Constructing Gardens for Pollinators and Other Wildlife in Central Florida

My own garden is a work in progress, and has been, since moving to Central Florida several years ago. There is a small multi-layered garden under my kitchen window that I created to attract birds and other pollinators. (I'd also hoped to get a few figs off of my plants for myself, but for the last few months, I found nothing but half-eaten ones.)

Figs do very well in Central Florida. To my dismay, the wildlife got to the harvest time and time again. I looked out the window one day and felt much better when I realized that I was growing figs to support a family of cardinals.

The male cardinal perched in my orchid tree, on guard for predators, as the female used my anise shrub to train her fledglings to fly. The branches of the shrub are low enough to the ground to provide safe landings, and the shrub is dense enough that she undoubtedly built her nest inside of it. As I watched, she took breaks to reward the fledglings with bits of my figs. This was probably their last brood; it’s usually only the male that feeds the young during the first couple broods while his mate continues to build the next nest. Anyway, I couldn’t be angry any longer. I didn’t have figs, but I had a very happy cardinal family.

What kind of garden attracts cardinals and other birds? Most birds need shelter that provides safety from predators, but allows them to have a good view of the landscape at the same time.  It's also recommended to have a water source nearby for your wildlife, such as a birdbath or fountain, but you have to be careful not to create a mosquito habitat with stagnant water. Even birdbaths should get cleaned out every few days.

Multi-layered gardens can be constructed with only three ‘layers.’ 

The first is groundcover. Many pollinators, like ground wasps, need this layer for their nest. Groundcover is also one of your best strategies for weed control in Central Florida, because weeds don’t do well in shade, or when there are other plants to crowd them out. (And I am also concerned about the use of pesticides in relation to our high water tables through this area, but that is another topic.) Common groundcovers in Central Florida are Perennial Peanut, Asiatic Jasmine, Powderpuff Mimosa, Bulbine, Tickseed, and Sword Fern.

The second layer is your mid-layer, constructed of shrubs like my Florida Anise. Not only will a Florida native provide protection for birds, but many groundcovers and shrubs are host plants for butterfly larvae. (Milkweed is a favorite perennial pollinator and larval host to work between your groundcover layer and this shrub layer.) Native shrubs to consider are Wild Coffee, Firebush, Beautyberry, Chinese Fringe Bush, and Simpson's Stopper. Wild coffee is a finer branched shrub, and won't support the weight of most birds. 

The third layer in your garden is your tallest, the trees. Even small trees will host birds. My favorite tress for this area include Hawthorn, Native Acacias, Southern Magnolia and Birch, and some of them can be gotten at no charge for City of Orlando residents through Orlando’s One Person, One Tree program. (However you may have to wait several years for your free tree to develop. They are quite small when delivered.) Central Florida is home to many wonderful nurseries if you would like to install more mature trees in your pollinator garden.

My orchid tree is a non-native, more suitable for Zone 10 than our zone, 9B. It is a little tender and wasn't a huge fan of the frost, but the butterflies like it, and this morning I saw a hummingbird hovering over the flowers. I believe in using natives wherever possible because the pollinators and wildlife are already adapted to them. However, there are some beautiful ornamentals that do well here and help attract pollinators.

 Brown Turkey Common Figs in foreground, the African Orchid Tree back right, and Florida Anise back left, framed by Live Oak.

Brown Turkey Common Figs in foreground, the African Orchid Tree back right, and Florida Anise back left, framed by Live Oak.

 Close-up of a Monarch butterfly on the Orchid Tree.

Close-up of a Monarch butterfly on the Orchid Tree.