Planting for Pollinators

March-April 2020

What do you eat? Unless you subsist entirely on mushrooms, everything you consume either needs to be pollinated or eats something that needs to be pollinated.

Unfortunately, pollinators — most notably, bees and butterflies — are suffering tremendous pressure resulting from habitat loss. They have neither enough food nor enough shelter. Pollinator stress moves up the food chain as farmers resort to hiring beehives to pollinate orchards, while gardeners wonder where all the butterflies of their childhood have gone.

So what’s the fix? Pollinators eat nectar, so planting flowers is a start. Not all flowers prove equally beneficial, though. Pollinators are mostly native insects, indigenous to our region. Native insects prefer native plants; in most cases, they insist upon them.

If pollinators can’t find the food they need, they starve. This is particularly true of pre-butterflies, also known as caterpillars. Adult butterflies happily scarf down showy non-natives while the caterpillars simply can’t. Think of them as human kids, far fussier eaters than their parents.

One case in point is the pollinator melodrama occurring around popular but invasive butterfly bushes (buddleia). Adults swarm the flowers, laying eggs on the plant. The eggs are then doomed to disaster. Larvae hatch, can’t eat the butterfly bush and quietly starve.

SOLVING THE CRISIS

The best solution to the pollinator crisis is planting native perennials. Choose a mixture yielding blooms from early spring through late fall, in a variety of colors. This both pleases the eye and supports the widest spectrum of pollinator species, whose peak season and preferred flower colors vary considerably.

Choose a few species-specific host plants, like milkweed, the only genus of plant monarch caterpillars can consume, interspersed with more broadly attractive ones, like bee balm, coreopsis, black-eyed Susan and aster.

Even a few native perennials added to your garden are a plus but consider going big with this. How about replacing a wide swath of lawn or an unused meadow with pollinator habitat? Measured by acres under cultivation, turfgrass or lawn is America’s biggest “crop,” far outweighing corn, a distant second.

I decided to convert 5 acres of lawn and pasture to pollinator habitat. The process wasn’t easy, but I’d do it again in a heartbeat. I financed the habitat installation through a grant from the Natural Resources Conservation Service. State and federal agencies offer numerous grants to farmers and homeowners interested in eco-friendly practices, making expensive seed and installation affordable. You’ll usually get expert guidance through tricky procedures, too.

Creating a wildflower meadow sounds simple, a matter of throwing out some seed. Not so fast. This might work, if done at the right time of year, on bare ground with no existing seed bank.

Where grass or invasive weeds are already in place, you have to kill what’s already there before putting down new seed. It’s a multi-step process, and in a large area, generally means spraying with herbicide. We’ve been hearing a lot lately about the very real dangers of herbicides, but what isn’t often publicized is that the most problematic ingredient is often the surfactant or “sticker.”

Avoid pre-mixed herbicides from big box stores. Mix your own using an aquatic-safe surfactant, or plain dish soap, and don’t spray more than the minimum you need to kill existing vegetation.

GETTING RESULTS

I sprayed my habitat site twice, timing the applications in April to kill the turfgrass and in early June to get warm-season weeds. With less impeccable timing, I chose summer 2018, one of the wettest on record. My proposed habitat was under water much of that summer, so we ended up seeding it late, in mid-June.

Native habitat seed is best applied with a specialized drill, different from a traditional agricultural seeder. The native drill barely scratches the surface of the ground, and I have to admit I wondered if birds or runoff would get the seeds before they had a chance to germinate. In a couple of weeks, though, I had my answer: The seeds began to germinate.

By midsummer, I had sprouts that were recognizable as coneflowers, milkweed, native grasses and dozens of other plants. By late summer, I had my first flowers, though most native perennials can’t be expected to bloom until their second season.

The meadow adventure isn’t for the faint of heart or overly tidy perfectionists. Expect a transitional year, during which you’ll have a couple of months of dead plants and weeks of bare dirt. It’s worth it, though.

By the second year, you’ll have a vibrant meadow, and by the third, a multi-colored paradise alive with birds, butterflies and bees.

In the hours I used to spend mowing, I sit back and watch the wildlife, enjoying the well-pollinated fruits of my garden.