Nestled among honking geese, hooting primates, scurrying lizards and lowing cows, the Black Beauty Ranch pollinator garden is “a different kind of place,” says Master Gardener and volunteer Cynthia Holifield. Before Holifield began her work seven years ago, staff despaired of the barren space behind the sanctuary’s welcome center. Now, it’s “just heaven,” says Master Gardener Barb Whitfill, who began volunteering about a year ago.

See the Garden Plan

Holifield and Whitfill have transformed the 2,000-square-foot garden. They’ve trained apple trees to grow against a fence—creating visual structure and providing animal snacks—and registered the garden as a Monarch Waystation that supports butterfly migration. They love discovering new native plants to feed pollinators, such as blue mistflower, which continues to bloom late into the fall after other plants have died back.

Fall monarch migration map

“I’ve been surprised how many butterflies are still around after the weather cools,” says Holifield. (Monarchs can’t survive northern winters and fly thousands of miles south to Mexico each year, passing directly through Texas and needing lots of nectar along the way.)

Some might consider gardening an odd contribution to an animal sanctuary, but she disagrees: Black Beauty Ranch provides sanctuary for animals, and the garden provides sanctuary for various pollinators. Every effort to create a supportive habitat, she believes, improves the chances of these pollinators’ survival.

“The peace, solitude and comfort visiting Black Beauty Ranch, even as a volunteer, gives me much happiness and serenity,” adds Whitfill, who also plants and weeds the sanctuary’s vegetable garden, which supplies animal treats like spinach, carrots, dandelions and tomatoes. “The pollinator garden, the vegetable garden and all the other special areas we have the privilege of maintaining is, hopefully, our part of making Black Beauty the successful sanctuary it is.”

Bee resting on a bee balm flower
Emily Hamlin Smith

If you’d like to join the sanctuary’s volunteers in feeding hungry wildlife, know that you don’t have to live in Texas or be a Master Gardener for native perennials to thrive in your garden. Consider your garden a buffet and your plants the dishes, and make sure there’s something for everyone to eat. Below, we’ve shared a 5 feet by 10 feet garden bed plan using the exact same plants found in the sanctuary garden, including hybrids and cultivated varieties.

Some studies say that hybrids and cultivars might offer wildlife less nutritious food compared to the original species. We advocate for any form of native plant over having no native plants at all and encourage you to choose whichever versions of the plants you prefer. Just don’t accidentally swap them for something similar but non-native, such as tropical milkweed (Asclepias curassavica), which is native to tropical climates and can confuse migrating monarch butterflies. (Unless, of course, you live in a tropical climate!)

If you live in the U.S., you can find plants native to your region. Otherwise, your country’s environmental office can help narrow down native plants by continent. “Try something, start somewhere, and then figure it out as you go,” says Whitfill.

Create a haven for wildlife.

A humane backyard is a natural habitat offering wildlife plenty of food, water and cover, plus a safe place to live free from pesticides, chemicals, free-roaming pets, inhumane practices and other threats. And it's so easy to build!

humane backyard with a bench and birdbath
Meredith Lee / The HSUS

What’s on the ‘menu’ at Black Beauty Ranch

Fall or spring is the best time to plant these North American native (plants that naturally belong to a specific area) perennials (plants that die back and regrow each year). Choose a hot, sunny spot, and water plants well during their first season in your garden. Afterward, they’ll need very little care and will naturally multiply or spread each year. In a few years, you’ll be able to gift spare plants to other gardeners or move them to other garden beds. (Questions? Email me!)

Native garden plan
Crossvine illustration
A. 1 Crossvine ‘Tangerine Beauty’ (Bignonia capreolata)

Evergreen and spring blooming, crossvine grows fast and attracts hummingbirds.

Tall Garden Phlox illustration
B. 3 Garden Phlox (Phlox paniculata)

Phlox has show-stopping flower clusters beloved by pollinators in summer.

Bee balm illustration
C. 2 Bee Balm ‘Peter’s Purple’ (Monarda fistulosa hybrid)

Bee balm flowers look like fireworks, but the real treat is when goldfinches flock to the seed heads in the fall.

Black eyed susan illustration
D. 5 Black-Eyed Susan ‘Goldsturm’ (Rudbeckia fulgida var. sullivantii)

These bright yellow flowers last for weeks and attract birds and butterflies.

Blue mist flower illustration
E. 2 Blue Mistflower (Conoclinium coelestinum)

This dreamy flower spreads quickly and blooms for a long time. Butterflies love it.

Aromatic aster illustration
F. 3 Aromatic Aster (Aster oblongifolius)

Aster has small blue-purple flowers that provide important late-season food for native bees.

Tickseed illustration
G. 3 Tickseed ‘Uptick Yellow & Red’ (Coreopsis hybrid)

All types of coreopsis produce seeds that birds enjoy eating during the winter.

Butterfly weed illustration
H. 2 Butterfly Weed (a.k.a. orange milkweed) (Asclepias tuberosa)

This bushy milkweed with bright orange flowers is a food source for monarch butterfly caterpillars, who can only eat milkweed leaves.

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