If you want to beautify your yard while simultaneously doing your little part to save the world, consider planting a pollinator garden. Even a small outdoor space can make a difference to bees, butterflies and other important pollinators.

Most types of flowering plants require pollination. While wind and water are responsible for pollinating some plants, and a few are even self-pollinating, the vast majority depend on little mobile creatures. The act of a bee or other critter transferring pollen from one flower to another of the same species produces fertile seeds.

Related: Biking with Butterflies: an interview with adventurer Sara Dykman

Here’s what you need to know to help your local ecosystem stay abundant in plant and pollinator life.

Planning your pollinator garden

Shrubs, annuals and flowering perennials provide the pollen and nectar required to turn an ordinary garden into a thriving pollinator garden. Even if you only have an apartment patio, you can create a pollinator garden with container plants. More space? Even better. In addition to selecting the right plants, provide a water source for your pollinators, make space for nesting sites and don’t use herbicides or pesticides that will kill off these vulnerable creatures. Native plants are best for keeping your local pollinators happy. Plus, they’re likely to require less water than ornamental, non-native plants.

yellow butterfly on milkweed plant

Attracting butterflies

So, what should you plant? That depends on which pollinators you want to attract. If you want monarch butterflies to grace your yard, the answer is easy: milkweed. According to Georgia Clay of gardening giant Monrovia, “Milkweed might be best known as being the only source of food for monarch butterfly larvae, but it is also a great source of nectar for many other species of butterflies and bees. It’s important to grow a variety native to your area in order to support monarch butterflies in your region. Search milkweed varieties here to find a variety suited to your area.”

Other plants that butterflies love include alyssum, calendula, cosmos, daylilies, hollyhock, lilac, lavender, marigold, nasturtium, snapdragon, verbena, zinnia and, unsurprisingly, butterfly bush.

green hummingbird collecting nectar from blue salvia plant

Enticing hummingbirds

Hummingbirds are amazing little creatures and so fun to watch. As Birdwatchers Digest said, you can’t have too many good hummingbird plants in your garden. Hummingbirds like colorful flowers, so plan out a continuous blooming schedule. For example, choose hanging fuchsia baskets in the spring, salvia in summer and trumpet creepers that will bloom into fall. Adjust this to your local climate, of course.

Hummingbirds dig petunias, bleeding hearts, zinnia, bee balm, columbine, lupine, salvia, cardinal flower and butterfly bush. Some of their favorites are the showy and fragrant flowering plants in the Agastache genus, also known as hummingbird mint. According to Clay, “Agastache is gorgeous planted in mass and will attract loads of bees and hummingbirds to the garden. They have a long bloom time and aromatic foliage, so deer tend not to munch.”

honeybee on sunflower

Keeping bees happy

Bees, especially honeybees, are the world’s most important pollinators. About one-third of the food that we eat relies on pollination, mostly by bees. This includes avocados, soybeans, cucumbers, cherries, melons and tons of other fruits and vegetables. Commercial crops like almonds and blueberries also rely on honeybee pollination. Bees even pollinate the alfalfa and clover that cattle eat, so they contribute to the meat and dairy industries, too.

Bees do a lot for us. But what can we do for the bees? The Savvy Gardening website suggests providing a mix of bee-pleasing plants for the various bee species that visit your yard. Bumblebees need big landing pads and can pop open flowers to access hidden nectar. Ideal plants include snapdragons, lupines and hooded monkshood flowers. Bumblebees have long tongues that can reach down tubular flowers like salvias and phlox.

Smaller bees need smaller flowers, so pick some plants with clusters of wee blooms, such as oregano and goldenrod. Flowers with a central disc wreathed with petals — such as sunflowers, black-eyed Susans and Shasta daisies — also feed tiny bees.

To keep bees around, include some plants with hollow stems in your pollinator garden. Female bees make brood chambers in hollow plant stems or in holes in the ground. They also might choose to shelter inside the stems during winter. Coneflower, raspberry brambles, ironweed, goldenrod and ornamental grasses can serve this purpose.

Of coneflower, also known as echinacea, Clay said, “There are many Echinacea varieties available on the market to suit any garden. Most all have an exceptionally long bloom period and provide bees with both nectar and pollen.”

Less popular pollinators

While most people delight in seeing the bright colors of butterflies and hummingbirds in the garden, some pollinators are less popular. Not everybody is so charmed by bats, although they are crucial pollinators in desert and tropical climates. And many people are downright unfriendly to flies and wasps. While wasps are much more minor pollinators, they do some incidental pollination as they move pollen grains between flowers. If you love figs, those are pollinated by wasps. Without flies, our peppers, mangoes, apples and cashews wouldn’t get pollinated. So try to appreciate these little guys, too, even if you’re not actively planting to attract them.

Use this handy tool to learn which pollinator plants will do well in your area of the U.S. or Canada.

Images via Adobe Stock Images