One Punk’s Guide to Pollinator Conservation By Emma Alice Johnson. Illustration by RoQue Torres

One Punk’s Guide to Pollinator Conservation By Emma Alice Johnson

May 23, 2024

Originally ran in Razorcake #134 (June/July 2023)

Illustrations by RoQue Torres, based on photos by Emma Alice Johnson
Layout by Todd Taylor

Want to see pictures that aren’t in this post? We recommend you download the free PDF, or buy issue #134. The stand-alone zine available directly from Razorcake, too.

A current runs through poems and memoirs of people finding nature after experiencing trauma. That’s what happened to me a few years ago. Heck, that’s what happened to a lot of us at the start of the pandemic, if the boom in seed sales is any indication. But I also experienced a more acute trauma around the same time, and it hit me so hard it knocked me out of my self, out of my whole life, and left me rolling around screaming until out of desperation I grabbed onto the earth, stuck my hands in the dirt, and held on until I found a new me. That new me is inextricably linked with nature, with the plants and creatures who surround me every day that somehow, in the process of growing up, I had forgotten how to see.

As a kid, I saw them. I’d chase beetles and hold somber funerals for the grasshoppers who passed away in my care (’80s kids: remember that bone candy that came in tiny plastic coffins? Perfect for grasshopper interment). On early summer days, my grandpa and I would go to the Milkweed patch to look for Monarch butterfly caterpillars. The Milkweed patch was just a ditch along Clairemont Avenue, but to me it was a glimmering emerald forest of wonder with stalks of common Milkweed nearly as tall as me. We would catch caterpillars and bring them back to my grandpa’s house, where we built elaborate cages for them in his workshop. Together, we watched the caterpillars grow until they retreated into their chrysalises. When they emerged as butterflies, we released them, waving goodbye and wishing them well as they disappeared into the summer sky.

I reconnected with that little girl running through the Milkweed patch with her grandpa and decided I could continue on that path, I could love bugs again and, perhaps, even do some small work to keep them safe. So I read everything about insect conservation I could get my hands on. I observed. I begged my friends to let me tear up their yards and install pollinator gardens. I said goodbye to my Minneapolis apartment life and found a farm built on the remains of a ghost town in middle-of-nowhere Wisconsin. I began doing everything possible to create the habitat endangered insects need to hopefully stick around a little while longer.

I despair at the thought there will be a summer day in my lifetime when I walk outside and don’t see a butterfly fluttering around me, but that seems likely at the rate species like the Monarch are disappearing. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, though. In my short time doing this work, I’ve learned that protecting insects is something everyone can do with minimal impact to their lifestyles. Regardless of whether you live in a tiny apartment in Los Angeles or a massive farm in Wisconsin, there’s something you can do that will help keep insects safe.

I’m going to use the word “insect” in the general, most inclusive sense, rather than the scientific sense. I’ll use the word “bug” interchangeably, though they’re different. I’m also going to use the most-familiar-to-me common names for insects and plants. My experience is limited to working in the upper Midwest of the United States, so everything I discuss will be coming through that lens. Plant and insect species vary dramatically throughout the U.S. and worldwide. Some of the practices or methods I suggest may not work in every ecosystem, but should serve as a solid starting point.

Full disclosure, I’m still a newbie. I’m currently planning for my fourth growing season at the farm, where my focus is a five-acre field I’ve planted with native grasses and flowers, as well as several small gardens. I’ve also installed, assisted with, or provided guidance on a couple dozen backyard pollinator gardens of various types and sizes, most of which are still thriving. There are people far smarter than I out there doing this work, but some of the messaging can be contradictory, inaccessible, and impractical. This guide is for newcomers and pros alike, folks with all budgets and spaces, who want to protect our insect buddies.

Why Do Insects Need to Be Protected?

I have no doubt insects will outlast humans. I’m not being misanthropic, just reasonable. Insects outnumber us, they’re stronger than us, they’re more adaptable than us, and they’re further on their evolutionary journey than us. They thrived on this planet long before we came into existence and have already survived several mass extinctions. That Silverfish you eww at in your bathtub? That’s a descendant of the first insect, a lineage that goes back more than four hundred million years. That little squiggler is nothing less than royalty. So the idea that, as a whole, insects will completely disappear is ridiculous.

