Autumn assistance for pollinators

Late summer and early autumn are perhaps the most beautiful times of the year here in New England, as the angle of light changes and cooler crisper air arrives. Bright yellow goldenrods and asters in blue, purple, pink and white come into bloom — they are key additions to your pollinator garden.  Goldenrods and asters are the primary source of fall nectar and pollen for bees and essential to their winter survival. (Many folks confuse goldenrod with allergen plants that result in hay fever, but goldenrod is not one of those and does not cause allergic irritation.)

While the big leaf fall is not until October, the occasional early leaf can be seen floating through the air and there are hints of our spectacular autumn color show to come; alas fall clean-up looms. This fall, as you begin to tidy up your yard for winter, keep in mind your gardening activities. What you choose to do on your property can have a real impact on our native pollinators, songbirds and other wildlife throughout the winter and for the coming spring and summer seasons.  

If you can hold off cutting back perennial stalks and seed heads and leave your flower border or meadow standing through winter — that is, wait until March or April to cut — you will be providing native pollinator habitat and a much-needed food supply for migrating song birds and the hardy birds that winter here. A winter meadow or border garden with stalks and seed heads standing is a beautiful sight as it catches the sunlight. A leftover perennial stalk, a bare patch of dirt, a tree cavity — these are some of the simple habitats for native bee nests that may be lacking in today’s typical garden.  Keep sunny, non-mulched areas where ground-nesting bees can tunnel for their nests. They need to over-winter underground and to be left undisturbed. Try to refrain from putting a thick layer of mulch on your flower beds so the native pollinators are able to emerge from their ground-nesting sites in spring. If the mulch is too thick, they will not be able to get out.  

Leave pithy stalks for wood nesters such as the mason bees. Natural bee nesting sites might include goldenrod, roses, raspberry, sumac, elderberry, blackberry, willow and more. Bumblebees are opportunistic nesters using hollow logs, old bird’s nests, dead trees, compost piles, vacant birdhouses and abandoned small mammal burrows. If you can keep leaves in place under trees and shrubs, you can provide habitat for butterfly pupae and queen bumble bees over the winter. Fireflies also need leaf litter and humidity for their larvae, which eat snails, slugs and insects. If you blast all the leaves off your property with a leafblower this fall, you will not have fireflies next summer.

Invite the American Goldfinch to stop by your place this winter. The males are bright yellow with a black cap and wings and a white rump; females and males in winter are more subdued in color. They are small, chirpy birds that have a bouncy flight and are fun to watch. Goldfinches can balance on the rocking seed heads of their favorite plants — thistle, coneflower, sunflower, dandelion, aster, grasses and trees such as alder, birch, cedar and elm. They prefer hanging onto seed heads rather than feeding on the ground for safety from predators; and seed that has fallen on the ground is more likely to be wet, moldy and spread disease. So leave those purple coneflower and sunflower seed heads standing, they may look messy to you, but are a welcome sight for hungry songbirds.  

Plant spring bulbs this fall for the bees. Did you know you can feed the bees with spring blooming flowers and bulbs? Bees will be looking for food sources in early spring when there may not be much food available. Plant the following fall bulbs in your garden to attract beneficial native bees: crocus, allium (Globemaster is one example), grape hyacinth, fritillaria, snowdrops, anemone and squill. As you know, bee-friendly gardens are important to help increase bee populations. A habitat full of nectar and pollen is the best way to attract bees, and planting fall bulbs for early spring blooms is one good way to help. And fall is a great time for planting, providing plants time to establish good root systems and become stronger. Plants that are planted in the fall may have a higher survival rate. Also, most nurseries have big sales at this time of the year.

Here are a few native trees and shrubs that would make a good addition to your garden: chokecherry, hawthorn, spirea (meadowsweet), wild lilac, willow, basswood (linden), oak, elderberry, false indigo, buttonbush, crabapples and wild roses. And, if you haven’t already done so, join us on the Wilton Pollinator Pathway this fall!

For more information and a list of native plant nurseries/plant availability here:

Recommended reading: Bringing Nature Home by Doug Tallamy, Victory Gardens for Bees by Lori Weidnhammer, The Humane Gardener by Nancy Lawson. Please visit and