Habitat Planters – A Recipe for Attracting Beneficial Insects

Habitat Planter ©Mark Kelly

Do annuals have a place in a wildlife garden? Absolutely. Annuals attract beneficial insects and many annuals are an important source of nectar for bees, butterflies and hummingbirds.

And let’s face it, no matter how many native trees, shrubs and perennials you have in your garden or even if you have a well-designed habitat garden, there are going to be gaps in your sequence of flowering and times when you want some extra color in your garden. Annuals are the perfect way to fill the gaps and, if chosen properly, attract more beneficial insects.

 A Recipe for Success

Many plants have a symbiotic relationship with insects and annuals are no different.  But some annuals seem to do a much better job than others in attracting, and keeping, beneficial insects in your garden.

Recently, I attended a panel discussion on using biocontrol agents or BCAs – so-called ’good bugs’ — given by several plant growers based in Connecticut.  While the focus of the discussion was primarily on using biocontrols inside a greenhouse, I was fascinated to hear Mark Kelly from Grower Direct Farms talk about how they use habitat planters in their greenhouses to support and feed their ‘good bugs’.

I spoke with Mark after the event and found out Grower Direct has a special recipe for creating their habitat planters that they have honed over the years.

The Main  Ingredients of a Habitat Planter

~ Alyssum

~ Cosmos

~ Dill

~ Lantana

~  Achillea: Mark said white Achillea seems to work much better at attracting BCAs than any other color. Grower Direct has even mixed different colors of Achillea in the same habitat planter and have consistently found the white ones to be the best at attracting beneficial insects.

~ Marigold:  Mark has found the large-flowered African marigolds work best, especially the yellow ones.


Ingredients for a habitat planter

The ingredients (clockwise starting in upper left): Alyssum, Achillea, Cosmos, Dill, Lantana, Marigold


From Greenhouse to Garden

Mark is still experimenting with the exact ratio of these six plants used in each planter to optimize attracting beneficial insects but he recommends that they should be the basic ingredients of a BCA-attracting habitat planter. He did note that they have tried using coneflower (Echinacea) in their habitat planters but stopped because they seemed to attract lots of caterpillar pests.

In the Grower Direct greenhouses, habitat planters are placed about 20′ apart across the bays. Does that mean you need to place your habitat planters 20′ around you garden? Not necessarily.

Mark suggested that for home gardeners, planting multiples of the same plant together will be more attractive to BCAs than the mixed habitat planters. If you don’t have the room for six different patches of these plants in your garden, start with the habitat planters and see which flowers seem to be most attractive to the good bugs in your garden. Then plan to use multiples of those plants in your garden in the coming years.

And here’s one final bit of advice from Mark. Across the board, he has found white and/or yellow flowers seem to be more attractive to BCAs than other colors. Something to keep in mind as you’re choosing your annuals this spring.

For more tips on planting to attract BCAs and info on how insects find pollen, check out fellow NP&WG team member Kelly Brenner’s post, Pollinators  and Flowers.

And, of course, thanks to Mark Kelly of Grower Direct Farms for being so generous with his knowledge and expertise.

© 2012, Debbie Roberts. All rights reserved. This article is the property of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. If you are reading this at another site, please report that to us

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About Debbie Roberts

Debbie Roberts is a landscape designer, garden coach, freelance writer, educator and Accredited Organic Land Care Professional who gardens on a woodland acre in southwestern Connecticut (zone 6).  Debbie’s blog A Garden of Possibilities features plant profiles, insights on garden design, book reviews and musings on her efforts to continue to create a wildlife-friendly garden that the deer will not feast on. Debbie is also a member of a select group of international garden and landscape designers, The Garden Designers Roundtable, who blog monthly about various garden design topics. Follow Debbie on Twitter, @deb_roberts.


  1. Heather Holm says:

    This is excellent information Debbie, especially for those who have limited growing space/live in an apartment. Anyone can create a little habitat. I also find Zinnias a good option, they attract a lot of butterfly species for me in Minnesota.
    Heather Holm recently posted..High Bush Cranberry Viburnums – Native or Not?

