Planting for pollinators... the concept was just a blip on the radar a few years ago. Now it's a nationwide trend, only growing in popularity.
When we think about pollinator conservation, we often look at restoring large swaths of habitat by adding native prairie plants—the vibrant collections of flowers and native grasses insects rely on for shelter and food. While prairie restorations provide remarkable value, it is also worthwhile to consider how we can alter landscapes on the individual level to support at-risk pollinators. This is where reconciliation ecology, a branch of ecology that encourages biodiversity and conservation in human-dominated landscapes, comes into play. When we consider that approximately 60% of the land in the United States is privately owned, it becomes apparent that exercising this philosophy can be an incredibly powerful vehicle for environmental change.
There's no shortage of pollinator plant lists, including some specifically for conservation of endangered rusty patched bumble bees in Minnesota. When it comes to plant selection, focus on incorporating native plants that are well-adapted to your local environmental conditions (sun/shade, soil type, moisture, etc). If you choose to add non-native plants, try to select species that are not invasive and provide value to pollinators.
Steps to ensure a successful pollinator planting:
- Conduct a thorough site assessment. Think about how you use the space you wish to plant. What areas are used for recreation? What areas provide aesthetic value? Aim to place your planting in a part of your yard that has low traffic but high visibility. If protecting local water quality is one of your goals, consider how water moves through your yard. Siting a planting in the path of water (near a downspout, perhaps) can greatly reduce stormwater runoff from your property.
- Create a planting plan. Having a blueprint to work off of will make your life so much easier when it’s finally time to plant. A planting plan will also help you start to visualize what your garden area will look like down the road. There are two common layouts I often like to use when developing a planting plan. A ‘middle-out’ aesthetic, where short plants (0.5’ – 2’) are used along the perimeter of the planting, medium-sized plants (2’ - 4’) are used in the next ring, and in the tallest plants (4’+) are used in the very center of the planting. This helps to ensure favorable sightlines from all angles. The second planting plan I like to use is one I affectionately call ‘the yard mullet’—business in the front (short plants), party in the back (tall plants). This works best when there is one primary sightline from which the plants will be viewed (i.e. from the sidewalk). A good planting density is generally ~1 plant per square foot.
- Head to a local garden center or nursery. When in doubt, I always recommend going local. Many big box stores treat their plants with harmful insecticides like neonicotinoids. Be wary of cultivars. While not all cultivars are bad (in fact, some show increased pollinator value), certain changes like those to leaf color or alterations that make it more difficult to access floral rewards can lessen the value of a plant. When in doubt, check with a representative at the garden center.
- Prepare your yard area and get to digging! Try to remove your turfgrass using either a mechanical method (shovel, sod kicker, sod cutter) or an organic site preparation technique (solarization, sheet mulching, etc). Chemicals are a tool in the toolbox, but try and think of them as an absolute last resort. I often only recommend them when battling a hardy weed that is difficult to remove (looking at you, Creeping Charlie). One the area is prepped, install plants by digging a small hole, placing the plant within the hole, and gently backfilling the hole with soil. Native plants are resilient, but watering while they are immature can go a long way. Try to water once per week through the first year to ensure a successful planting.
And there you have it! While there is so much more nuance and detail we could delve into, this should be a good starter to get you going. Planting for pollinators does so much good for your ecosystem and community, from providing food for pollinators, to rebuilding crucial web connections, and even supporting local sustainability efforts in nearby farms and gardens. Whether your planting is 10 square feet or 10,000 acres, installing plants for pollinators is a valuable component of a healthy ecosystem.
James Wolfin is a Conservation Specialist with Twin City Seed Company, where he aims to bring more visibility to bee lawns as a conservation tool for residents and land managers.
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