Backyard Landscape Best Management Practices for Pollinators

More people have become interested in transforming their backyards from a turf-centric lawn into mini ecosystems of diversity with colorful blooms and nesting areas to attract wildlife, birds and pollinators. Pollinators are essential for ecosystems and food systems. Pollinators include wild native bees, honey bees,  butterflies, beetles, hummingbirds, wasps, moths, bats and more. There are more than 460 species of wild native bees and 150 species of butterflies in Minnesota. Just like us, pollinators need a nutritious diet and healthy places to nest and raise their young. 

pollinator flower garden backyard butterfly
Backyard landscape. photo: L. Schneider

People prefer to live in communities with healthy land and water, which also increases property values. A biodiverse backyard ecosystem supports soil and plant health for natural control of pests and disease. A landscape rich in diversity of flowering plants is both beautiful and supports thousands of species of bees, butterflies, hummingbirds and other pollinators. 

This webpage provides how-to instructions to support biodiversity in backyards along with plant lists and helpful links.

Principles of Backyard Landscape Best Management Practices

Backyard habitats are crucial to holding together an increasingly fragmented natural landscape for pollinators. Creating pollinator islands in adjacent backyards contributes to a neighborhood habitat corridor. Introducing native plants presents many benefits: beauty, resilience and appeal to birds and pollinators. Deep root systems act like a sponge and filter, helping water soak into the soil and filtering out excess nutrients and pollutants.

  • Host plants: Many butterflies are specialists, meaning they require a host plant in
    backyard pollinator habitat
    Residential pollinator garden. photo: L. Schneider
    their life cycle. Successful habitat provides host plants for larvae and nectar sources for adults. Include appropriate habitats in your yard plan for a diversity of bees and pollinators with shelter to raise their young.
  • Season-long shelter: Leave some sandy open areas for ground nesting bees to burrow down to nest, and muddy spots encourages butterfly puddling for minerals. Brush, leaf and mulch piles, logs, and overgrown areas provide safe places to overwinter or hibernate. Wait until late spring (May) to clean backyard gardens for hibernating bees. Pollinators overwinter in leaf litter, mulch piles, old wood and stiff plant stems.
  • Food: Plant diverse flowers that bloom from early spring through fall. Pollinators collect nectar and pollen from a variety of flowering plants including native plants, heirloom garden plants, trees, weeds and crops. In your yard, plant heirloom and native species such as salvia and milkweed, shrubs like ninebark and pussy willow, and flowering trees like basswood and plum. A row of shrubs or trees can provide both food and a natural windbreak. Avoid buying plants that have been treated with systemic insecticides such as neonicotinoids. Also, many garden annuals have been bred for longevity, not to provide nectar or pollen, so consult a pollinator-friendly plant list before purchasing.
  • Protection from pesticides: Avoid using pesticides on and around your landscape.
  • Clean Water: Provide a water source in or near your garden, making sure it is clean by changing it often.
  • Backyard landscape design: When considering a landscape design, be sure to choose an area for pollinator habitat away from pesticides.  In addition to considering shady and sunny locations, consider the audience. For instance, butterflies like to bask on their favorite wildflowers in full or partial sun with some protection from the wind. A landscape design should compliment your lifestyle and activities. Instead of a large turf lawn, create a mini-ecosystem of sorts with a hedgerow and perennials to provide habitat with visual interest. Place tall plants and shrubs at the back and sides of the garden for wind and sun protection, and to create an appealing visual border.
    • Components of a backyard landscape design include:
      • Hedgerows, buffer strips, shrubs
        backyard pollinator habitat prairie
        Suburban pollinator habitat. photo: Minnesota Native Landscapes
      • Flowering trees, host trees
      • Pollinator flower garden
      • Veggie and herb gardens
      • Pond, water features
      • Bird houses, insect hotels, bee houses
      • Pathways, patio, benches
      • Flowering pollinator lawn (or bee lawn)
      • Mulch, wood chip, leaf or pine needle piles, and beetle banks

