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New Book: Gardening for Bees, Butterflies and More

Swallowtail butterfly on flower
Danesha Seth Carley and Anne Spafford's book is full of photos, drawings, diagrams and text that guide gardeners step-by-step through designing and maintaining a garden for pollinators like this swallowtail butterfly. (Photo by Danesha Seth Carley)

If you’re Interested in creating gardens that attract bees, butterflies and other pollinators and live in the South, two North Carolina State University faculty members have just the book for you.

“Pollinator Gardening for the South: Creating Sustainable Habitats” is a step-by-step guidebook that’ll help you get started and maintain beautiful habitats to support some of the pollinator populations that are now declining.

Authors Danesha Seth Carley and Anne M. Spafford, of NC State’s Department of Horticultural Science, offer a wealth of knowledge about both insects and garden design. The 168-page book brings science and art to cover a range of gardens — from patio container gardens to larger-scale school and community gardens. Both food and ornamental gardens are included.

Seth Carley and Spafford cover how to prepare soil and garden beds, select plants, consider seasonality, manage the garden year-round, and more.

The book, published by UNC Press, is offered in both paperback and ebook formats. The ebook is now available through Amazon, Apple iBooks and Barnes and Noble, and the paperback will be issued in March. It’s appropriate for gardeners in U.S. Department of Agriculture hardiness zones 6, 7, 8 and 9, which include 12 Southern states. (Read a review of the book by Linda Brinson, author of the blog Briar Patch Books and former book editor for the Winston-Salem Journal.)

Spafford, an associate professor who teaches landscape design, recently shared a few thoughts about pollinator gardens, gardens in general and the book.

Why did you write this book?

You often hear that one in every three bites of food you eat comes from food that has to be pollinated, and because we are destroying pollinator habitat, we need to be putting that back at a pretty fast rate. People might think that, at the residential scale, “Oh, those are really small spaces. They can’t possibly have a lot of impact.” But when you think about residential properties in aggregate, each contributing some pollinator habitat, the impact can be quite substantial.

So our theme through the book is, no garden is too small. I can plant one pollinator plant out in my yard and pollinators will come immediately. If someone has just a sunny balcony, that is enough room to create a mini pollinator habitat to support our bee friends.

Bees and humans want the same things out of gardens: color, diversity and a lot of seasonality.

Our book focuses a lot on our native pollinators. There are over 500 species of native bees in North Carolina alone. By and large, they are solitary dwellers so you don’t need to provide and manage a structure. They aren’t defending their young so they rarely sting.

You can support these native pollinators by just the plants that you include in your landscape. It’s funny that bees and humans want the same things out of gardens. Humans want plants that are really colorful, and provide drama (high diversity), and a lot of seasonality — flowering as much of the year as possible. Pollinators require the same: many different flower types in terms of flower size, color, and season of bloom support all the different sizes and kinds of bees.

Bees also need pollen and nectar the entire time they are flying (approximately March to October) so seasonality is critical. Lastly, high diversity in plant species is important so pollinators have all their nutritional needs met.

What makes a pollinator garden different than any other garden?

In my mind, they should be the same. We are trying to have things blooming for as much of the year as possible, which here in North Carolina, we can get a really, really long season of bloom if we pick our plants carefully. And we can do that with pollinator plants. As a designer who’s trying to make the best environmental decisions possible, I make it a habit to include pollinator-attractive plants. For example, for any sunny site, you can incorporate milkweed to support the Monarch butterflies. Who doesn’t like butterflies?

What’s the best first step for someone considering a pollinator garden?

As a designer, I would first assess the space that you have. The most successful pollinator gardens are going to be in part sun to full sun just because that’s where the bees are. Then it’s looking at the soil conditions, the moisture conditions, views from the house, and all the contextual variables, and then finding a palette of plants that are good for that situation.

Planning for seasonality is the most difficult. Our book explains how to think through what a planting bed will look like throughout the year, and how to use seasonality charts while you are designing a garden bed.

What suggestions do you have for those who might think that gardening is too hard or time-consuming?

I feel like garden management has gotten a bad reputation. Gardens are inherently stress-relieving. Working in the garden is actually good for you, both physically and mentally. In the pandemic, that has really come to the forefront.

It’s important to consider what tasks you like to do and what you don’t like to do in terms of gardening, then design the garden to meet those parameters. For example, I hate to mow and I hate to weed-eat garden bed edges after I mow. Because of this, my garden beds are edged with pavers so I can set my mower wheel right on that so I don’t need to come back and edge that line. It’s more expensive to install, but it’s attractive, provides a tidy edge for my perennials beds, and it’s so much easier for me to manage.

Another consideration is picking the right plants – ones that aren’t fussy, that are easy to grow, but not invasive or that will take over your garden. Massing the plantings and covering all of the planting bed space is important to prevent weeds.

What are some pollinator plants that work well here in North Carolina?

There are so many! You want to make sure that you’re providing flowering for as long as the year as possible, so you need to incorporate plants that bloom super early.

For early season, a good small plant is our Eastern columbine. There’s also a plant called zizia, or golden alexander, that’s a re-bloomer, and it’s also a larval food source for the black swallowtail butterfly. Baptisia, with its purple, yellow or white blooms, is also good for early spring. Some of the earliest blooming plants that are the best for bees are red maples.

For summer blooms, you cannot beat purple coneflower, just because it blooms for so long and goes into the fall. Mountain mint is amazing, as is rattlesnake master.

Probably the hardest season for pollinators is late summer/early fall, when a lot of our gardens start giving up the ghost because it gets so dry and hot. So our native asters are excellent. Another good fall plant is goldenrod, but it can be quite bossy in a garden (and that’s being polite). I always plant mine in a pot to try to prevent it from spreading in my yard.

So those are just a few examples of things that would give wave after wave of blooms throughout say March through frost in October or early November. But the book has a lot more, so buy the book!

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

I would say the book is unique in that it has excellent pollinator information focused on our native bees, and it includes design information, which really isn’t in any book to date. It is loaded with excellent images, drawings and diagrams, so it’s very easy for anyone — even those without green thumbs — to understand. Plus, it is an enjoyable read.

It is a wonderful reference for homeowners. It will also be helpful for students and design professionals alike.