Backyard Landscape Best 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.

People prefer to live in communities with healthy land and water, which also increases property values.  This webpage provides how-to instructions to support biodiversity in backyards along with plant lists and helpful links.

Pollinators are essential for ecosystems and food systems.  Just like us, pollinators need a nutritious diet and healthy places to nest and raise their young. 

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.

biodiverse habitat backyard
Backyard landscape. photo: L. Schneider

Backyard biodiversity for pollinators

Reducing pesticides is a key ingredient in creating pollinator-friendly habitat. Household choices have direct effects on species and ecosystems, such as habitat loss and pesticide contamination. Residential development, commercial agriculture, pesticide use and climage change is destroying wildlife habitat. Wherever possible, we need to encourage habitat restoration to restore pollinator populations.

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.

It's easy to support biodiversity by supplying staples pollinators need

backyard pollinator habitat
Residential pollinator garden.  photo: L. Schneider

 

  • Shelter for nesting and overwintering
  • Food
  • Protection from pesticides
  • Clean water

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.

Shelter:  Many butterflies are specialists, meaning they require a host plant in 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. 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. 

painted lady butterfly on mallow
Vanessa cardui on host plant (Malva) and eggs.
photo: Krischik lab

Leave your gardens up over winter:  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.

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.

backyard pollinator habitat prairie
Suburban pollinator habitat. photo: Minnesota Native Landscapes

Backyard landscape design includes:

  • Hedgerows, buffer strips, shrubs
  • 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

Traditional turf lawns dominate urban landscapes, deplete the soil and provide no food for pollinators. A pollinator lawn is a flowering carpet of native plants and grasses that requires no pesticide, herbicide or weed and feed treatments, needs very little mowing, can take foot traffic and feeds pollinators. Use fescue grasses such as fine fescue with white dutch clover and other low growing plants such as lanceleaf coreopsis, blanket flower, and pussy toes.  Pollinator Lawn IPM guide.

Steps to a biodiverse backyard habitat

  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.  See a list of Wis/MN suppliers and native landscape professionals here. 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.

Weed and insect control

 
Use Integrated Pest Management (IPM).  Pesticides are harmful to pollinators and beneficial insects. Healthy urban landscapes can be maintained with little or no pesticide use.
kaolin clay apple tree
Apply kaolin clay on fruit when blossoms are gone
to avoid harming pollinators. photo: L. Schneider
  • Pesticides should not be used in or around nesting and forage sites.
  • Insecticides are toxic and harm pollinators and beneficial insects.
  • 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.

What is Integrated Pest Management (IPM)?

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. IPM approach strives to avoid chemicals that are harmful to pollinators and toxic to the environment. The first step is to accept that plants can handle some pest and disease pressure. If a pesticide must be used, only spot treat in the evening and do not treat open blooms.

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.

Inspect and monitor your plants' health on a regular basis, before problems are out of control. Instead of routinely spraying for insects, spot treat only when necessary with soft pesticides such as soaps and oils. 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.  Read more here about IPM . . .

What are systemic insecticides? 

A systemic chemical is absorbed into the plant's vascular system, leaving the entire plant toxic to both target and non-target species. Systemic insecticides affect the central nervous system of insects resulting in paralysis and death. Neonicotinoid class of insecticides is particularly harmful to bees and pollinators as accumulated neonicotinoids are consumed by adults or stored, concentrated, and fed to developing young.  Neonicotinoid insecticides are used by greenhouses and found in backyard spray chemicals.  Neonicotinoid compounds include imidacloprid, clothianidin, thiamethoxam and dinotefuran. Pesticides including insecticides, herbicides, fungicides and inert ingredients can all be harmful to pollinators, especially when combined.  Read more here . . .

Backyard Habitats

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