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  • Roberta Winchester

Gardening for the Birds, Bees, and Butterflies

Gardening to attract birds, bees, and butterflies is fun and easy. Besides creating a beautiful oasis for yourself to enjoy, you will be helping not only birds, but other vitally important pollinators whose habitat is at risk due to development, pollution and pesticides. You’ll also get a larger variety of birds. Most of the world’s plant life (and one-third of our food supply) could not exist without pollinators, so everything we can do to help them is crucial. Their needs are no different than ours: food, water and shelter.

An appealing habitat will have a wide assortment of plants. A yard dominated by a grass lawn does not attract as many birds and other wildlife as one filled with an assortment of flowers, grasses, shrubs and trees. If you don’t have a yard, almost every suggestion we make here can be adopted to a few pots on your porch or balcony. (See our YouTube video here on how to create a container garden to attract pollinators.)

Our suggestions: 1. Use native plants. Nothing beats planting native vegetation to feed area wildlife. Choose nectar and pollen-rich plants like wildflowers and old-fashioned varieties of flowers. Hummingbirds love bright, tubular flowers, many of which do not require much water. Trumpet vine, salvias, sages, penstemons, hyssop, Texas red yucca are just a few of these kinds of plants. (Other birds also like these tubular blossoms.) Native plants are superior to exotics. A succession of blooming annuals, perennials, and shrubs guarantees nectar and pollen throughout the growing season. Plant extra parsley and dill for butterfly larvae to feed on. Lavender is beloved by butterflies. Goldfinches flock to sunflowers. Fruiting plants will attract many varieties of birds.

Any size garden or patio can attract pollinators. Even a window box or hanging basket of plants will attract butterflies and bees.

Any size garden or patio can attract pollinators. Even a window box or hanging basket of plants will attract butterflies and bees.

2. Go organic. Most pesticides are toxic to bees and wildlife. An estimated seven million birds a year die from exposure to lawn pesticides. Poison is unnecessary to protect your garden from insects and diseases. Poisons may eliminate one problem you’re having, but create more by killing beneficial organisms. You’ll disrupt your garden’s ecosystem while exposing yourself and your pets to the toxins. By adding plants that attract beneficial insects, you can work with nature to control pests and diseases. If you do choose pesticides, apply them carefully and selectively, insuring they have no way to reach ground water or escape from your property. Do not use pesticides on open blossoms or when bees or other pollinators are present.

3. Provide shelter. Birds, butterflies, bees, and other pollinators need shelter for protection from predators and the weather and to rear their young. In addition to healthy trees, consider leaving dead trees standing. Unless it is diseased, dangerous or unsightly, a dead tree provides great wildlife habitat. It also makes for easier birdwatching. An oriole or tanager visiting your yard will be much easier to spot in a dead tree than in one with dense foliage. An Oriole feeder with grape jelly, hung in a dead tree, assures you of Orioles. Brush piles also provide great bird habitat for a large variety of birds.

4. Banish the gas-powered lawn equipment. Atmospheric and environmental scientists report that flowers’ scents are being destroyed. The cause? Air Pollution. Flowers produce scent molecules that travel easily in the air but pollutants break apart the molecules, destroying their smell. Bees depend on this fragrance to locate food. One single leaf blower produces more air pollution in a year than 80 cars. And makes more noise. Get rid of the gas-powered lawn mower, the leaf blower and the edger. There are plenty of environmentally friendly alternatives to these obnoxious tools. Your neighbors will be happy with the silence too. Our towns and cities are noisy enough as it is.

5. Provide water. Water is the single greatest attractor for birds and other garden wildlife. Include birdbaths in your garden and keep the water fresh. Adding a dripper, water wiggler or mister to your birdbaths helps too; birds see moving water from far away and mosquitos don’t lay eggs in moving water. You can set up a birdbath filled with stones so that bees can easily land on it and drink or one with various fruits for the butterflies.

Water is the single greatest attractor for birds and other garden wildlife.

6. Be a lazy gardener. At the end of the gardening season, leave seed heads on plants. Birds will eat seeds from plants throughout the fall and winter. Instead of raking (no leafblowers!) all the leaves in your garden, leave some in piles; insects will come and birds will find them.

We modern humans have destroyed a lot of wildlife habitat with our buildings, parking lots, lawns, and gas-guzzling cars. By creating a garden habitat with wildlife in mind, you’ll help minimize our impact and get the bonus of beauty on the wing in your backyard.

This site from the Audubon Society has great information on plants for birds and you can put in your zip code and get a list of plants for your area.

Here is a list of plants that are great for all pollinators, especially hummingbirds:

Agastaches (wild hyssop or hummingbird mint)

Autumn/Cherry Sage

Beauty Bush

Bee Balm

Butterfly Bush

Butterfly Weed

Campanula (Bluebells)

Cardinal Flower




Claret Cup Cactus




Crataegus Hawthorn


Day Lily


Desert Honeysuckle

Desert Willow


Evening Primrose


Four O’Clocks




Hummingbird Trumpet

Indian Pink




Liatris (Gayfeather)


Linden Tree








Prickly Pear

Prince’s Plume


Red Hot Poker

Red Yucca

Robinia Locust


Scarlet Gilia

Scarlet Runner Beans



Trumpet Vine


Vitex (Chaste Tree)




(Hummingbirds love any nectar producing flowers.)


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