There are plenty of options when it comes to planting lawns and flowers for pollinators
There are many different landscape options for people who want to make their residential yards more welcoming to bees, butterflies, birds and other pollinators.
WILLMAR — Research from 2005, using data from NASA satellites, showed that the largest irrigated crop in the United States wasn't corn, or soybeans or wheat. No, the largest irrigated crop, covering over 50,000 square miles, three times more than corn, was residential turf lawns .
While a bright green, perfectly manicured, weed-free lawn might be the height of landscaping success for many, for pollinators such as bees and butterflies it might as well be the Sahara.
"A manicured lawn is a biodiversity desert," said Aaron Wilson, the farm biologist for Pheasants Forever working in the office of the Kandiyohi County Soil and Water Conservation District .
Over the last few years, Wilson has been one of a growing number of people transforming their turf yards into pollinator havens. As someone who works to create habitat for wildlife, it only make sense that he would want to do the same at his home.
"Pollinators are becoming a more key target species we are looking to assist," Wilson said. "I have space in my yard that I don't use for anything else, don't like mowing it or caring for it in other ways. It is a pretty easy solution to have something that looks nice and provides for those native species."
There are various landscaping options those with a bit of yard can do to help pollinators. They can plant native flowers, creating a pocket prairie or rain garden, or even transform that turf yard into a flowering bee lawn.
"The benefits are stacked upon themselves," said Ryan Peterson, district technical coordinator for the Kandiyohi County SWDC.
Choosing plants for pollinators
When deciding what flowers to plant in landscape beds and gardens, choosing native species can be a great help to native pollinators. Some pollinators can be very specific about what plants they will eat or lay eggs on, such as with the monarch butterfly and milkweed.
It is also important to chose flowers that make it easy for pollinators to get to the nectar and pollen. Plants that provide high quality and quantity of food is yet another necessity for pollinator health, and many natives do that. Good choices include native bloodroot (sanguinaria canadensis), corcus (crocus versus) and purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea).
"They provide the best food quality, pollen, nectar. They are also the most adaptable to our incredibly variable weather we have, thanks to climate change," said Julie Weissen, University of Minnesota Extension horticulture educator, during a Jan. 31 University of Minnesota Extension webinar on creating pollinator-friendly landscapes.
Flowering trees and shrubs can be great options for those wanting to help pollinators but don't want to make massive changes to their landscapes. Trees such as basswood or linden are a very important source of nectar for honey bees in this region.
"Any sort of fruit-bearing shrub or tree," can be a good choice, Peterson said.
Another thing to watch for is good habitat. Many bee species winter underground, so keeping leaf litter around over winter or deciding not to clean out the garden until spring is a way to provide that needed space. Plants with porous woody stems are great homes for bees.
"Less tidy is better for bees," Wiessen said. "Don't be so tidy."
It might require a bit of research to find the right plants for a planting, as not every garden center or nursery sells either the plants or seeds. It is also important to avoid plants or seeds treated by chemicals, as some may be toxic to pollinators.
"Talk to your nursery, shop local, start from seed, collect seed," Weissen said.
The University of Minnesota Extension, Department of Natural Resources and the Xerxes Society can be good resources to find native plant suppliers. In western Minnesota, there is Morning Sky Greenery in Morris .
"You can pretty much find native plants for any particular site as long as you can grow plants there," said Sam Talbot, University of Minnesota Extension educator from Dakota County, during a Feb. 2 University of Minnesota Extension webinar on pocket prairies.
Gardens and lawns for pollinators
There are different ways people can use their landscape to help pollinators. Projects such as pocket prairies or bee lawns might take a bit more work to create and establish, but they can bring big benefits for pollinators.
Pocket prairies are native prairie restoration projects that are less than an acre and are great for residential yards. While the original native prairies were usually 80% grasses, many residential projects can have more flowers. Rain gardens, which are plantings in low areas to collect rainwater off roofs, driveways and yards, are another great place to put flowers and plants that are good for pollinators. That way you can get the benefits of a pollinator planting and reduce water runoff.
"The nice thing about prairies and establishing pollinator habitat is that you can sort of approach it at really any scale and any level of expertise, that includes your backyard," Talbot said. "We want to do everything we can to provide a diverse selection of pollen and nectar sources."
Wilson has seen pollinators of all sorts flock to the plantings he has done, both at his own home and his parent's place in Brooklyn Park.
"All kinds of insects, bees, butterflies and moths," along with beetles and grasshoppers, were seen crawling around those plantings, Wilson said
Pocket prairies and rain gardens also still leave room for a turf lawn if that is important to the residents, or needed to meet city regulations.
"When you put that bullet edging around there, they are kind of confined and still have a manicured look," Peterson said.
For those who want a lawn, but also feel its important to assist pollinators, probably the most transformational project someone can do is a bee lawn. Instead of a yard of just Kentucky bluegrass or another turf species, a bee lawn is usually a fine fiscus grass and several low growing flowering plants such as self-heal, creeping thyme and Dutch white clover.
There are many benefits to a bee lawn, for both the bee and the human. Not only do the lawns provide food for bees throughout the growing season, but bee lawns, one established, usually require less mowing, fertilizer and water to be successful.
"We want to provide habitat and food for our pollinators within a landscape of turf grass where humans desire play, they desire gathering, they want to have a picnic, play with the dog," said James Wolfin, of Twin City Seed Company, during a Feb. 1 University of Minnesota Extension webinar on bee lawns.
Help is here
Wilson is planning this spring, once the snow finally melts, to take his own turf backyard and turn it into a bee lawn. If all goes well, he might turn his front yard into a bee lawn as well. While he plans to do most of the work himself, he isn't doing it all alone, there is help available. Last fall, Wilson applied for and received a $350 grant from the Lawns to Legumes program to help fund his bee lawn project.
Lawns to Legumes was started in 2019 as a way to help restore habitat for the threatened Rusty Patch bumblebee, the official state bee. The Minnesota Board of Soil and Water Conservation, along with partners Blue Thumb and Metro Blooms , offers grants to residents wanting to do pollinator habitat plantings in their residential yards.
The program also provides project coaching. Peterson is one such coach, available to help grantees through their projects. He assists with site and plant selection, probably the most important decisions to be made in a project.
"Helping make sure their projects are successful," Peterson said.
Local SWCD offices are great resources for those interested in a pollinator project. They can give help with projects large and small. The Kandiyohi County office has created its own pollinator seed mix people can purchase, sells rain barrels and can assist people in designing their rain gardens, pocket prairies and other projects.
The interest in pollinator plantings has gone up in the last few years. Peterson said only a decade ago it was nearly unheard of, but now more and more people are starting to think of the bees and butterflies when landscaping or maintaining their yards.
"It is a lot easier than people think it could be," Wilson said.
The hope is the interest continues to grow and the perception that a manicured turf lawn changes to allow for more alternative residential landscapes. The more yards that provide food and habitat for pollinators the better.
"Start somewhere. Start with a couple of plants even," Peterson said.