Be a Philly Bee Bud: Easy Urban Pollinator Gardens

I’m going to make this super easy for you.

Despite there being a ton of information out there about ‘saving the bees’ and pollinator gardens, I’ll be honest…I didn’t find it as obvious or straight-forward as everyone says. I couldn’t find a simple, focused list of tips for URBAN GARDENERS who wanted NATIVE ONLY plants, that could thrive in SMALLER SPACES.

After a ton of research, trial and error, and searching, I have come up with a basic list of plants that are both hearty and can be kept in a wide variety of containers.

Seriously, just get a couple! It doesn’t matter if you don’t have even a tiny concrete block of outdoor space. Get a plastic window box from the dollar store to secure to your windowsill. Voila! You’re a bee bud.

Containers for Urban Gardening

Window boxes — Great for people with very little outdoor space. Just make sure it’s secure and isn’t going to fall off your window and squash the innocent passersby below. TIP: I trashpicked two plastic window boxes that I used on windows in the back of my house. Not cute, but free, sturdy, and out of sight. Also, packed full of herbs and close to my kitchen!

Plant Pots — Buy fancy, schmancy ones, get cheap ones from the dollar store. Just keep a couple things in mind:

  • Size-Width/Depth — research the plants you want in order to find out how big they will get — how much they like to spread, and how deeply they root.
  • Drainage — If your plants like well-drained soil make sure the pot has a drainage hole in the bottom, and/or the pot is made of porous material that will help the soil drain (terracotta, clay, concrete, etc.). You can also put a layer of small stones or bits of broken pottery on the bottom of the pot, before you add soil, to create a layer that allows water to drain from the soil

Other ‘MacGyver’d Containers — Use whatever you have handy — old bowls, buckets, etc., just keep the above variables in mind.

Where to Buy Plants

With list of pollinator-friendly plants in hand, I soon realized it was pretty tough to find a lot of them at easy-to-access stores in the city. Where was I looking?

‘Big-Box’ stores

  • Home Depot, Lowe’s, Ace Hardware (not so big box depending on the ownership), Target, Walmart.

Urban Greenhouses, Farmers Markets, and Flea Markets (?!)

  • Urban Farms & Greenhouses
    Greensgrow is the biggest independent source of plants I could find. They have all kinds of veggies, annuals, perennials, and herbs.
  • Farmers Markets
    I’ve found great plant-sellers at the farmers market circuit — Headhouse Farmers Market, Farmers Market at Christ Church (Old City), Rittenhouse Square Farmers Market
  • Flea Markets — I’ve actually found some of the harder to find plants from independent plant sellers at some of the bigger flea markets on the circuit. Fairmount Flea Market (held a couple times a year) often hosts a couple small-time plant sellers.
  • Plant Shops —Often not cheap, and mostly dedicated to house plants
     — 
    City Planter: This is my fave. It’s not cheap (none of these specialty plant stores really are), but they have a lot of native plants and some great indoor houseplants. My parents gasp and marvel at the prices compared to Lancaster County prices. Every time. 
     — Urban Jungle: Again, super cute store, but seriously pricey and mostly houseplants.

My Criteria for ‘Easy’

I’ve killed a bunch of plants on my very sunny balcony — sometimes even with very diligent watering. The list of pollinator plants I consider ‘easy’ was built based on the following criteria:

  • Easy to purchase: Must be easy to find at the major plant suppliers in or near a city (listed above). My parents live in Lancaster County and I always ask them to bring me plants I can’t find here in the city, but that just makes me super lucky — it’s obvi not the norm.
  • Note on Chemicals: Make SURE you’re buying plants that were not treated with tons of chemicals. If they were, they are NOT pollinator friendly. They are the OPPOSITE. Major box stores are now often noting when plants are ‘bee friendly’ aka, not treated with pesticides. Look for those tags on plants!
  • Relatively Affordable: I say relatively because no matter where you buy plants in the city, they are going to be pricier than in the country.
  • Hearty and relatively simple care required: The plant can’t be super picky about conditions —fancy type of soil or compost, doesn’t require a ton of space to spread out, straightforward watering needs, etc. Urban gardeners simply don’t have the space to store special supplies and in many cases don’t have easy access to watering supplies, so it’s a bit more of a chore.

Top 7 Native, Pollinator-Friendly Plants for Philly:

  1. HERBS: Sage, Rosemary, Thyme, Chives, etc.
    These are all flowering herbs that bees love. The thing is, if you’re growing these to use in cooking, they usually recommend you harvest before they flower, or if they are flowering, that you de-head them. If you want them to be pollinator friendly, leave the flowers on!
     — Easy to find
     — Super hearty, water occasionally, as you see them wilting. They pick back up quickly. Great for window boxes.
    — These plants are friends with benefits, you can also use them for cooking.
  2. LAVENDER
     — Easy to find at ANY of the stores. 
     — Hearty, likes sun
     — Can grow quite large, but grows to fit container and can do well in smaller containers.
     — Pretty good for window boxes, though it does get some height.
  3. BEE BALM
     — Easy to find
     — Very hardy on my super sunny balcony. I water occasionally. 
     — Doesn’t need a ton of space. Grows tall, not wide.
     — Produces funkalicious red, spiky flowers.
  4. ANISE HYSSOP
    Bees LOVE this stuff! 
     — I’ll admit, this one was harder to find. Definitely not at Home Depot, but did find some at Ace Hardware in Fairmount, and some from local gardeners at the flea market circuit.
     — Ultra hearty. I forgot I had this one (it was in a hidden corner of my balcony) and it did great without consistent watering (admittedly, it rained a fair amount).
  5. VERBANA
     — Easy to find — the major stores usually carry Verbana when in season.
     — Easy to grow (even from seed), likes dry soil. 
     — Super pretty, little flowers.
  6. ASTER
    There are a ton of different varieties of asters, some native to PA and some not. You can often buy asters from major chain suppliers. 
     — Easy to find
     — Easy to grow. Is good in a lot of sun, but does like being watered fairly frequently! 
     — Find a variety that doesn’t grow super tall. Depending on the variety they can be 8in— 8ft (what!??!).
  7. BUTTERFLY BUSH
     — Easy to find at the major stores. 
     — This one can get to be fairly big. As the name implies, it is a legit bush. Needs a relatively large plant pot. NOT for window boxes! 
     — I’ve successfully killed off several butterfly bushes and I’m honestly not sure why — it may have been a soil thing. I had big pots, with good soil, in fairly full sun (which they like). Dunno.

More Resources

There are a TON of native pollinator plants and I’m sure there are some that should be on this list that would ‘win’ out over some that ARE here. Here are a couple links for you to get started on your own research: