The Do’s and Don’ts of building a Pollinator Rain Garden
By Krystal Brideau

Feb 7, 2024 | Rural Change Makers

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Before and After photos from my first year of the Pollinator Rain Garden project in my front lawn.

On the left side is the garden right after I planted all the seedlings that I purchased online from OnPlants.ca. Considering my ‘purple thumb’, this was quite the leap of faith to put this experiment on display for the whole neighbourhood to watch!

On the right side is the same garden just a few short months later. The astute observer will note that I did fill in the spaces between the native pollinator plants with annual non-native Zinnias. These beautiful flowers are an excellent nectar source for pollinators stopping by on their way through. Annual nectar flowers are an eligibility criterion for achieving Monarch Waystation status, and they were a source of admiration from many of my lovely neighbours, who appreciated the pop of colour.

For the reader eager to embark on a native garden but uncertain about where to start or how to execute the plan, I wanted to share to share insights from my experience in transforming my lawn and establishing a native plant rain garden – a mini ecosystem. I’ll delve into my achievements, ongoing projects, and lessons learned for future endeavors.

Starting from the beginning, I openly admit my lack of a green thumb, struggling to keep even indoor houseplants alive. Upon acquiring a house with well-maintained gardens, I found myself unable to distinguish between weeds and intentional plants, leading to a garden I couldn’t properly maintain. My aversion to dirt and bugs further hindered my gardening enthusiasm. I’m proud to say that over time, I’ve come to love dirt, and those who dwell within it. I find it quite therapeutic to interact with it!

My initial environmental efforts focused on reducing single-use plastics and participating in clean-up events, yet I realized the limitations of individual actions against large-scale industrial pollution. Despite challenges, our small lifestyle changes like using reusable products and driving a hybrid vehicle do contribute to reducing our personal carbon footprint. I would never minimize the benefits that can come from a lot of people practicing mindful consumerism or non-consumerism. But if I planned on making any kind of tangible difference, more needed to be done. Feeling helpless, I sought a more impactful strategy. The realization that planting native species and removing invasives could restore local ecosystems became a turning point.

Habitat Fragmentation emerged as a critical concern, limiting the movement of species between natural areas. Recognizing this, I decided to establish a native garden on my property, providing a refuge for passing plants and animals. Acknowledging Lorraine Johnson’s idea that “We are a part of nature, not apart from nature,” entails sharing our spaces with native plants and animals. This approach counters the prevalence of vast lawns that contribute minimally to the local habitat, as the majority of North America is covered in grass. The shift towards non-consumerism can make a difference, but an immediate impact lies in creating mini ecosystems on our properties. 

I will dive into why I think this project exceeded my expectations with all of its successes, but I also want to touch on some surprising situations that I take as learning opportunities for my next garden project. Challenges will continually arise my lawn is no exception to the prolific, and ever ongoing problem of invasive plants.  In my case we are battling the ever-unrelenting creeping bellflower and goutweed, making their eradication an ongoing struggle. I like to think I’m winning the battle, thanks in large part to my paternally inherited, unwavering stubbornness, but it will be a lifelong battle as these invasives spread from neighbouring lawns via wind, excrement, and a subterranean network of rhizomes.

Choosing the garden location strategically, I addressed a bugleweed problem by using cardboard to eliminate it, a method that proved successful. However, my first mistake came with using “compost” from a cattle-owning friend’s pile, unknowingly introducing field bindweed seeds into my garden.

Lesson #1 learned: never compromise on compost quality.

Lesson #2 was: ensure adequate overlap over the edges of the cardboard pieces when laying them.

Inadequate overlap will lead to grass and invasive plants aggressively pushing their way between the edges of the cardboard and popping up in your newly installed garden.

I also chose the location based on an ideal area for the rain water from our roof to drain away from the foundation and be absorbed by the incredible soil penetrating roots, which can sequester an incredible amount of rainwater and protect the water table. On a positive note, networking with a contact from Ausable Bayfield Conservation Area led to a grant covering 50% of my rain garden expenses.

This image was borrowed from the Ausable Bayfield Conservation Authority Website. Click the image to be directed to their web page on how to construct a rain garden. This is an excellent resource that explains the importance of rain gardens, as well as ideas for what plants to consider adding to the garden. You will also see the contact information if you are interested in receiving grant money to help offset the cost of construction of your rain garden.

This rain garden features a pop-up drain from my roof, directing rainwater to be sequestered by native plants. However, my second mistake was a lack of understanding for the structural requirements of a rain garden. They need to be dug out, in the shape of a bowl-like basin. Then the recommendation is to layer in gravel and coarse sand at the bottom of the basin, then add a 50/50 mixture of the soil removed and compost. I lacked the time and ‘man power’ to dig out such a basin and was not diligent enough due to time constraints to perform the necessary research on construction recommendations.

