River-Friendly Landscaping: Planning a Pollinator Garden

It’s late winter. You’ve got cabin fever. It may seem like there’s nothing to do in the garden, and you’re anxiously awaiting the warmer days of spring. Well, you can put some of that restless energy into planning your garden for the next year. It’s a great time to put some thought into making your yard River-Friendly, and what better way to start than planning a portion as a pollinator garden!
One of the 6 principles of River-Friendly Landscaping is to create wildlife habitat that supports the biodiversity of our watershed. While we’re not looking to attract big wildlife like bears and mountain lions, we can share our landscapes with birds and beneficial insects in desperate need of habitat. Pollinators provide essential ecosystem functions and support society by pollinating many of our fruits, vegetables, and nuts.

Photo Credit: Lindsey Panton Caption: Many insects, like this Monarch butterfly, are in decline, and we can help them by planting pollinator gardens that provide them with food sources.

A number of reports have come out recently that insects are declining in many places around the globe (link, link, link). The causes of such declines are complicated interacting factors, including climate change, pesticide use, non-native species encroachment, and intensive land use changes. While these issues may seem overwhelming, it is important to remember that we have the power to create small pockets of habitat in our own front and backyards. If enough of us can do this, we can make a huge difference in our local ecosystem by supporting the biodiversity of the Truckee River Watershed. These are a few steps you can take to start planning for a spring pollinator garden.

Step 1: Pick a location

The first order of business in planning your pollinator garden will be picking a location, and no matter the size of your landscape, you can create pollinator habitat. 

If you live in an apartment, you can put a pot with pollinator plants on a patio or small deck. 

If you have a larger yard but don’t have the time and money for a redesign, it can be as simple as replacing a dead or overgrown shrub here and there. 

If you’re feeling more ambitious, you could also consider removing a section of lawn and replacing it with a pollinator garden. When it comes to being River-Friendly, the best place to remove lawn is next to the sidewalk because this helps reduce overspray from sprinklers.

Photo Credit: Carrie Jensen Caption: Planting pollinator plants between the sidewalk and your lawn provides pollinator habitat and prevents sprinklers from over-spraying onto the sidewalk. This conserves water and protects our waterways from fertilizer pollutants that can wash off our lawns and into storm drains.

While any available location is better than none, there are some places that can be ideal for pollinator gardens. Consider prioritizing sunny spots and the south or east side of the house.

Pollinators prefer warm sunny locations, especially with morning light, to help them get warmed up and active for the day. Pollinators also use a lot of energy to fly around and gather food, and they economize their energy use, so they tend to forage when there’s no wind or rain. Choosing protected areas of your yard, like the east side of the house that blocks the Washoe Zephyr, can be perfect for a pollinator garden.

Step 2: Pick your plants
Native plants are the best plants to install for native insects because they have coevolved and developed symbiotic relationships with each other. A classic example is the monarch butterfly. Female monarchs will only lay their eggs on milkweed plants (Asclepias spp.) and their caterpillars only eat milkweeds. This specialization is not unique to monarchs though; a lot of insect larvae are pretty picky eaters that depend on a specific type of native plant for food.

Photo Credit: ALAN SCHMIERER/Wikipedia Caption: Behr’s Haristreak (Satyrium behrii) caterpillars depend on bitterbrush (Purshia tridentata) for their food.

Come to think of it, having children that are picky eaters is pretty common for humans too. I guess you could say, native plants are like the mac and cheese of the insect world! So planting a few native plants can go a long way to helping pollinators, especially the larvae.

Photo credit: Carrie Jensen Caption: Just as  insect larvae prefer eating native plants, human children can also be picky eaters that insist on eating macaroni and cheese every day.

Plus, late winter is a good time to seed native plants. Many native plant seeds need cold stratification to germinate, which simply means that they need cold, wet conditions before the seed begins to develop. This cold stratification process naturally prevents seeds from germination too early or too late in the season. To let nature do the work, simply sow the seeds in late February so they get a few weeks of cold, wet conditions before it warms up in April or May. 

As you search for pollinator plants for your garden, a simple internet search can get you started. And as you research different ideas, USDA Plants (link) is an excellent resource to find out if a particular species is native to our area. Be sure to verify whether the desired species requires a cold stratification to germinate.

If you’re looking to start with seed, Comstock Seed (link) is an excellent local resource for native wildflower seeds.
When it comes to species selection, there are a few easy ones to start with: yarrow (Achillea millefolium), western sunflower (Helianthus anomalus), bee plant (Cleome serrulata), desert globemallow (Sphaeralcea ambigua), and Palmer’s penstemon (Penstemon palmeri). If you have a spot that gets a little more water, showy milkweed (Asclepias speciosa) and cinquefoil (Potentilla gracillis) are also excellent choices.

Photo credit: Carrie Jensen Caption: A bumble bee gathers nectar and pollen from a Penstemon sp. in a native plant garden at the UNR Fleischmann Agriculture building.

If you’d rather start with container plants, Moana Nursery has some recommendations for readily available perennial and annual pollinator plants in this video (link). They aren’t all native, but they are still a good place to start. 

And don’t forget – if you buy container plants, check with nursery staff to make sure they haven’t been treated with neonicotinoids, which are insecticides that are harmful to pollinators. 

Whether you go with seed or container plants, try to pick an assortment of plants that will bloom at different times to provide food sources throughout the growing season. A great reference for planning your native pollinator garden blooming seasons in the Great Basin is available from the National Wildlife Federation and the Xerces Society (link). 

Step 3: Provide Extra Amenities

Once you’ve picked your location and plants, there are some additional items you can add for a super plush pollinator pad. It’s all about the extra amenities! 

You can include a water source because insects need water as well as food sources. Insects prefer a shallow water dish with some pebbles or rocks. Just make sure to clean it out every week or two to avoid mosquito larva (while we want to encourage insects, this is one of the few we don’t want to create habitat for).

It’s also important to provide shelter in your pollinator garden. There are many ways to do that.

The simplest is to leave some leaves. Many insects overwinter in fallen leaves and duff – think of it as their insulated sleeping bag for the long winter months. If you leave some leaves as mulch under your shrubs, they will help out local pollinators, and as an extra bonus, the leaves help fertilize your shrubs when they break down and compost in place.

Photo Credit: Thorsten Frenzel/Pixabay Caption: This bee hotel provides nesting opportunities for different bee species.

You can also install different layers of plants and plant in masses or clumps. This provides more structural diversity, making more niches where different pollinators can seek shelter. 

And if you really want to spruce up the place, you could install bee nesting boxes. There are many different types to choose from depending on what type of bees you’re hoping to attract. Just be sure that you clean the hotel and switch out nesting materials to avoid pests and diseases. For more detailed info see this guide from Michigan State University: https://pollinators.msu.edu/publications/building-and-managing-bee-hotels-for-wild-bees/

With these 3 easy steps, you’ll be well on your way to planning a pollinator garden and creating habitat in your River-Friendly Landscape. Spring be here before you know it, but when it comes, your yard will be the “buzz” of the neighborhood. Happy gardening!


Hoff, Mary. 2018. As Insect Populations Decline, Scientists Are Trying to Understand Why. Ensia. Accessed 9/7/2020 from  https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/as-insect-populations-decline-scientists-are-trying-to-understand-why/

Sánchez-Bayo, F., Wyckhuys, K.A.G., 2019. Worldwide decline of the entomofauna: a review of its drivers. Biological Conservation. 232:8–27. 

Seibold, S., Gossner, M.M., Simons, N.K. et al. 2019. Arthropod decline in grasslands and forests is associated with landscape-level drivers. Nature. 574:671–674