A pollinator garden is one that is designed to provide flowers for pollinators. Right away I felt myself becoming frustrated with the term “pollinator garden” for its focus on (1) flowers and (2) one category of wildlife.
Mind you, there is nothing wrong with a pollinator garden, per say, and there are certainly many benefits. I am really encouraged that native plants are getting recognized for their vital role in supporting pollinators, but I am not sure this is the appropriate context. The term that should be used is “ecosystem”. More on that later.
If “pollinator gardening” as a concept sparks interest in someone to garden, to garden with native plants or garden for the first time, then it is incredibly valuable. Similarly, if a pollinator garden encourages more people to remove parts of their lawn, then again it is fantastic, and very beneficial to wildlife. So there are many positives with the burgeoning pollinator garden popularity. I wonder if the pollinator garden movement can be traced back to a fantastic book called “The Forgotten Pollinators” by Buchmann, Nabhan, and Mirocha. If you haven’t read it, give it a read.
Although pollinator gardeners might provide nectar to pollinators and help attract some insects, the real problem is we have made vast expanses of land unrecognizable to native pollinators (and many other species of wildlife) by converting our native plant communities to ones that resemble plant communities in other parts of the world. But recent evidence suggests that by using native plants in urban, and suburban landscaping, we can reverse the declines of native insects, and ultimately higher trophic organisms. Douglas Tallamy has written books and papers on this subject (click here for more information and downloads).
However, my first reaction is that “pollinator gardens” are another example of a failed attempt at “single species management”. That is agency-speak for when you manage for one species (often the wrong one), with the intention of protecting the ecosystem. When in fact it is often backward. As I have mentioned before, we need to distance ourselves from the idea of planting a single species to attract a single species or life stage of the species, and garden with a broader understanding of biology and ecology.
"Pollinators" as a group are diverse; they range from ants, to birds to bats. If your goal is to provide habitat or food for pollinators, for example, your garden should be equally diverse to be effective. Furthermore when people think of “pollinator gardening,” most people plant flowers that may attract adult bees or butterflies. However what is truly limiting to many pollinators (especially butterflies and moths), are the plants that host their larval stage. The larval stage is so important- but we don’t garden for it explicitly because we don’t witness the larval stage of pollinators very much. I don't see too many people planting expanses of prairie June grass to promote the larval skippers, though that might be the most important plant in a pollinator garden.
So that brings me back to my ongoing philosophy of wildlife gardening with native plants: think broadly, think holistically, and think of diversity- diversity of structure, diversity of species, and diversity of life stages. Ecosystems are complex and it’s not effective to match one species of plant to one species of animal.
In the end, pollinator gardens are not that bad, and probably a very good thing, but it is a shame the idea is so close to articulating the importance of native plant communities and promoting conservation and restoration of ecosystems, if even at the scale of a suburban yard.