Old-School Annuals to Grow for Pollinators

To be clear, the best things to plant for native pollinators are native plants. However, many pollen- and nectar-rich, non-native annual flowers can offer a boost to bees, butterflies, and more.

Growing flowers from seed is so much fun, and it’s budget-friendly, too.

Look for organic, non-GMO “heirloom” seeds, which are seeds from plant varieties that have been saved and passed down from generation to generation.

Below are six easy-to-grow annual flowers that can provide nourishment for pollinators such as bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. These are classics for a meadow-like garden.

You can plant these annuals among perennials in an existing garden, or you could establish a new pocket meadow anywhere you have a little bit of space.

I’m planning to plant these in two places: among perennials in the library butterfly garden of which I am the volunteer caretaker (open to deer browsing), and in my garden plat at the community garden (fenced against deer).

Annuals die at the end of the season, but they often self-seed a new crop next year. You can also gather and store their seeds in the fall to plant yourself next spring.

Follow the planting instructions on the seed packet according to your specific location and USDA growing zone. To get a head start on the growing season, you can start growing seeds earlier indoors or buy “six packs” of small plants from the garden center and plant them after the danger of frost has passed.

Calendula (Calendula officinalis)

Calendula (Calendula officinalis) is super easy to grow.

I’m pretty sure calendulas were the first flowers I grew when I got into gardening in my 20s. They’re long-lasting, very easy to grow, and quite beautiful.

Sometimes called “pot marigold,” you can find calendula in many clear shades of yellow, gold, and orange. Not to be confused with “regular” marigolds (Tagetes spp.), they have long, slender stems that make them great cut flowers for bouquets.

Calendula flowers support honeybees and butterflies, and they also attract beneficial insects that help to control garden pests like aphids.

Calendula is said to repel mosquitoes, and it’s also reported to be deer-resistant, which I’ll be testing out rigorously this year.

Where I’m buying my buy seeds: Calendula, Pacific Beauty Mix (Calendula officinalis) from Gardeners Basics

Cosmos (Cosmos bipinnatus)

Cosmos (Cosmos bipinnatus) add height to your garden.

Tall and elegant, cosmos flowers are one of the most lovely, cheerful annuals out there. You can’t go wrong planting these fun plants in your meadow garden or anywhere you please!

Cosmos’s colors range from every shade of pink to white, reds, and oranges. These flowers can grow very tall, and they’re great for bouquets. They will self-seed if left to their own devices and will thrive in just about any soil.

Butterflies particularly enjoy visiting cosmos flowers, which bloom from early summer through fall. They are supposedly deer-resistant, so I plan to include them in my current test garden and will report back in a later post about the results.

Where I’m buying my seeds: Cosmos, Sensation Mix (Cosmos bipinnatus) from Isla’s Garden Seeds

Zinnia (Zinnia elegans)

Zinnia (Zinnia elegans) flowers never disappoint.

Zinnias are the quintessential summer flower in my book. I can never get enough of these beauties.

They attract bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds, so plant them somewhere you can observe these wildlife visitors!

Zinnias grow up to 4′ tall and make excellent cut flowers. They bloom from summer to fall, especially if you stagger planting in 2-week intervals to elongate the season.

You can find zinnias in just about any color and in many different shapes, patterns, and sizes.

Zinnias may or may not be deer-resistant in my area, so I will test some out this year to find out.

Where I’m buying my seeds: Zinnia, State Fair Mix (Zinnia elegans) from Seed Needs

Borage (Borago officinalis)

Borage (Borago officinalis) is a classic herb-garden flower.

Borage is another plant I grew when I first started gardening. It’s a fascinating herbal plant with stunning blue flowers. Bees love it, and I can’t wait to grow it again.

I adore its wild look and can see why it’s listed as a deer-resistant plant (I will be testing), because it has a strong fragrance and hairy leaves, both of which are deer deterrents.

Borage is a large, gangly plant, so it looks best in a meadow-like garden. The dusty green foliage sets off the color of its flowers so beautifully, as well as other flowers around it.

You could also plant it in a vegetable garden, where it will attract beneficial insects to help keep pests at bay.

Where I’m buying my seeds: Borage (Borago officinalis) from Isla’s Garden Seeds

California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) growing next to a borage plant

California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) is a quintessential wildflower.

California poppies are easygoing wildflowers native to the western U.S., which can grow just about anywhere as an annual garden flower (it is a perennial in USDA growing zones 6-10). Just be sure to check your state’s invasive species plant list to make sure these plants are not problematic in your area.

I love the yellow-orange color of these flowers, which somehow acts like a neutral, working with just about any other color in the garden.

These plants stay under 2′ tall, so plant them where they won’t be crowded out by taller flowers.

California poppies bloom in the summer and re-seed themselves easily. They produce pollen beloved by bees.

Yet another annual flower labeled as deer-resistant, I am looking forward to testing them out this year.

Where I’m buying my seeds: California Poppy (Eschscholzia californica) from Sow Right Seeds

Bachelor’s Buttons (Centaurea cyanus) growing with other wildflowers

Bachelor buttons (Centaurea cyanus) are so pretty.

I went to a girls’ high school that had the beautiful tradition of wearing a white dress and carrying a bouquet of bachelor buttons at graduation. I think this still happening today!

These roadside wildflowers look amazing in a garden setting, and they attract butterflies. Birds love the seeds.

They make great cut flowers and grow 1′-3′ tall. Bachelor buttons bloom from late spring to early summer depending on your locale.

They can be invasive, so be sure to check out your state’s planting regulations before buying seeds.

I observe these flowers around my deer-rich village, so I suspect they are deer-resistant, but I will test them out this year to make sure.

Where I’m buying my seeds: Bachelor Button Tall Blue Cornflower (Centaurea cyanus) from Isla’s Garden Seeds

I’m excited to grow all of these annual flowers this year, having given annual flowers a pass for quite some time. Watch for future posts on my experience growing these fun plants!


Elizabeth Douglas is the founder of Pocket Meadows. She holds a degree in landscape architectural studies and is a member of the NY State Nursery & Landscape Association.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Recent Posts