By: Angela Hadrits, Stephanie Olive, Ashely Rezachek, and Ann Zawistoski Minnesota Master Naturalists
You don’t need a large plot of land, or expensive gardening gear to make bees, butterflies, and other pollinators happy year round. Planting a pollinator garden can be a simple and fun activity to do with your family, friends, roommates, or solo!
Did you know that over 100 crops grown in the United States and about three quarters of all flowering plants rely on pollinators to reproduce (USDA)? Sadly, pollinator populations around the world are in decline, due in part to loss of crucial native habitat. But there’s some good news, you can do something about that.
One big way you can support your local birds, bees and butterflies is by cultivating a patch of pollinator-friendly habitat in your own backyard!
Garden with Blazing Star, Purple Cone Flower, Black Eyed Susans,Milkweed and Phlox; Frittilary butterfly. Photos by Stephanie Olive
We’ve gathered some helpful tips to get you started on your pollinator-friendly garden journey:
- Make sure to choose plants native to your region.
- Choose nectar- and pollen-rich flowers that come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and colors.
- Avoid modern hybrids because pollen or nectar may have been sacrificed to achieve showier blooms.
- Select several different plants that will bloom from early spring through late fall.
- Plant groupings of three to five plants of the same variety, this will create a visually colorful display.
- Minimize use of landscape fabric. Native bees nest underground and may not be able to emerge and/or chew through the barrier created by some landscape fabrics.
- Include a good mix of pollinator flowers and grasses with 80% flowers and 20% grasses.
- Focus on a “healthy” environment, not a perfect landscape.
- Choose plants that provide food and habitat for pollinators as well as plants that support larvae.
- Choose a few plants that will bloom in the first years (sprinkling annuals throughout can be a good way to get flowers your first year because they only live for one growing season so most of their energy goes into blooming and producing seeds while they can).
- Plant a bee lawn that includes planting fine fescue grasses and Dutch clover; these are native to Minnesota and require less water and mowing.
- Adopt landscape maintenance to improve plant health and eliminate the need for pesticides.
- When it comes to native plantings there’s a saying that goes “First they sleep, then they creep, then they leap.” It may take a few years for the garden to fill in- be patient and enjoy the journey!
Not really sure which plants to select? That’s ok, flip through the photo gallery below to get inspired. This gallery contains some of Minnesota’s native pollinators’ favorite plants.
Link to Photo Gallery Coming Soon!
Now You’re Ready to Plant
- Begin by removing grass, old turf, weeds, and other unwanted plants, especially any invasive species from the garden area
- Till the soil to make it easier for planting
- Add a layer of topsoil if needed
- Add one or two inches of organic compost on top of existing soil
- Plant your flowers and grasses, and cover with soil
- Be sure to water your new plantings
Newly transplanted native seedlings; the same garden the following spring. Photos by Stephanie Olive
Common Questions When Starting Your Pollinator Garden
How many plants should be in a pollinator garden?
A variety of plants will be ideal for providing diverse sources of nectar and pollen. Choose at least five to ten different plant types, or fewer if the types of plants are highly attractive to pollinators. Make sure you have plants that flower at different times (spring, summer, and fall), so you’re providing pollinators with food throughout the year.
How big does the garden need to be?
While a larger garden will provide more food for pollinators, any size garden can still support pollinators. You can start with a container garden, or a small piece of your yard and expand the garden in future years.
Is it better to plant seeds or plants?
It really depends on your budget and timeline. It is usually cheaper to start from seed. However, seeds require more time before the plants are blooming. For smaller gardens, putting in plants may be easier and they often will bloom the same year they’re planted.
Are there recommended seed mixes?
The Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources recommends that a seed mix that is 40-60% wildflower and have species that bloom at different times of year. The mix should also include native grasses.
Are certain plants better than others for pollinators?
Because there is a wide diversity of pollinators in Minnesota, it is more important to have a diverse mixture of plants than to focus on a specific plant. Native plants tend to benefit pollinators more than other plants as our pollinators evolved to live with those plants. Flowering plants will provide needed nutrition, grasses and stocky plants can provide protection for the insects.