Unfortunately, many individual species of insects are disappearing. I’m old enough that I remember when I couldn’t drive an hour in the Wisconsin summer without having to wash the insect corpses off my windshield. I don’t need to use as much windshield wiper fluid these days, and it’s not because insects have gotten better at dodging cars. In Edwin Way Teale’s The Strange Lives of Familiar Insects, the author describes some of the insect masses he had experienced, including drifts of dead mayflies so deep they needed to be shoveled away. This still happens, but seemingly with less frequency than when the book was written half a century ago.

Scientists have documented dramatic bee and butterfly population declines. I worry that a lot of other insect species go overlooked. Are there enough scientists and research money to look at changes in silverfish populations? Or is research heavily tilted toward the prettiest insects and the insects tied most closely to capitalism? A recent study by the University of Maryland’s non-profit organization Bee Informed Partnership noted an annual decline in the Western Honey Bee (Apis mellifera) population of 40%. I’m not a mathematician, but I feel like a yearly population decline of that magnitude cannot go on long before there aren’t any more honey bees. And the thing is, honey bees are relatively stable. They’re kept and cared for. There are likely more protective efforts for honey bees than any other insect. If their population is dropping at that rate, what’s happening to other insect populations?

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists a mere 343 endangered insect species. That is 5.7% of all evaluated insect species. But how many species have been evaluated? Did you know that, according to Britannica, there are five to ten million insect species that aren’t even named or described, while only about one million have? If we don’t even know what insects are out there, how can we keep track of which ones are going extinct? This thought process is corroborated by an article in Science Direct in which scientists suggest we’ve already lost up to 500,000 insect species since industrialization and as many as one million may go extinct in the next few decades.

Scientists generally agree that insect population declines can be attributed to industrialization and expansion of human cities, landscaping methods, and agricultural practices that aren’t conducive to or are outright dangerous to insect life—stuff like habitat loss, herbicides, pesticides, and so forth. So conservation efforts must focus on combating these.

Why Are Pollinators Important?

When you hear about endangered insects, the discussion often centers pollinators. These are the insects that aid in plant reproduction, particularly the reproduction of crop plants that humans rely on for food, fuel, and more. I hate this discussion. The idea that something has to do something for people in order to care about it is so grossly capitalistic that it makes me barf. Bees are important because they exist. Silverfish are important because they exist. That’s all there is to it. Something does not have to serve you in order to have value. Its value is inherent. Further, the term pollinator is wildly vague. Wind is a pollinator. Bats are pollinators. So are bees and butterflies. All that aside, these are heavily studied insects and most of what you’ll find written about insect conservation is about them. Thankfully, non-pollinators also thrive with the same methods and in the same spaces as pollinators.

Six Easy Tips for Insect Preservation

Not everyone can create an insect-friendly garden filled with native plants, but most people can do something. Here are some easy ideas:

1. Reduce Outdoor Lights: Outdoor lights can be important for safety. However, outdoor lights may be responsible for population declines of moths and other darkness dwellers. Outdoor lights mess with insect navigation and lead to their death. I live in a rundown old Victorian farmhouse with at least ten outdoor light fixtures. I removed the bulbs from all but two and switched those two to lower wattage bulbs. I also keep lights turned off in rooms I’m not using at night, or have blinds drawn so the light doesn’t seep outside to mess with nighttime insects.

2. Leave the leaves: Leaf litter is a popular place for fireflies and other insects to lay eggs. When you throw those leaves away or burn them, you’re killing next season’s insects. Your best bet is to leave the leaves where they lay. My first year doing this, I was surprised at how fast the leaves decomposed in the spring and led to a lusher lawn. If you have to remove them, consider starting a leaf compost pile.

3. No Pruning: Shrubs and trees don’t have to be pruned every year. Or at all. Insects may use shrubs the same as they use leaves. If you prune too soon in the spring, you harm insects that are overwintering in the stems. If you prune after they have burrowed into the stems for the cold season, you are also harming them. If you are committed to having your plants look a certain way, consider timing your pruning for late spring or early summer.

