert for “code words” such as vigorous, robust, spreading, colony-forming, naturalizing that signal an aggressive or invasive plant.
It’s not invasive in MY yard!
Truth: Just because you don’t see it happening doesn’t mean it’s not happening. Like germs and atoms, we know they exist even though we don’t personally observe them. Birds eat berries and can poop out the seeds many kilometres away, creating problems that can hide from human observation for years. Invasive plants may not be popping up the highly managed urban garden environment they came from, but in the woodlot or ravine several kilometres away there’s probably a stand of it choking out everything in its path.
The Ontario Invasive Plant Council maintains a list of the approximately 400 “baddies” and even suggests garden-worthy alternatives. For landowners, there’s also a watch list for species that have the potential to become invasive in certain environments. If your favorite shrub is on the invasive list, please, as a resident physician in your yard, remember the Hippocratic oath: “First, do no harm”. It’s not enough to spread the good plants, we must also remove the bad ones.
I see bees and butterflies on it, so it must be okay.
Truth: Simply because a bee visits a flower doesn’t mean the plant is good for the bee. Many invasive plants are rich in nectar and pollen, making the flower very attractive to pollinators. Plants such as Japanese Barberry, Canada Thistle (which is not from Canada!), privet (Ligustrum species), Burning Bush (Euonymus alatus), Himalayan Balsam (Impatiens glandulifera), and many species of honeysuckle are all bee and butterfly magnets. This doesn't make them any less invasive. All they offer to wildlife is a short lived, high-calorie snack. Since none of them evolved with these pollinators, most of them are not larval hosts--butterfly caterpillars do not eat them. They are the sugary snacks of the plant world. Pollinators will gorge on candy but they won’t lay eggs on it. No eggs means no new butterflies, and continued decline of the species. These plants do not contribute to maintaining our biodiversity, if allowed to persist and spread they can negatively affect biodiversity in the long run. We must expect more of our plants than to provide just one small aspect needed for life.
We need to save the honeybee
Truth: Honeybees are native to Europe. Colonists brought them to the Americas for honey and wax production and they’ve become ubiquitous in our landscapes. In recent years colony collapse disorder has posed a significant challenge for those who make a living from domesticated bees, but no species of honeybee is in trouble. European Honeybees should be considered a livestock animal and are at no risk of disappearing as there will always be some in cultivation.
Native bees, however, ARE in trouble. Making honeybees into the poster child for the larger crisis of native bee decline is clouding the issue. We don’t need to worry about honeybees but their troubles can be used as a warning sign of a bigger issue.
While interactions between native and domesticated bees have not been widely studied, a recent review of the literature in Entomology Today shows that, in general, honeybees do not play nice with our native bees. While overall pollination services (for crops) are improved when both species are present, the European Honeybee outcompetes our natives for nectar and pollen. So, to “help the bees”, start learning about the needs of our native species and support organizations that are restoring and protecting bee habitat.
Honeybees are the only/most important pollinators.
Truth: The honeybee is an introduced species and is only one of many many pollinators in Ontario. We have over 500 native bee species in Eastern Canada and they are all pollinators! Some of them specialize on certain types of plants, making them really important for the survival of those plant species. In addition to bees, many other insects (wasps, flies, etc.) and non-insects (e.g. hummingbirds) are pollinators too!
Planting a pollinator garden will increase my chances of being stung!
Truth: A feeding bee is a happy, busy bee! Bees that are foraging for food are generally too absorbed in their task to bother with humans. Also, most native bees are either too small to sting, or are solitary and have no reason to sting! So the bees that you’ll be attracting with your pollinator garden shouldn’t be a bother to you.
As well, most of our native bees do not even have stingers and, even if they do, they are so small that you wouldn’t even feel it. Almost all of our native bees are docile, solitary creatures. They do not form colonies (hives) so there is no need to sting intruders to defend the honey or the queen. Only female bees are capable of stinging. Think of them as hard-working single moms. They are not interested in humans--they only want to find nectar and pollen to eat and provide for their children.
People get stung when they harass bees at their nests, step on them, pinch them, or accidentally trap them in folds of clothing. If we are alert for the signs of wasp or bumblebee colonies and stay a respectful distance from them we can safely co-exist.
