Use Your Container Garden To Attract Pollinators: How & Why

container garden with birdhouse

If you’re looking to add a touch of nature to your patio, consider using container gardens to attract pollinators. Container gardens are a great way to add interest and color to your outdoor space, and they can also be used to provide food and habitat for bees, butterflies, and other pollinators.

By including a variety of plants in your container garden, you can create a hospitable environment for these important insects.

Pollinators are essential for the health of our environment and can help with the pollination of fruits and vegetables in your garden. There are many different pollinators, so you can create a diverse garden that will appeal to various bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. By adding some flowering plants to your patio, you can enjoy watching these beautiful creatures and helping them out!

Flower qualities that attract pollinators

Pollinators will visit just about any flower in your garden, but just like people, some flowers are more appealing than others.

Color

Brightly colored flowers are particularly appealing to pollinators as they are easy to spot from a distance, with yellow, red, and orange flowers standing out best. 

Additionally, bees and other pollinators can see UV wavelengths. Some flowers, like sunflowers, have UV patterning in their blooms that function sort of like a bullseye directing pollinators to their pollen-rich centers.

Pollen and nectar

Pollinators feed on pollen and nectar, so plants rich in both are sure to draw pollinators to your container garden. And while hummingbirds have no sense of smell, bees have quite developed olfactory senses and can’t resist flowers with strong fragrances. 

Flower shape

Finally, flower shapes can make some flowers more attractive to specific pollinators. Hummingbirds favor long, tubular flowers that perfectly fit their slender beaks, and butterflies prefer large, broad blooms that accommodate their wide wingspans.

That doesn’t mean you won’t find butterflies landing on small flowers or hummingbirds avoiding small clusters of flowers. A variety of flower shapes will simply increase the likelihood of having something for everyone.

Other pollinators, like bees, will visit any flower that looks appealing to them!

Native and organic plant options are best for pollinator gardens

It is always best to opt for native plants, as they have evolved alongside native pollinators and are often preferred by bees, hummingbirds, and butterflies. 

Native plants not only provide an excellent food source for pollinators, but they also often support pollinators at all stages of their lifecycles, providing food and shelter for native caterpillars and protein-rich pollen for bee larvae.

Another key to providing accessible flowers for pollinators is to opt for heirloom varieties over hybrid plants. Some hybrids have been bred to be pollenless, which makes them only half as useful to pollinators.

Finally, choose single blooms over double blooms, or at least include a mixture of bloom types. Single flowers have one row of petals that leaves the center open and accessible, whereas double blooms are puffier and the center is often obscured.

It takes some planning, but if you can plant a variety of flowers with different blooming times, that will ensure there’s always something for pollinators to eat in your container garden.

Always choose organically grown plants if you’re buying seedlings or transplants. Many nursery plants are treated with insecticides to keep them looking their best during transportation and time in the nursery or garden center.

Unfortunately, those insecticides can linger on the plants and harm the same pollinators you are trying to attract. You’ll often see a tag on the nursery pot stating the plant has been treated with neonicotinoids, synthetic insecticides which are known to kill bees. If you see that tag, it’s best to find another plant or try another nursery altogether.

 If in doubt, don’t be shy about asking your local nursery whether or not their plants are treated with neonicotinoids or other insecticides.

Add value to your container garden with food and water

Filling your container garden with plants pollinators love is a surefire way to attract bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds to your backyard patio or balcony. But if you want to make your small space irresistible to pollinators, your potted flowers and other plants are just one element of your backyard oasis.

Add bird feeders and nectar reservoirs

While pollinators will happily feed on the nectar- and pollen-rich flowers in your planters, adding additional feeders can amp up your container garden and provide different food sources. 

Hummingbird feeders are often brightly colored and add charm to a small space. It won’t take long for the birds to find your feeder, and you’ll be rewarded with hours of backyard birdwatching. 

When setting up your hummingbird feeder, use dye-free nectar. 

Here’s a simple, make-at-home nectar recipe:

  • 1 part refined white sugar 
  • 4 parts water 
  • Mix and stir until the sugar is fully dissolved.

You can store extra nectar in your refrigerator for up to two weeks.

If you’re into DIY, you can make your own easy butterfly feeders by affixing the top of a plastic champagne coupe onto a wooden dowel rod and driving the rod into one of your planters. 

Add a plastic mesh scouring pad to the top of the coupe, pour in some hummingbird nectar, and you’ve made an easy butterfly feeder that pollinators won’t be able to resist. 

For another simple DIY pollinator feeder, place overripe fruit, such as bananas, apples, and oranges, in a pie pan or other shallow dish and move the container to a sunny spot. Replace the fruit daily to prevent spoilage.

Supply fresh water

You can also add a water source to your container garden to provide a place for pollinators (and other backyard creatures) to drink and bathe. A small birdbath or even a shallow dish filled with fresh water can do the trick. 

Add some small pebbles, glass marbles, or clean gravel to the bottom of your container, pour in a bit of water and place your dish in a sunny spot. The pebbles will provide a landing spot for bees, and birds can dip their beaks in the deeper areas.

If you’re tight on space or gardening on a balcony, you can use a clamping birdbath that can be mounted on your balcony railing. An elevated birdbath will probably make the birds feel more secure, so anticipate seeing even more activity than average.