    • Debbie Roberts says:

      Heather, I hadn’t really thought about habitat planters and apartment dwellers, but of course, you are right. I’m a fan of zinnias, too. Their crazy colors always bring a smile to my face, they’re like the playful kids of the gardens.
      Debbie Roberts recently posted..6 Plants for Attracting Beneficial Insects

  2. Donna@ Gardens Eye View says:

    Debbie I also stress over my containers and annuals every year…but now I can use them and make them optimal for helping my garden. I planned on white achillea in the meadow and I always grow marigold for my veg gardens…but now I will planting more/different annuals around the garden in patches or containers….can’t wait to experiment with this…thx…great info!!
    Donna@ Gardens Eye View recently posted..Garden Books Galore

    • Debbie Roberts says:

      Donna, It’s funny, I never seem to give marigolds a second glance when I’m buying annuals. Something tells me this year will be different!
      Debbie Roberts recently posted..6 Plants for Attracting Beneficial Insects

  3. Nancy DuBrule says:

    Debbie, I was at the same workshop and I LOVED the idea of these habitat planters too! What a great idea, not just for greenhouses but for everyone.

    • Debbie Roberts says:

      Hi Nancy, So glad you found me over here at NP&WG. I really enjoyed the bio-controls talk and the one on growing roses sustainably. I was taking notes furiously during both sessions.
      Debbie Roberts recently posted..6 Plants for Attracting Beneficial Insects

  4. Sue Scott says:

    Love the article, however looking at the recommended plants brings up the issue of invasive exotics. That lantana is a category one invasive exotic here in Florida, and unfortunately IS for sale at big box stores and non native nuseries. The people who grow them KNOW they are invasive, but choose to sell them because the state does not yet prohibit their sale. As gardeners, we need to be well informed about this depending on which part of the country we live in. It would be great to see regional native plant societies come up with a list that is NATIVE in nature that does the same thing. I know there are hundreds of non native plants from Africa and SE Asia that are not harmful in the new world, but it’s important that each of us take the time to be sure the plants we’re using are not a problem in our area.
    Sue Scott recently posted..Florida Scrub Jay Festival February 4th

    • Debbie Roberts says:

      Sue, I had no idea about any invasive issues with lantana so thank you for bringing it to our readers’ attention. We have some of those same issues with invasive plants here in CT. Just because a plant is on the invavsive plant list, doesn’t neccessarily mean it will not be found for sale at a nursery. It’s always important for gardeners to check the invasive plant list in their area to make sure any new additions to their garens are not on the list.
      Debbie Roberts recently posted..6 Plants for Attracting Beneficial Insects

      • UrsulaV says:

        I think this is one of those cases where you gotta do the balancing act—there are regrettably few native annuals widely commercially available. I can think of…um….sunflowers. Which may not exactly fit in a planter. Oh, and mealy-cup sage, which is a nice little plant, but frankly the pollinators in my garden never find it very interesting.

        You gotta work with what you have available, and if these work in planters, more power to ‘em. The majority of these are fairly benign, and I think would make an awesome little display. There’s a lot to be said for attainable goals, after all.

        (Lantana, while a scourge anywhere south of zone 7, is sufficiently tender that cold-weather gardeners growing them in containers can count on a total dieback, but I’d most definitely like to see it banned for sale in Florida and the Southwest, and think it’s a crime that they haven’t.)
        UrsulaV recently posted..I came, I saw, I composted!

    • Vincent Vizachero says:

      I almost glossed over this post because of the large number of non-natives mentioned, but I’m glad I didn’t. Still, while I’m not opposed to using the more benign non-natives to support beneficial insects, I’d prefer to use natives.

      The Oregon extension service has a handout on “farmscaping”, which is their term for this approach (albeit not in gardens). It is a good resource: http://extension.oregonstate.edu/sorec/sites/default/files/farmscaping.pdf

      They make this point: “Herbaceous plants that are good insectary plants and which may be planted in strips include species in the carrot (Apiaceae=Umbelliferae), sunflower (Asteraceae=Compositae), and mint (Lamiaceae) families.”

      We have lots of native species in those plant families, so concentrating them in a planter would likely provide many of the same benefits.

      And the Pollinator Partnership has a series of great region-specific guides (and a wonderful companion iPhone app) called “Selecting Plants for Pollinators”. While focused on pollinators and not BCAs specifically, much of the information is still applicable: http://www.pollinator.org/guides.htm
      Vincent Vizachero recently posted..Plant This, Not That: The Book



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