4. No Mow May: An initiative to hold off on lawn mowing until June is gaining popularity. The idea is that by leaving your lawn unmowed during this critical time period when insects are emerging allows these insects more food sources and habitat, leading to a larger and more diverse insect population. I strive for minimal mowing and keep my mower on the highest setting. My front yard, which initially looked like the typical American lawn, revealed itself to be filled with wild strawberries, spring beauties, and violets. I love the wild strawberries in particular and have worked to propagate them. They make a soft, cute groundcover and, although the berries are barely bigger than a piece of Nerds candy (and are similarly tart), I love collecting a handful and throwing them on my oatmeal.

5. Potted Plants: Many native plants that serve as valuable food sources for insects can thrive in a pot on your porch, in a planter outside a window, or elsewhere. This is a great option for renters who are not allowed to create a permanent garden. Before I moved to the farm, I had a lovely New England Aster growing in a pot that my landlord let me keep on the front steps of the building I lived in. It did well, but I learned that New England Asters aren’t the best potted plant choice because they can get fairly deep roots. When choosing a plant to pot, consider the root system. A native plant like Compass Plant, whose roots can get to be fifteen feet deep, isn’t going to work unless you have a really big pot. Instead, look for annuals or biennials like Black Eyed Susans, Blanketflowers, or low-growing perennials.

6. Learn and Talk about Insects: Normalize being friendly with and curious about insects. Subvert the urge to kill them or say “eww.” Replace it with the desire to find out their names and what they do. This can be tough, because in the U.S. at least, the indoctrination that insects are pests is intense. While we’re allowed to be curious about insects as kids, eventually we are taught that they are harmful to us and our property, which in most cases isn’t true, despite what you may believe to your very core and what fear-mongering pest control specialists will tell you. Whenever I have this discussion with people, there are always objections. Even if I’m talking to the most humanitarian, thoughtful, vegan, suddenly it’s: But but but! Everyone’s an anarchist until paper wasps build a nest in their space. (PS: paper wasps are basically air puppies who are very unlikely to sting). It’s really difficult to overcome these deep-rooted anti-insect beliefs, but a good place to start is by simply talking to people about the insects you met during your day or an insect you’re curious about.

How to Build a Pollinator Garden

The good news is that a pollinator garden is the easiest garden you could possibly make and that lazy maintenance is encouraged. They’re way easier than veggie gardens and not half as much work as gardens filled with non-native ornamental plants. The bad news is that people don’t understand these gardens. They aren’t the manicured feature that friends, family members, and neighbors ooh and ahh about. You might get complaints. People may tell you it’s ugly. Ignore humans. Worrying about the opinions of humans is boring. Listen to the bugs. They’re going to love it.

Set Your Expectations

Try to think of your garden as a living entity that’s going to be part of your life. After all, that’s what it is. It isn’t something that you plop in the ground and forget about. A native plant garden can be very low maintenance, and ideally you’ll soon reach a stage where most of your interaction with it is watching sphinx moths flit from one wild Bergamot flower to another. But it might be a lot of work at first and you might not get it where you want it on the first try. I’ve used the exact same technique to create two gardens in nearly identical locations, only to have one succeed and one fail. There are just way too many factors that impact growth than it’s reasonable to take into consideration. Some plants might not make it. That’s okay. Keep going.

Site Selection

Native plants grow everywhere. The goal here, though, is to grow the native plants that are the most beneficial to endangered pollinators and other insect species, and, based on the lists I’ve seen, those tend to be plants that thrive in full sun.

You can grow in all types of soil, but a nice loam—not too wet, not too dry—is ideal. That said, I’ve found that native plants are pretty tough. I’ve got one garden in clay, rock-filled soil that doesn’t seem super hospitable, but my plants are thriving. I wouldn’t worry about this part too much.

Try to keep the location away from threats, such as neighbors who spray their lawn with pesticides. Boulevards are great spots for plantings, but gardens there take more abuse than ones further from the road because of road salt, oil, and other stuff. Also, think about a spot where your garden is least likely to draw the attention of critters who want to eat it.

