It seems almost too good to be true that some of the best plants to attract beneficial insects to your kitchen garden are also easy to grow and require very little maintenance. Almost like nature really values pollinators or something...
Before we can talk about specific plants that will attract all the bees and butterflies to your garden, let’s talk about sourcing these plants. As I outline in my book, Kitchen Garden Revival, you have two options:
I highly recommend buying your plants from a local grower rather than a big box store. Check that your plants are grown naturally and organically, not with synthetic fertilizers. The whole point of a pollinator garden is to give tons of delicious, healthy food to bees and butterflies. The last thing you want to be doing is giving them plants that have nasty synthetic stuff in them, right?
Starting from seed
Again, organic and natural matter. If you can, focus on locally-sourced seeds.
Buying locally grown plants is just as important, if not more so, for plants than for seeds. Plants grown locally are so much more likely to thrive in your garden, not to mention your purchase supports small and local businesses. You can find more local plants by shopping at local nurseries than big box stores.”
Everything in my pollinator garden was either started directly from seed by me or bought from a local organic farm so that I know my plants are good stuff. That’s a priority for me, and I hope I can convince you it should be a priority for you too. I would rather you plant just one local and organically-grown plant than a hundred ones covered in synthetic sprays and pesticides. The bees and butterflies will also thank you.
All right, now let’s get into the plants I recommend for your low-maintenance pollinator garden. Not all of these plants may be native to your area, but this will give you a good starting point for your research so you can fill your garden with the good stuff for the bees and butterflies.
This member of the mint family is native to eastern North America, from Maine to Illinois, all the way south to Florida and Texas. Believe it or not: both the leaves and the flowers are edible, though I grow this mostly for the bees and the butterflies, not for myself.
I planted my mountain mint by plant and got a lot of green but no flowers the first year. That’s actually a trend with the native perennials mentioned here, so think of them as an investment in your garden. I got lots of blooms the second year, so it’s worth the wait.
Echinacea is well known for being a medicinal herb used in teas and tinctures. Personally, I love echinacea because the bright pink cone flowers are lovely. This member of the Aster plant family is a bee and butterfly favorite.
cilantro, parsley, and dill
When I saw these gals recommended in a pollinator planting plan I downloaded years ago, I was a bit surprised. Aren’t you supposed to eat those? I quickly learned these members of the Apiaceae family put off tiny flowers when you move into the warmer months, and bees, butterflies, and even ladybugs love them. Dill in particular is a host for the swallowtail butterfly (and I also think its flowers add a whimsical cottage feel to the garden).
Even though I love eating cilantro, as you know, I let it flower as food for the pollinators instead of pulling it from the garden when it starts to bolt. Here’s the coolest part: right when these herbs start to bloom is when your tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, and zucchini need to be pollinated. The timing is perfect!
Like mountain mint, anise hyssop is in the Lamiaceae, or mint, family and another pollinator favorite. It’s super easy to grow and produces tons of blooms. Last year, I harvested the flowers once the bees were done with them and enjoyed anise hyssop tea all winter long. Once the frost had passed, these girls popped right back up, and they’ll continue to do so year after year.
This plant, another mint family member, produces tiny flowers that give lots of food to bees and butterflies. Like anise hyssop, it also comes back on its own after winter. If you’re planting lemon balm, make sure to give it plenty of space because this girl likes to take over. Check out my video on growing lemon balm here.
I’ve grown milkweed in several different climates, including Nashville, Houston, and now Chicago; and in each of those places, the native milkweed looked different. Find the milkweed that’s native to your area to welcome pollinators with the food they most enjoy eating.
I plant zinnias from seed, and like I’ve mentioned before, these are the easiest flowers to grow. Check out my video on how to get dozens of blooms from one zinnia plant here. Unlike some of the other plants I’ve mentioned, this is an annual, not a perennial, so you’ll have to replant seeds each year or let them reseed themselves. (Here’s a video on how to save your own seeds and sow them in your garden.)
While white zinnias are really pretty, focus on the bright, colorful blooms to attract more butterflies to your garden. I learned the hard way one year that my all-white pollinator garden was actually only appealing to moths!
This mint family member produces a nice, tall flower spike that looks a lot like anise hyssop’s blooms. I like to grow enough basil that I have some for me to eat (and pinch off the flower heads so that the plant will keep producing leaves) and some that flower for the bees and butterflies to eat. Basil is easy to start from seed and even propagate, but you will have to restart it each year since it doesn’t grow back from rootstock.
To me, this lady has the prettiest flowers. I’m growing yarrow with white flowers now, but I also love ones with mustardy yellow flowers. Yarrow makes for great pollinator food because the pollen is super accessible—it’s like a welcome mat for the good guys. Plant yarrow once, and it will come up again and again. Your biggest job will be to divide it, spread it out, and give it space in your garden.
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Bringing bees and butterflies into your garden space is one of the most important things that we can do as gardeners. Even if planting these pollinator-friendly plants has nothing to do with food production, it’s still just good for the planet. After all, those insecticides we’re spraying in the air to kill mosquitos are threatening the good guys too.
So when you create a garden space like this near your kitchen garden, planted with organically grown, native plants you're literally doing good for the whole world. I’d say adding these low-maintenance ladies to your outdoor space is definitely worth the time! Thanks for being part of the kitchen garden revival with me and helping to make little safe havens for our beneficial insects.