A Pollinator-Friendly Garden in Rural Courtenay

A Pollinator-Friendly Garden in Rural Courtenay

gilakas’la čɛčɛ haθɛč. We respectfully acknowledge that land on which we garden is the Unceded Traditional Territory of the K’ómoks First Nation, the traditional keepers of the land.


Tucked away in the rural landscape  just outside downtown Courtenay, BC, is Leslie’s home. And thanks to Leslie, countless pollinators and other wildlife find a comfortable home there too. A former bee-keeper, Leslie lets our ecoregion’s pollinators underpin the design, maintenance, and the ethos of her garden by “creating the conditions to invite them to come,” as Leslie describes.

Just two years from its inception, the garden is already filling out with pollinator-friendly species. A deer fence keeps those roaming ruminants away from the garden buffet.

A bumblebee on blue beard (Caryopteris x clandonensis ‘Beyond Midnight’)

With bees being a major ‘buzz’-word right now, many savvy gardeners can list flowers in their garden that provide certain bee species with their nectar needs, maybe even in succession across the year. However, not all gardeners think beyond a pollinator’s food needs; it is equally important to take habitat into consideration when creating a pollinator-friendly garden. Like humans, bees and other pollinators need more than food to live and thrive in their environment. The Pollinator Partnership of Canada’s guide to choosing plants for our ecoregion of Eastern Vancouver Island provides an introduction of our native bees and other pollinators (butterflies, moths, beetles, flies, hummingbirds and bats) and their needs at all stages of life. These needs include:

  • cover and winter protection
  • access to nesting sites and materials
  • food for adult pollinators as well as young
  • a safe and consistent source of water.

This hardy geranium has a simple single petal structure, which makes for easy access for bees.

Leslie made the decision to put pollinators first in her garden design when she moved to her new home outside Courtenay. She brought knowledge to this new garden project from five years of bee-keeping as well as a course for  ‘Pollinator Steward Certification’ under her belt from the Pollinator Partnership of Canada. With the support of local landscape designer Arianne Heune and a lot of research, Leslie created a garden that is not only a pollinator-friendly habitat, but also a splendid environment for the gardener and her family. Leslie finds herself in a child-like state of awe just watching the insects “do what they do” in her garden. Additionally, her small orchard will benefit from having a healthy and robust population of pollinators ready to do their work when the trees bloom in the spring. That being said, the features of her garden that welcome insects are equally beautiful to the human eye; Leslie’s thoughtfully curated plant list was intended to be beautiful as well as practical.

On this Japanese anenome ‘Honorine Jobert’ is a lesser-thought-of pollinator, a humble fly.

The Comox Valley gardener included a selection of plants and trees native to our region, as well as a number of non-native species that extend the foraging season for pollinators, such as oakleaf hydrangea (more pollinator-friendly than other hydrangea varieties), hardy geranium, sedums, monarda, rudbeckia, and echinacea. Though in August of 2022 the garden was only two years old, it was already a resounding success, both in its serene beauty and its flourishing population of pollinators.

Every garden is a work in progress: a redbud tree awaits its perfect planting spot.

Beyond her plant list alone, Leslie’s overall garden landscape also keeps pollinators in mind. The planting choices provide height variation, which mimics the natural layers of a forest and provides protection and cover, as well as open spaces that mimic a meadow, and running water. One stand out feature was the existing big-leaf maples (Acer macrophyllum) that tower above the garden, moss-covered and majestic, and contributing to the canopy layer. Big-leaf maples support bees by offering an early source of pollen and nectar. Our native maples also support pollinating flies and beetles, in addition to acting as a “host” plant for pollinating insects’ eggs and larvae. A number of smaller trees such as dogwood and redbud will be planted to form the lower tree layer. Serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia) attracts bees and pollinating flies and functions as a pollinator host plant. In the shrub layer, salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis) brings bees and salal (Gaulteria shallon) supports bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds, while also holding up well to summer drought. In the herbaceous layer, pacific bleeding heart (Dicentra formosa) attracts hummingbirds, sword ferns (Polystichum munitum) offer cover and grow well in shade.  Many of Leslie’s sun-loving herbaceous perennials are planted in large drifts, which supports pollinators’ efficiency. The insects can get into a good groove if they are accessing the same types of flowers repeatedly, not to mention they bring the right pollen to the right flower when visiting the same species in sequence.

Moss-covered big-leaf maples provides shade to the gardener as well as food and habitat to native pollinator species

Leslie also leaves some patches of soil where sunlight can reach it, which can provide a niche for ground-nesting bees. She leaves perennial plants to die back over winter, providing much-needed cover for pollinators that nest in stems during the cold winter season.  A bubbling rock water feature provides a source of fresh water shallow enough that insects will not drown. Any water that splashes off the feature onto the soil can also provide mason bees with a source of moist soil to create their nests – not to mention creating a soothing and peaceful atmosphere for the gardener who hears the water splashing onto stone.

A bubbling rock feature allows insects and birds to access clean and shallow drinking water.

The focus on wildlife in Leslie’s garden by no means detracts from its utility or beauty. When wandering around the space, one finds several paved seating areas for dining and relaxing at different points of the day, beautiful rock features, seasonal interest, a rain swale for storm-water infiltration, and most importantly, that feeling of seclusion and serenity that comes from a garden that sits naturally in its rural landscape.

A rain swale is planted with Carex obnuta. Behind are echinacea and monarda, two introduced pollinator staples. Further back is a tranquil seating area.

On the surface, her garden is simply a beautiful space. Only when you get down on hands and knees (as the gardener or garden-enthusiast is wont to), do you spot the wildlife that has indeed come at Leslie’s invitation – including a Pacific Tree Frog. Only on reflection does this writer realize that there were few or none of the blousy double blooms that tend to catch our eyes when shopping in the nursery, as Leslie’s planting choices favour varieties with single blooms that are more accessible to pollinators. This Comox Valley pollinator garden offers a calm and contemplative space that quietly supports local wildlife without sacrificing beauty.  In all likelihood, the gardener and her family will enjoy a bumper crop of the literal fruits of their labour as their orchard trees mature, and as the garden continues to foster the insect species that sustain us all in the Comox Valley. *

Posted: 23 June 2023