by Berit Erickson

“I don’t know where to start:” I’ve heard this statement many times from people who want to create their own native plant pollinator gardens. Since I began planting for pollinators 7 years ago, I’ve been trying to help novices progress from being interested in pollinator gardens to actually creating them. Here I’ll share the method I now use to help new pollinator gardeners get started: the 3 x 3 x 3 system.

Before I begin, let me say that any native plants you add to your space – even one plant –  is a step in the right direction. Perhaps you have a balcony and can add a few plants in a pot, or you have a small space in front of your apartment building for a tiny garden, or you may have a whole front yard that you want to convert from lawn to a biodiversity haven. Whatever you can do will help wildlife and beautify your surroundings.

The 3 x 3 x 3 system

Back when I began to help my neighbours create pollinator gardens, I stumbled across the 3 by 3 by 3 formula somewhere online. Basically, you choose 3 native plant species that bloom in each of our 3 growing seasons — spring, summer, and late summer/fall. With this approach, your garden can bloom and provide food for pollinators almost continuously.

Then, include 3 plants of each of your 9 plant species – a total of 27 plants. By having 3 plants of each species, you’ll create patches of flowers that will provide enough food for the insects that inhabit your garden.

Planting area

Now that you know how many plants you’ll have in your new garden, how big should the garden be? I plan for 1 plant for each square foot (not metric, I know). A 3 x 3 x 3 garden will roughly cover an 8-foot by 4-foot area or how much space to prepare.

Plant placement

When choosing how to arrange your plants, consider their height, flower colour, and bloom time. If you’re planning to create an island bed, place the tallest plants in the centre and the shortest ones around the outside edges. If your garden will be a border next to a house or fence, then place the tall plants at the back and the short ones in front.

Not all plants require the same amount of space. Some plants will be grow upright in skinny clumps, while others will bend to form a larger mound. Some plants will spread by their roots and need more room, while others will creep around the base of their neighbours to fill empty spots. A few Google searches can help you figure out the growth shape of each plant and whether it’s a clumper or a spreader. I like to consult a plant dictionary for information, like The Plant Library by A Cultivated Art nursery in Vanier, or The Gardener’s Guide to Native Plants of the Southern Great Lakes Region, by Rick Gray and Shaun Booth (a new book you can buy or borrow from the Ottawa Public Library). 

I also like the Seeds search tool on the Prairie Moon Nursery website in the United States; you can search for native plant species by bloom time, height, flower colour, and growing conditions. Many of the plant species are also native here in Ontario.

BUT, don’t get “analysis paralysis” and overthink your plant choices or placement like I did for my first pollinator garden. If you change your mind about a plant’s location, you can always move it. Just jump right in and give native plant pollinator gardening a try.

Example 1: a 3 x 3 x 3 sun garden

For this year’s Pollinator Appreciation Day celebrations, the Fletcher Wildlife Garden donated plants to create two 3 x 3 x 3 kits to give away. The first kit is for sun. Below is the legend and sample garden plan.


Example 2: a 3 x 3 x 3 shade garden

This second kit includes plants for a shady garden.


One response to “Beginner pollinator garden: the 3 x 3 x 3 system”

  1. Gail says:

    What a splendid article. Thank you.

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