Beyond Milkweed

In 2023, the Ask a Master Gardener Zoom series will focus on the year of the biodiverse garden. In today’s presentation, Master Gardener Nancy Shepherd introduces the concept of diverse plantings in our gardens to support wildlife.

Image credit: Northern Gardener

More than a Monoculture

Biological diversity (biodiversity) refers to the inter-connected existence of all living things (plants, animals, insects, fungi, microorganisms) working together in balance to support an intricate web of life on earth. 

In our gardens, this is more than simply grouping plants that may be attractive to us, but is an evolving and inter-connected system that provides habitat, nesting sites and food sources to a wide variety of creatures, including native pollinators. In the wild, most plants do not grow alone but thrive alongside companion species of various kinds.

One thing we know with absolute certainty is that everything we need to survive – every morsel of food we put in our mouths, the oxygen in every breath we take, the clean water we drink – is the the product of the work done by other species

Enric Sala, 2020, The Nature of Nature – Why we Need the Wild

Supporting Pollinators

We’ve learned that milkweed is a host plant for the monarch butterfly, on which the female lays her eggs and emerging caterpillars feed. However, the adult monarch feeds on the nectar of a variety of other flowering plants too. And, of course, monarchs are just one of many species under threat. We need to restore and protect healthy, multi-layered ecosystems for the rest, including the native bees, moths, beetles and butterflies that do this work.

Image credit: Thames Talbot Land Trust

Bees: An Example

A biodiverse garden can support multiple native bee species, many of which are under threats to their survival. Native bees forage only within short distances and are solitary nesters, requiring more of our landscapes for native plants and nesting sites. Approximately 25% of our native bees are specialists, relying on pollen or oils from a single plant species, a single plant genus, or a few closely related plant genera. Nancy’s suggested references include helpful guides to selecting regional native plants which flower at various times to support these species throughout the season, and provide information on bees species and nesting preferences.

While bumble bees are generalist feeders, gathering pollen and nectar from a wide range of flowers, still many species are in decline or are endangered, and need our help in restoring and protecting their habitat. Home garden habitats for pollinators should also include resting areas (perhaps a sunny rock ledge) and sources of water.

Gardeners have a role to play in creating a climate resilient, adaptable landscapes supporting biodiversity. And perhaps not surprisingly, while doing so we can help reduce CO2 emissions.

Maximum carbon sequestration occurs when multiple species of plants with  similar cultural needs form a community with each other, other organisms, and  the denizens of the living soil in which they grow.

So, let’s consider changing our garden practices to mimic nature by planting a community of native species. And stay tuned to Ask a Master Gardner for more information in the months to come!


The following books are highly recommended by Nancy and several are available at the Kingston Frontenac Public Library

Hurwitz, J., 2018. Butterfly Gardening: The North American Butterfly Association  Guide. 

Vogt, B., 2023. Prairie Up: An Introduction to Natural Garden Design

Weidenhammer, L., 2016. Victory Gardens for Bees: A DIY Guide to Saving the Bees

Packer, L., 2015, Keeping the Bees 

Holm, H., 2017, Bees, An Identification and Native Plant Forage Guide 

Tallamy, D., 2020, Bringing Nature Home

Recommended websites:

Monarch Gardens “No, we don’t just need to plant more milkweed

Carbon Gardening

Understanding our Planet to Benefit Humankind

Selecting Plants for Pollinators: A Guide for Gardeners, Farmers and Land Managers in the Lake Erie Lowland Ecoregion 

Pollinator Partnership (including eco-regional planting guides)

Wild Pollinator Partners – Ontario East (Ottawa)

Pollen Specialist Bees of the Eastern United States

Creating a pollinator garden for native specialist bees of New York and the Northeast