Steps to implementing best management practices

  1. Assess the site and set objectives: Research as much as you can about your backyard first: sun exposure, quality of soil, moisture, erosion, what grows well or not well, size of planting area. (length x width = square feet). Do a simple soil test.
  2. Plan your backyard habitat: What are your anticipated daily uses?  "If you are planting a native plant community, you'll want to emulate the high diversity of interdependent species found in thriving natural ecosystems" (Prairie Moon). Designers suggest looking at a backyard like rooms of a home. Consider how the space will be used, for example; allow a space for a patio, another area for a flower garden, and veggie garden. Consult a native landscape expert if needed for an onsite evaluation and design. The design should include a variety of natural elements to support a variety of wildlife from the tiny sweat bee to humming birds. Choose plants, shrubs and other natural elements that provide nesting areas, and nectar or pollen for pollinators.
  3. Backyard Plant/Seed Order & Design: Develop an installation schedule based on growth and maintenance for plants and seed. Plugs (plants) will grow and provide results faster than seed. Choose a plant supplier that does not treat with systemic insecticides or pesticides that are harmful to pollinators. If you are ordering many plants, you may need to order them in advance so the supplier can grow them. Native plants are more resilient and offer more benefits to native pollinators. Perennials will come back and usually require less maintenance.  It can be a fun and creative challenge to choose a variety of colors and shapes for continual blooms throughout the growing season. Bunch groups of blooms together. Pollinators can more easily find clusters of the same flowers. For seed, be sure to know your zone to choose the appropriate seed for your area. Select seed for very early, early, mid, and late bloom periods. When purchasing pollinator-friendly plants, ask if plants were treated with neonicotinoids before buying.
  4. Site Prep-Remove Unwanted Plants: Clear the area of unwanted plants by shovel, sod cutter and/or handpulling. For medium sized areas for flower gardens, a weed suppression mat will keep competition weeds at bay. If there are large areas try chemical-free practices such as smothering, solarization with re-useable black or clear plastic or cardboard, or scalp mow followed by white vinegar burn. Consider using a cover crop such as buckwheat, rye or clover to smother plants in the seed bed. Cover crops can also improve the nutrient value of the soil before planting and seeding. If there are already native species present, you may want to enhance rather than removing all vegetation, by transplanting plants and inter-seeding. 
  5. Site Prep-Enrich soil: Soil chemistry test may be helpful.  If the soil is depleted, you will want to add nutrients before planting. Adding a thick layer of compost first before installing plants and seeds will insure better success especially for areas that were previously turf or treated. Healthy soil makes healthy plants.
  6. Installation: Once plants, plugs and seed is acquired, it's time to begin planting. For larger areas, trees, shrubs and/or seeds are fitting. Seeded areas may benefit from a light covering of seedless straw. Sloped areas might require a weed suppression or erosion blanket (made of compostable material like coconut fiber or recycled paper fibers). Water generously the first 2 weeks, and as needed after the second week. 
  7. Maintenance: Like with any landscape project, pollinator habitat requires tending.The difference is pesticides are avoided in a pollinator landscape. Weed control is critical the first few years so be sure to allow for extra maintenance for removal of unwanted plants. Hand pull, weed wack or mow unwanted plants as they arrive. After the landscape is established in 2-3 years, time and maintenance will reduce greatly. After establishment, native plants require little or no irrigation, fertilizer, pruning or mowing. See links below for pesticide-free alternatives for IPM and landscape maintenance.
  8. Use Integrated Pest Management (IPM) to control insect pests and weeds. IPM is an approach that employs monitoring of plants, pests and weather to project ahead and plan. IPM addresses the source of pest problems, whereas pesticides simply respond to the pest. Ultimately, IPM helps in reducing pesticides, which is a key component in creating pollinator-friendly habitat. Pesticides are harmful to pollinators and beneficial insects. Healthy urban landscapes can be maintained with little or no pesticide use. Instead of routinely spraying for insects, spot treat only when necessary with soft pesticides such as soaps and oils.

    • Pesticides should not be used in or around nesting and forage sites.
    • Insecticides are toxic and harm pollinators and beneficial insects.
      kaolin clay apple tree
      Applying kaolin clay is a tactic that physically prevents certain apple pests from infesting fruit. Any product applied should be done after petal drop to avoid harming pollinators. photo: L. Schneider
    • Herbicides can kill the plants that pollinators use for food and shelter.
    • Fungicides can be toxic to bees.
    • Some additives and inert ingredients used in pesticides can be toxic.
    • Combining pesticides, additives and inert ingredients has synergistic effects that can increase toxicity. 
    • Regenerative practices such as composting can be used to improve soil and plant health. Healthy soil makes healthy plants that can tolerate some damage. A naturally diverse landscape discourages outbreaks of disease or pest insects and also attracts beneficial insects that prey on pest insects.
    • Consider companion planting with marigolds for pest beetles, mint for cabbage moth and nasturtium for aphids. If a plant species is struggling, remove it and plant a naturally resistant plant instead. To help control some pests, use beneficial insects such as parasitoids, nematodes and predatory insects.

Best Management Practices in Backyard Landscapes

native habitat
habitat backyard
backyard pollinator habitat prairie
pollinator habitat backyard
butterfly backyard pollinator habitat
Pollinator lawn