garden design layout

Some thoughts on how to design your pollinator paradise

By Ruth Doyle

Thank you for your interest in the Backyard Pollinator Garden Project, a three-year initiative between Bee City Los Alamos and the Pajarito Environmental Education Center (PEEC) and funded by a grant from the Carroll Petrie Foundation. Through this grant, 40 applicants will receive a selection of native plants that are hardy to the Jemez Mountain environment and provide crucial benefits to native pollinators.  Native pollinators, unlike the European and Asian honeybees, are threatened by loss of habitat and other factors. By participating in this project and planting native plants in your home garden, you are helping our native pollinators, and the plants they rely on, thrive in Los Alamos County. So, thank you!

If you are new to gardening, you may have questions about where and how to get started.  A great first step is to do a site assessment of your yard and jot down the existing environmental conditions, such as wet/dry, sunny/shady areas, soil type(s), water sources, what perspective you will see the garden from, views out from the garden that you might want to screen (such as a neighbor’s backyard), and so forth.  Becoming familiar with your site will help you select suitable locations for your plants. More information on site assessment can be found at

Lots of helpful guidance for site preparation and planting will be included in your kit (here is a digital copy of the Planting & Maintenance Guidance document), as well as on the Bee City Los Alamos website, so let’s turn our focus to some things to think about as we design our pollinator paradise.

The plants provided in this kit are simply spectacular! Grown in the right spot, they will provide food for native pollinators, as well as be an aesthetically pleasing refuge for you.  Important considerations in locating the plants include:

  • Environmental conditions the plant will need to thrive (full sun, partial sun, full shade, wet or dry soils, good drainage, sandy and/or rocky soils, clay soils, etc)
  • Blooming time and color
  • Texture (shape and size of plant foliage and flowers)
  • Mature height and width of plant – avoid planting small plants behind large ones where they will be hidden from view or overshadowed

Information on each plant included in this year’s project can be found in the Backyard Pollinator Garden Project folder and in the powerpoint created by Bee City Los Alamos: You Can Create A Pollinator Paradise & PDF version:

With the basic characteristics of each plant in mind, you can start experimenting with different ways to organize your garden bed, including —

  • Cluster plants of similar texture to create harmony, or mix different textures for contrast and emphasis and to add a layer of dimension
  • Play with color — provide beds that feature one color or have a mix of colors throughout
  • Spacing plants – group similar plants together or showcase an individual plant; planting in straight lines creates a more ordered, uniform, formal, while an odd number of plants (1, 3, 5…) spaced in irregular patterns (think, triangular) appears more natural.
  • Use plants to screen undesirable views or direct the eye to focal points

In addition, think about how you want to experience the garden. Do you want to move through it, appreciating each plant up close and personal, view it from a distance, or somewhere in between? Are there other things you might want to add for visual diversity, interest and whimsy? After all, it’s not just about the pollinators! The garden can be a place of joy and relaxation for all who experience it. For example, having a place to sit near, or in, the garden beds lets you stop and enjoy your hard work; placing stepping stones allows you to walk through the bed without worrying about soil compaction or crushing little plants; placing single, or multiple, interesting boulders (again, think in odd numbers and irregularly spaced) in the bed lends an air of permanence, visually anchors the plants and garden to the earth, and creates a really cool look! Boulders and rocks also create microclimates of shade and moisture that can be beneficial to insects, lizards and smaller plants.

See below for an example of what a garden bed might look like using the concepts discussed above. Please note: This is by no means the only possible way to go about designing your pollinator paradise and is provided as an aid to triggering your own ideas and creativity!

Finally, have fun!  Appreciate these plants, this project, the pollinators that will be happy to visit, and the role you are playing in helping our native pollinators flourish!  Remember, gardening is a journey, not a destination; there are no gardening mistakes, just opportunities to try different species, share stories, and to learn what works well and what needs a different approach or location.

EXAMPLE of Pollinator Garden Kit planting plan                      SCALE:  1 square =1 foot

KEY:  ChM (1) = Plant code and number of plants used

AEAquilegia elegantulaWestern Red Columbine
BLBerlandiera lyrateChocolate Daisy
DPDalea purpureaPurple Prairie Clover
HMHeliantus maximilianiiMaximilian Sunflower
LPLinum perenneBlue Flax
MFMonarda fistulosaWild Bergamot
PEPenstemon eatoniiFirecracker Penstemon
PSPenstemon strictusRocky Mountain Penstemon
RCRatibida columniferaUpright Prairie Coneflower
SSSolidago simplexNarrow Goldenrod
CMCercocarpus montanusMountain Mahogany
ChMChamaebatiaria millifoliumFernbush


  • Plants are drawn to show mature size.
  • Shrubs are placed to provide privacy (e.g. views into neighbor’s yard to the south will be screened as Mountain Mahogany matures), and to anchor, define and provide structure to planting area. 
  • Stepping stones are placed to delineate a stable path to the bench to minimize soil compaction and protect plants.
  • Mulch is provided throughout most of the planting bed; some areas of bare soil (with no mulch) are left for ground nesting bees.

Ruth Doyle has been a Los Alamos Master Gardener since 2022.  She received a Master of Landscape Architecture from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and was a Registered Landscape Architect (State of New Mexico) with the US Forest Service for 31 years until her retirement in 2017.  Much of her career was spent designing and overseeing the construction of picnic areas, campgrounds and trails on the Jemez and Española ranger districts of the Santa Fe National Forest. She is currently partnering with the agency to mentor two junior US Forest Service Landscape Architects. An avid gardener, Ruth is currently on a journey to convert part of her home landscape to a native pollinator garden.

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