Lesson #3 learned, if you can, take the time to properly research the design and construction requirements of a rain garden.

I’m quite confident that my rain garden does sequester the rain from my roof adequately, but it may have performed better if all the steps were taken to construct the rain garden according to instructions. If you find that digging out a large bowl-shaped basin is just something you are and able or prepared to do, a simple pollinator garden will also do an excellent job of reducing soil erosion, filtering pollutants and protecting against flooding.

Next, I’d like to discuss plant choice. I think I did well to choose a variety of native plants, including a great mix of different heights, colours and textures that makes the garden quite visually appealing. Orange shorter flowers in my Butterfly milkweed, deep red and interesting textured flowers with my Scarlet Bee Balm, flowers that look like something from another planet with my Spotted Bee Balm (and wow did this one ever out-perform when it comes to attracting pollinators!). My deep purple New England Aster added incredible height and what a sensational aroma in the leaves! Spotted Joe Pye Weed also adds undisputed height and structure, and really outperformed in its attraction of some of my absolute favourite butterflies! I got the opportunity to witness my first ever Viceroy (an incredibly beautiful butterfly that mimics a monarch so well that an untrained eye, or predator does not discern the difference) in the very first year of planting Joe Pye Weed. It just goes to show the veracity of the old adage “plant them, and they will come”.

Here are two butterflies from my gardens. One is a female Monarch, and one is a monarch-mimicker, the Viceroy. Challenge yourself and see if you can guess which one is the actual monarch and which is the trickster! Hover over the images for the answers.

The thing I did not account for was just how large these plants can get and how skilled they are at self-spreading. I learned late in both my first and second year with the garden that I need to ‘chelsea chop’ my plants. Particularly the ones that I’ve learned can grow quite tall. The reason for this is because these plants are accustomed to growing in meadows and areas where the soil is not as fertile as my garden. This means that typically they only grow to a height that the stem and root can structurally support. However where water and nutrients are plentiful, they can sometimes grow to a height and mass that the stalk and roots simply can’t support. When a wind storm comes, your large and bountiful pollinator paradise can be blown so aggressively that it can snap off right at ground level. The best way to address this is that ‘cheslea chop’ I mentioned earlier. You simply prune the plant 1/3 to 1/2 down from the top, which promotes lateral growth. The plant will sprout multiple stems from that single stem that you trimmed, meaning you will most likely end up with a wider, stockier plant, with more terminal buds/flowers – BONUS food for your pollinators!

 Lesson #4: chelsea chop your pollinator plants for stronger stems and more flower heads.

Another great unknown that I would only discover after the winter and early spring seasons following the installation of the garden, is just how well the plants would survive. I ordered all of my first plants online as live seedlings, which runs a considerable cost compared to growing from seed. This meant I had a fair bit of money invested in this garden – not to mention blood, sweat and time! To say I wasn’t at all nervous to see what made it through the winter and what did not would be a bald-faced lie. The garden’s location is somewhat near a town street, (though I was mindful to adhere to the town’s line-of-sight requirements and recess the garden the appropriate distance from the street). More specifically, it is situated near a street corner, where a snowplow driver enjoys relocating the snow from each of the four corners of the street right onto our lawn. In our first year at this new house, back in 2015 we realized the incredible damage that can occur when trees and plants when we had to cut down a very sad looking maple tree, probably about 20 years old at that time. Looking back, I believe that tree was likely a Norway maple as most of this neighbourhood, in fact most of my town has been planted with Norway maples, which I’m told were given away by the municipality to all the town residents a few decades ago. If only we knew the incredible damage these invasive trees can do to our natural areas (but I digress). Needless to say, I was quite worried about the potential damage that the road salt could do to my beautiful first-year garden.

To my surprise, about 90% of the plants I planted came back the following year! My super performer, the Spotted Bee Balm, unfortunately did not make an encore appearance in the second year, leaving a big empty spot up front and centre. I was going to have to figure out an alternative plant to grow in its place. Big shoes to fill! I had been admiring posts on Facebook of people sharing just what a butterfly magnet the Blazing Star Liatris is in their gardens so I decided to give this a shot. I planted some first-year seedlings this past summer where Spotted Bee Balm once grew. Similar to Milkweed plants, Blazing Star Liatris can take a couple years to produce a flower so I have yet to see this butterfly magnet in action. Fingers crossed that it survives the salt and cold weather this winter and makes its flowery debut this summer! 

I guess the lesson #5 is that gardens are not perfect and despite all the research and planning, things don’t always like where they are planted and have other plans. My ‘super performer’ didn’t make the grand return that I’d hoped and that was slightly disappointing.