Provide shelter through the seasons

The final element of a successful container garden is shelter. While some pollinators may nest directly in your planters, adding a solitary bee house near your container gardens can provide additional refuge for native bees, like carpenter bees, mason bees, and miner bees.

If you’re handy, a solitary bee house can be constructed at home using a few pieces of scrap wood and pinecones, twigs, or cut bamboo.

Dedicated butterfly houses are also available for purchase at many garden centers or nurseries, or you can order one online as well. If you’re working with minimal space, consider installing a multi-purpose insect hotel that caters to bees, butterflies, and even ladybugs.  

yellow butterfly house in garden
Butterfly houses are helpful in large and small gardens alike.

Finally, don’t forget that the plants themselves can provide valuable shelter for pollinators, so be sure to include a mix of native perennials and annuals in your container garden design.

At the end of the season, see if you can leave some old plants behind, even if it doesn’t look that great. Doing so will provide a safe place for pollinators to roost during the winter months and will make your container garden that much more attractive to these important creatures.

With a little planning, you can easily turn your container garden into a paradise that will attract bees, butterflies, hummingbirds, and other pollinators all season long.

Three container combinations to attract pollinators

On to the fun part: getting your hands dirty! Designing your pollinator-friendly planters can be as easy as tucking whatever plants you have into a pot. Or, you can be more intentional about the design if you have specific pollinators in mind.

Here are some tips and sample recipes to get your creative juices flowing if that sounds like you.

Design elements for pollinators

When constructing any container garden, you’ll want to focus on three elements, known as “the thriller, the filler, the spiller.” 

The thriller element is the centerpiece of your design and gives the “wow factor” to your planter. Large plants with bright blooms, interesting growth habits, or patterned foliage are the typical characteristics that make for a great thriller plant. 

Filler plants are planted around the thriller and are used to add a punch of complementary color and fill in space. For an ideal filler flower, choose plants that are somewhat shorter than your thriller plant but help to accentuate the thriller with their color, foliage patterns, or growth habit. 

arrangement of potted flowers with a birdbath
A variety of plants and a bird feeder is a perfect way to draw in pollinators.

A properly chosen filler should draw attention to your thriller, fill in space, and add visual interest to your design.

Finally, spiller plants usually have trailing growth habits that cover any bare soil in your container and then spill out to drape naturally down your container sides.

While spillers are often foliage plants, there are many excellent spiller plants with bright blooms that can be used to add more color to your container and attract even more pollinators. 

Maximize the impact of your container garden by choosing plants of each element with bright blooms that are rich in nectar and pollen. Fragrant, native, heirloom plants are excellent choices and when you plant several different colors and flower shapes, you will maximize the pollinator potential of your container garden.

1. Milkweed, black eyed Susan, and lantana for butterflies

Butterflies most easily spot blooms in yellow, orange, and red and opt for wide, flat flowers that accommodate their wide wingspans. Verbena, Mexican sunflowers, zinnias, catmint, and pansies are all crowd favorites and would do well in a dedicated butterfly container garden.

For a particularly striking display that is certain to draw in a wide variety of butterflies, utilize the bright, orange hues of native milkweed as the centerpiece of your planter. Add the golden yellow blooms of black eyed Susan as your filler, and plant trailing lantana to finish off the combination.

2. Sunflowers, echinacea, and sweet alyssum for bees

Bees seek out yellow, white, blue, and purple flowers and, as the pollinators with the best sense of smell, flower fragrance is essential when trying to attract bees. Black-eyed Susan, pansies, marigolds, sage, and alliums are beloved by bees and make excellent additions to bee habitats.

To create a container garden fit for the bees, try planning your planter around a bee favorite: sunflowers. Bees can see the UV patterning on sunflowers’ wide blossoms and simply can’t resist them. 

Since you’re working with a small space, opt for a dwarf sunflower variety, such as the Sunspot dwarf sunflower, which boasts pretty, golden yellow petals. Surround your dwarf sunflower with pink echinacea, and then utilize the trailing, delicate form of white or purple sweet alyssum as your spiller. 

When you add your planter to your backyard space, be prepared for visits from honeybees, bumblebees, and other native bees.

3. Bee balm, salvia, and nasturtiums for hummingbirds

Hummingbirds are most attracted to bright red blooms and long, thin, tubular-shaped flowers. Some favorite blooms for hummingbirds include red cardinal flowers, zinnias, salvia, columbines, and petunias. 

To attract hummingbirds to your patio or balcony, a planter perfectly suited to their needs should include a profusion of bright blooms.

Using bright red, native bee balm as your thriller is sure to draw the attention of visiting hummingbirds. Fill in space with pink, red, and orange snapdragons or red salvia. Finish your planter with the trailing red and purple blooms of Fuschia or trailing nasturtiums to bring it all together into a beautiful display that hummingbirds will love.

Now set up your container garden

There are many ways to attract pollinators to your container garden, including choosing plants with bright blooms in various colors, shapes, and sizes. By utilizing the right plants and providing a safe place for these essential creatures to land, you can create a beautiful environment on your patio or balcony that will benefit everyone involved.

If you need some inspiration for what to grow, get creative with this list: 12 Cut Flowers To Grow In Containers (Plus tips for success). Both the pollinators and you will have plenty of pretty flowers to enjoy!

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