Learn from a Leader: How to create a pollinator sanctuary

Our Learn from a Leader series is our way to share the tremendous, varied expertise of our leaders with the ioby community as a whole. We hope you enjoy!

Pete Widin is a recent graduate of the Master of Landscape Architecture program at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. He is excited to continue supporting a transition to perennial-based agriculture and community development through the participatory design of gathering spaces and urban food oases. He currently resides in Portland, Oregon and works at Pistils Nursery as a Landscape Designer.


The steps

Without the assistance of pollinators, many of the plants we rely on for food cannot produce fruits, vegetables, or seeds. Honeybees are well-known pollinators, but different kinds of butterflies, beetles, moths, ants, wasps, cicadas, aphids, and others insects also carry out this important duty. Earmarking part of your garden as a pollinator sanctuary—an area devoted to plants that support local pollinators—will encourage these helpers to keep helping us.

  1. Round up a reliable crew. If you want to build a sanctuary in a shared space like a community garden, get a core group of volunteers to work with you who are interested not just in designing and planting, but also in long-term stewardship. (It might surprise you how often a group starts a garden but then neglects it; weeds can quickly take over and undo all your work.) Reach out to your social networks or talk to people in community gardens near you to connect with good candidates.
  1. Location, location, location. Ideally, you’ll be able to choose a spot that’s highly visible but not highly trafficked to locate your sanctuary. A colorful pollinator strip alongside a fence or bordering a garden’s periphery can be a pretty as well as functional addition. Since you want bugs to be swarming around, the main purpose of this area will be conservation and education, not so much leisure!
  1. Design it right. When you’re designing your sanctuary, keep in mind that small is usually best to start. You’ll keep costs low and learn as you go. Create a specific plan: what plants will you plant, how many of them, where in the plot? What do you have to do to prepare the area: take off turf, rototill? Will you want any signs to relay information to visitors? Think through how you’ll implement your design, who on your team will do what, and when everything will happen. Take this time to make a plan for continued maintenance, too.
  1. Finance. Find out who owns or manages the land you’re working on and see how they might be able to help. Houses of worship, local universities, neighborhood associations, your municipal parks department, and natural resource agencies can be other good sources of support. When you present your plan, make sure you illustrate its many functions: education, plant propagation, point of interest… When you meet with potential funders, bring a sketch of your plans and/or photos of the garden space to show them what you’re thinking.
  1. Installation & inspiration. Have snacks for your crew on installation days!, and always ask everyone to introduce themselves at the beginning. Have fun and the process will go fast. As you get established, let nearby schools, churches, civic organizations, and other garden enthusiasts know. Invite them to check the sanctuary out, and think about what programming or events could be planned there.


[Courtesy Xerces Society]


Gather your team in the fall and meet a few times during the winter to plan. Planting plugs in the spring instead of seeds in the fall the first year is usually good—plugs flower earlier and have a stronger root system.


Pollinator sanctuaries are often less expensive to implement than edible gardens, because you don’t need raised beds. Budget around $5 per square foot for plants, then think about whether you’ll need to buy or rent tools, how many people you’ll need to have snacks for, etc. The 1,000-square foot sanctuary I helped build at a botanical garden cost about $2,000 total.


Depending on the garden, you may need a sod cutter, sheets of painter’s plastic (to kill weeds over the winter), trowels, and rakes. When you buy your plugs, try to go to a native plant nursery that sells local genotype plants, ideally collected in the wild nearby. This will benefit your pollinators a lot.

Additional resources

The Xerces Society can help you find the right plants to attract pollinators in your region

– Your local university’s agriculture extension can help with this and other questions

– Ask neighborhood landscape designers and park employees if they’d be willing to chat about garden design or the native plants popular with your local pollinators

Want more? Find out from Sustainable Flatbush’s Sheryll Durrant how to make a healing herb garden!

Inspired? Start your own project!