Despite about 10% of the plants not returning in year 2, I actually had a FULL garden. Actually too full. 

Here’s Lesson #6: Learn from my mistakes and know that not all new seedlings need to be kept. 

I’ll admit, I have a serious case of scarcity mindset. If I have new seedlings growing in the garden, no doubt growing from the seed that fell from the first year plant, overwintered in the ground and germinated in the spring, I don’t need to keep these if they aren’t serving me or the garden well. One of the key issues that people often have with native gardens is that they can take on a real unkempt appearance if not properly thinned. In my garden, I had a couple of types of plant that really reseeded well, gifting me with hundreds of Joe Pye Weed, Black-eyed Susan and New England Aster seedlings all over the garden, filling in all the bare places where they could! I was so busy beaming with pride over the idea that not only was my garden a success in its first year and in its second year for attracting tens of thousands of pollinators, but it was also self-spreading, proliferating all of its benefits without any additional effort from me aside from pulling the invasives that pop up and try to take over.  This pride and my extreme scarcity mindset meant that I couldn’t possibly sacrifice a seeding by pulling it! After all, aren’t these plants precious commodities that need to be spared at all cost? Certainly I did dig up and transplant some to a family member’s property and they’re getting a new opportunity to grow and thrive and spread their benefits there. And I will continue to dig up and offer seedlings to whomever is interested, but I also need to be okay with sacrificing the seedlings from time to time as well. This is not only to provide better air circulation through the garden, but also to ensure the garden looks tidy for onlookers. After all, the goal is that others may be inspired to try this as well, not that they feel this project is an eyesore for the neighbourhood.

Lesson #7: Thin your garden and keep the plants looking attractive and tidy so that others can be isnpired and encouraged. Don’t be afraid to let a few plants go.

In summary, my journey from a reluctant gardener to a native garden enthusiast has been filled with successes and setbacks. Sharing these experiences aims to guide fellow enthusiasts in creating sustainable and vibrant ecosystems on their own properties. I hope this helps you with your own journey with the pollinators and the ecosystem in your region. Feel free to leave a comment or question and I invite you to read my previous content where you will find links to reputable native plant supplers, as well as links to more information from the experts in the field.

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Preliminary Findings

Diversity in Key Actors: Collaboration among private sector, local governments, provincial government, and federal government enhances solutions to labour shortages.

  • Titan Trailers: Cultural support boosts newcomer retention and local economy.
  • Dufferin County: Educational-local partnerships impact labour needs.
  • Western Ontario Wardens Caucus: Regional collaboration aids in overcoming labour challenges.
  • Rural Northern Immigration Pilot Programs and Upskill Canada: Innovative approaches to labour and economic growth through permanent residency facilitation and short-cycle training programs, respectively.

Next Steps

Over the next year research will continue to understand how rural workforce development initiatives are assisting rural communities and rural economies. Upcoming research activities will include continue analysis of innovative case studies, create innovative work force case studies, create online map of innovative work force case studies, conduct knowledge mobilization of findings, and conduct in-depth case studies to enhance the understanding and transferability of 2-3 innovative rural labour shortage strategies.

Blog Authors

Paul Sitsofe

Paul Sitsofe

Paul Sitsofe is a dedicated professional with a diverse background in social and community service, academic education, and practical experience. He is currently a Master of Planning, Rural Planning and Development student at the University of Guelph, where he is currently a graduate student research assistant, focusing on rural demographic shifts and innovative workforce development strategies.

Ryan Gibson

Ryan Gibson

Ryan is the Libro Professor in Regional Economic Development at the School of Environmental Design and Rural Development at the University of Guelph. This chair position was created through an endowment by Libro Credit Union and two University of Guelph donors.

Ryan also serves as the President of the Canadian Community Economic Development Network and a board member of the Canadian Rural Revitalization Foundation. 

Niju Mathews

Niju Mathews

Niju earned his Masters of science in rural planning and development at University of Guelph. As part of the Addressing Labour Shortages Through Newcomer Attraction Project Team, Niji has contributed to research and examination of current labour shortages being experienced in rural Ontario with an aim to identify potential solutions in the form of policy and practice.

For More Information

Please visit www.ruraldev.ca/lsna or contact:

Paul Sitsofe – psitsofe@uoguelph.ca

Niju Mathew – niju@uoguelph.ca

Ryan Gibson – gibsonr@uoguelph.ca

Krystal Brideau

I'm a nurse/mom/wife from Clinton, ON with a passion for conservation and preservation. I'm currently practicing native plant gardening and working on a project that encourages other like-minded individuals to start transforming their gardens into backyard ecosystems, by replacing ornamental plants with plants that are interconnected with the natural world around them.

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