When is the best time to plant?
If you are planting seeds, then the best time to plant is late fall. If you are transplanting plants, spring is better.
What if I don’t own a house?
You can still help pollinators! You can grow pollinator plants in pots or community garden plots. You can also participate in community science projects to support pollinators (see below).
Will a pollinator garden attract other insects besides bees and butterflies?
Yes, there are other pollinating insects that these plantings will attract. Those include flies, wasps, and hornets. While these are considered by some to be nuisance insects, they are pollinators and do provide value to the ecosystem. To reduce the chance of stings, wear close toed shoes in your yard, and keep flowering plants for your pollinator garden away from high-traffic areas of your yard.
Stripetail and Showy Goldenrod. Photo by Zee Warholm-Wohlenhaus
Other Ways to Support Pollinators in Your Yard
There are many opportunities to support a healthy pollinator population. You could build your own bee hotel or provide pollinator guests with a source of water. Consider installing a sign to let your neighbors know about your pollinator-friendly garden. Take photos of your garden and its visitors to share with others, and spread the word that protecting pollinators is awesome!
Despite how tempting it is to prune those dead stalks and stems in the fall, it’s better to leave that plant material alone. Insect pollinators spend the cold months in a range of life stages, and use the plant material as a wintering site.
Take a closer look at how you manage your lawn, and consider participating in “No Mow May”. Avoid using broad leaf killers and look for products and plants that are free of neonicotinoids, an insecticide that has been linked to declining bee populations.
Rusty Patched Bumble Bee and Blazing Star. Photo by Heather Holm
Rusty Patched Bumble Bee and Common Milkweed. Photo by Heather Holm
Additional Resources and More Activities
Pollinator planting guides:
- Planting for Pollinators This 41-page guide gives in-depth information about planning, preparing, planting, and maintaining a pollinator garden. From the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources.
- Pocket Plantings A guide to creating small pollinator gardens. From Blue Thumb, a local public/private partnership promoting planting for clean water.
- 6 Tips for Pollinator Gardens in Small Spaces From the National Wildlife Federation.
- Native plant suppliers, landscapers, and restoration consultants for Minnesota From the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR). This list includes nurseries, plant suppliers, and landscapers who sell Minnesota native plants and seeds.
- Plant Finder This database lets you search for plants by common or scientific name, or by characteristics such as color of flowers, month they bloom, or soil conditions. Each entry includes a photo and quick information about the plant. From Blue Thumb.
- Pollinator Plants: Great Lakes Region This factsheet provides a list of selected flowers, shrubs, and trees for our region. Also contains tips for creating a pollinator garden. From the Xerxes Society
- Trees, shrubs, and vines for pollinators This page lists shrubs, trees, and vines for Minnesota pollinator gardens. From the University of Minnesota Extension website.
- Selecting Plants for Pollinators: Eastern Broadleaf Forest Continental Province A detailed guide for our region. The audience is farmers, land managers, and gardeners, so some information is not relevant to a home garden, but the list of plants has great information. There are guides for other regions of the US and Canada as well.
Community science and other activities around pollinators:
- How pollinator-friendly is your yard? Take this quick survey from the University of Minnesota to find out how your gardening practices help bees, butterflies, and other pollinators.
- Minnesota Bee Atlas Survey bumble bees in Minnesota to help with the tracking and conservation of our bees. Online training events are offered for volunteers.
- Bumble Bee Watch A Community Science project to track bumble bees in North America. Take photos of bumble bees and upload them to the site to help researchers understand the status of bumble bee populations.
- Monarch Community Science projects This pdf lists 10 different community science projects that support monarch butterflies. The list lets you quickly see how much time the project would require, and when and where it happens. The list is compiled by Monarch Joint Venture.
Boulevard Brown Eyed Susans. Photo by Stephanie Olive
Heath Aster and Bees. Photo by Stephanie Olive