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7 compact plants perfect for small pollinator gardens

Jessica Walliser
Jessica Walliser | for the Tribune-Review
Buttonbush is a favorite nectar source for many types of pollinators, including this tiger swallowtail butterfly and numerous species of bees.

Gardens can be really beautiful places, full of color and interest, that bring peace and joy to those who tend and visit them. But, gardens can also serve purposes far beyond their beauty.

Gardens can foster and support pollinators and other insects, increase local biodiversity and provide food and shelter for many species of mammals, amphibians, reptiles and birds. Selecting plants and planning a garden that benefits non-human creatures too is of increasing importance as natural habitat disappears.

The shortage of pollinating insects in many regions, especially urban locations, has many ramifications for food gardeners and farmers, too. Deformed zucchini, misshapen cucumbers and puny apples are all signs of poor pollination.

You might think you need a large piece of land to help pollinators, but you don’t. Even if you’re planting a few small containers or installing a petite, flower-filled bed around your front steps, you’ll be helping pollinators from bees to beetles to butterflies. Just because you garden on a small scale, doesn’t mean you can’t support pollinators in a big way.

Thankfully, plant breeders have developed short-statured versions of many of our favorite pollinator-friendly flowering plants. This means that gardeners who are short on space can still do their share to help pollinators. If you don’t have room to grow a bee balm that reaches 4 feet in height, there are now several bee balm varieties that top out at just 18 inches in height. That also means no staking is required.

Admittedly, the jury is still out in terms of research looking into whether or not the height of a plant affects it’s appeal to pollinators or the fitness of its nectar. In my own garden, where I grow a variety of plants of varying heights and I try my best to plant as many native plant species and their cultivars as possible, I have a plethora of happy pollinators, though they certainly prefer some plants to others.

Whether you want to provide nectar and habitat for pollinators simply to improve your garden’s biodiversity, or you’re aiming to increase pollination for your vegetable garden, here are some of the best small-statured plants to attract and support a broad diversity of pollinating insects. They’re perfect for small gardens and containers, but you can certainly include them in large garden beds, too.

1. Magical Moonlight Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis ‘Moonlight’ ): A compact version of a North American native shrub, Magical Moonlight buttonbush is an exceptional pollinator plant. It lures and supports bees, hummingbirds and butterflies while in bloom. Standing at half the height and width of the straight species, this cultivar matures at just 5 to 8 feet tall and 4 to 6 feet wide. A very adaptable shrub that produces golf-ball-sized, creamy-white, round flower clusters in late spring, buttonbush thrives in full sun to part shade and is hardy to 20 below zero. Pollinators pack the bloom clusters for their pollen and nectar. Great for bogs and poorly drained sites, buttonbush also performs like a champ in regular garden soils, too.

2. Little Henry Virginia Sweetspire (Itea virginica ‘Little Henry’): A longtime favorite of mine, this small-statured Virginia sweetspire is covered with pendulous clusters of fragrant, white flowers in the spring. In the fall, the thick, medium green foliage turns a brilliant red. This is a cultivar of a North American native shrub that the pollinators absolutely adore. It maxes out at about 2 to 3 feet tall and wide, and is winter hardy to 20 below zero.

3. Sapphire Surf Bluebeard (Caryopteris x clandonensis ‘Blauer Splatz’): A low-maintenance, mounding shrub with deep blue blooms that will knock your socks off, this compact version of the blue mist shrub is all that and a bag of chips. Reaching just 2 feet tall and 3 feet wide, this deer-resistant shrub is smothered in flat-topped, fuzzy flower clusters in late summer through fall. The blooms are covered with a variety of bee species every day, from sunrise to sunset. Requiring full sun and hardy to 20 below zero, Sapphire Surf’s only care requirement is an early spring haircut, when its woody stems should be cut down to about 8 to 10 inches in height.

4. Butterfly Julia Coneflower (Echinacea ‘Julia’): Coneflowers are the darlings of perennial gardeners everywhere. But urban gardeners with limited space may find they take up far too much room. Enter Butterfly Julia coneflower. Reaching just 15 inches tall, this selection is sturdy, compact, strong and floriferous. Tangerine-colored, 4-inch-wide flowers are produced from mid-summer through early fall. Single-petaled coneflowers like this one are generally better for pollinators than double-flowered types as their nectaries are more accessible. Shrugging off winters down to 30 below zero, coneflowers require full sun and they make a great cut flower, too.

5. Purple Dome New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae ‘Purple Dome’): If you’re looking for late season color in an itty bitty perennial package, ‘Purple Dome’ aster has you covered. With its mounding form and bushy growth habit, this cultivar of a North American native plant blooms in early fall with hundreds of deep purple, half-inch wide blooms graced with yellow centers. The entire plant is covered in color when this variety is in bloom. An excellent late-season nectar source for pollinators that’s hardy down to 30 below zero, ‘Purple Dome’ reaches just 12 to 18 inches tall and 3 feet wide with no staking required.

6. Pardon My Purple Dwarf Bee Balm (Monarda didyma ‘Pardon My Purple’): A summer-blooming perennial that’s hardy to 30 below zero, this compact bee balm requires little more than full sun and average garden soil. In bloom for weeks at a time, it maxes out at just 10 to 12 inches tall, making it the perfect choice for small-scale pollinator gardens. A cultivar of a North American native plant, ‘Pardon My Purple’ is a pint-sized version of a garden favorite. The flowers are deep fuchsia purple, and both the flowers and the deer- and powdery mildew- resistant foliage are edible and make a wonderful herbal tea when dried. This variety is one of several selections in the Pardon My series of compact monardas. Other varieties produce light pink, lavender and cerise blooms.

7. Black Adder Anise Hyssop (Agastache rugosum x A. foeniculum ‘Black Adder’): The slender, bottlebrush-shaped, bright blue flower clusters of ‘Black Adder’ hyssop are a favorite of many species of bees. In bloom from mid-summer until frost, this licorice-scented plant looks great in containers and garden beds. With a mature height and width of 2 to 3 feet and a winter hardiness of 10 below zero, ‘Black Adder’ forms an upright clump that’s a good foot shorter than other varieties of this perennial. And as an added bonus, anise hyssop is deer-, drought- and heat-resistant, too.

If you’re looking for more great compact plants for your garden, from trees and evergreens to vegetables and fruits, you might find my latest book of interest. “Gardener’s Guide to Compact Plants: Edibles & Ornamentals for Small-Space Gardening” is now available wherever books are sold.

Horticulturist Jessica Walliser co-hosts “The Organic Gardeners” at 7 a.m. Sundays on KDKA Radio with Doug Oster. She is the author of several gardening books, including “Attracting Beneficial Bugs to Your Garden,” “Good Bug, Bad Bug,” and her newest title, “Container Gardening Complete.” Her website is jessicawalliser.com. Send your gardening or landscaping questions to [email protected] or The Good Earth, 622 Cabin Hill Drive, Greensburg, PA 15601.

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