What about wasps, hornets etc. Do pollinator gardens attract these?
Wasps yes, but most wasps are also beneficial and should still not increase stings. Note: Ground-nesting solitary bees will not sting. Underground wasp nests can be a problem. It is only the colony forming species that are really a concern for stings.
All bees live in hives.
Truth: In North America, only honeybees and bumblebees build hives. Most native bees are solitary and nest in the ground, in plant stems or in holes in wood. That’s why it’s important to include some bare ground and woody plants in your pollinator garden.
I’m allergic to ‘weeds’ (or native plants).
Truth: Many people think they are allergic to goldenrod, because it blooms around the time that lots of people experience seasonal allergies. However, late summer allergies are usually caused by ragweed or other wind-pollinated plants. Goldenrod, and most other plants that rely on animal pollinators, have heavy sticky pollen that isn’t dispersed by wind. This means that most pollinator-friendly plants are not to blame for seasonal allergies.
Fall is not a good time to plant.
Truth: It’s okay to plant in the fall, especially trees and shrubs. If you plant in the fall water well and check early in the spring, replanting if things have been heaved by the frost (herbaceous plugs are best planted in spring as plugs can be popped out of the ground by frost). Bare root is likely fine, just water well.
Fall is the best time to plant the seeds of native plants. Many of our native plants need to go through the winter (or an imitation of winter) before they will germinate. This is called cold stratification. Cold stratification is the process of subjecting seeds to both cold and moist conditions. The cold moist conditions mimic winter conditions the seeds would go through naturally and breaks the seeds dormancy. Without cold moist stratification the majority of seeds will remain dormant and will not germinate (until they go through winter and spring the FOLLOWING year). A few seeds may germinate after cold dry storage but most have significantly better germination with cold moist stratification. Storing seeds cold and very dry can extend their viability in long term storage (this is how seed banks store seed for decades).
Cold stratification can also be done in early spring. Many native seeds will germinate after only a month of stratification and planting the seed in the spring is fine. A few species will be fine without cold stratification (grasses don’t need it).
Brenda Van Ryswyk, Natural Heritage Ecologist at Conservation Halton overs the following
Cold Stratification Methods:
1) Sow directly where you want them to grow in the fall (or warm spell mid-winter if the ground is visible)
2) Sow in a pot in moist soil and put the pot in the fridge for the required time (usually 30 days)
3) Place seed in moist paper towel, vermiculite or sand in an open ziplock bag (open because seeds are living and need oxygen) in the fridge for the required time (usually 30 days is good, but some species need 60 days or rarely, longer). Keep moist, but not wet.
After stratification period or when you are ready to plant, remove the seed from the cold, plant in pots (or plant directly in the garden if it is spring) and place in warm well-lit area and germination should commence within a few days to a week. Do not allow seed to dry out after stratification!
For seeds, Brenda reccomends Prairie Moon as they include right on their site how long they recommend for cold stratification.
Spring is a great time to plant things, especially plugs or new plants. You can plant in the summer but it is not preferred due to the heat, and you would need to water and care for them more.
Fall is a good time for ground preparation. Adding your fall leaves as a top mulch in the garden is great. Spring is a fine time for ground preparation too. Leaving leaves in place is best, but for some plants or small seedlings you can gently rake leaves to the side. Do not “clean up” to much. Ideally leave some plant stems in the garden; 8-12 inches of plant stems standing and leave them (forever!) will provide solitary bee nesting sites. Our solitary bees overwinter as larvae so if you do need to remove stems or till soil it is best to wait until after there have been two or three weeks of 10 degrees or higher temperatures so that the bees can emerge (otherwise you will be killing the bees before they can emerge for the season).
We appreciate the help of the following individuals in putting this post together:
Thanks to Brenda Van Ryswyk, Natural Heritage Ecologist at Conservation Halton, Bev Wagar, Master Gardener with the Crown Point Garden Club, and the Hamilton Monarch Awards, Mara McHaffie, Wildlife Biology and Conservation Masters Student at McMaster University and Cherish Gamble, Hamilton Conservation Authority.