Think about convenience and how you’re going to use your garden. Maybe you want to make sure you can see it from your window. Maybe you know you’ll give it the most attention in your backyard. These are valid considerations when selecting a site. Get creative, too. Maybe you want to use your planting as a natural fence along the border of your yard. You can plant a bunch of Cup Plants that will grow eight feet. Way better than a bunch of boards, although they won’t keep the dog in.

This article is going to focus on small scale, backyard style gardens. Techniques will differ if you’re working with large acreage, but the principles are the same.

Site Preparation

If there’s something growing on the site of your garden currently, you may need to get rid of it. However, take care to look closely. Identify as many plants as you can. If there are already beneficial plants growing in the spot, consider that it might make sense to figure out what you can do to help those plants thrive rather than to take them out and put in different beneficial plants. If half the plants in that area are beneficial native plants, consider removing and replacing the non-natives.

Assuming that you have a standard grass lawn, here are a few methods for getting rid of it.

Tarp method: The easiest method is also the healthiest for your soil. Find a thick, dark tarp in the dimensions you want your new garden. If you can’t find a tarp, you can use anything that prevents light from getting to the plants. I use all sorts of random stuff I found in the barn: old pieces of plywood, discarded doors, chunks of carpet.

Cut the lawn in that spot as low as possible. Spread the tarp out, securing it with bricks, rocks, lawn ornaments, or whatever. The ideal time to do this is in the fall or early winter, before the snow falls if you live in a snowy state, or at least a couple months before you plant. The longer the tarp is down, the more likely that all the plants beneath it, and their seeds, will be killed.

When it comes time to plant, roll the tarp up and you’ll find dead grass matted against the soil, but everything underneath is left intact. All those sweet organisms that make soils so healthy, as well as critters like the larvae you’re working to protect, will be happily waiting under the surface. If you’re going to plant seeds, rake up the dead grass enough so the seeds can make contact with the surface of the soil. If you’re working with seedlings, you can plant through the webbing of dead grass.

Sod Method: With a sharp shovel, cut squares of sod, about a foot by a foot. When you’ve completed this for the entire space, go through and turn each of the squares upside down in place, so the grass is buried. Alternately, you can take the squares of sod and pile them upside down around the border of the garden, creating an insect nesting habitat. This will leave the area uneven, though.

If you’ve turned the sod over and left it in place, wait a couple weeks to make sure all the grass dies. If it pops up, flip the squares over again. This method is work intensive, but relatively fast and doesn’t do much damage to your soil organisms. It’s not perfect, so there will be more unexpected plants to pull than if you used the tarp method.

Tiller method: This is the least desirable method, because you’re basically slaughtering all the soil organisms. It also requires that you have access to a tiller, a machine that’s expensive and difficult to transport. It does tend to be fast and effective. Run the tiller over the spot where you want your garden until everything that was there is torn up. Wait a week or two, repeat.

Once your site is prepared, consider fencing it in. A lot of animal buddies would happily munch your plants into oblivion before any insects have the chance to enjoy them. Rabbits and deer are major culprits. Yes, these critters need to eat, too, but they’re bad at sharing and aren’t in danger of starving. So consider putting up some chicken wire to keep your plant babies safe.

Choosing and Finding Plants

The goal is to use plants that are native to your region, preferably ones that best support endangered pollinators and other insects. The Xerces Society is one of the best resources for choosing plants. Their website offers a regional breakdown of the most pollinator-friendly native plants.

Don’t feel like you need to plant every plant on the list for your region. There’s something to be said for picking only a handful of species. If you have a small space, there’s nothing wrong with growing a single species. Considering that many endangered insects are specialists and even the generalists have preferred species, it may even be better.

Using the Monarch butterfly as an example, they exclusively lay eggs on Common Milkweed and feed intensively on Blazing Star. You could do a garden with one Blazing Star plant and some other plants, but is it worth it to the Monarch to stop for one plant? What if someone has already eaten all the nectar? But if you have a five-by-five garden that’s all Blazing Stars, maybe lined with some Milkweed, you’ve created a Monarch paradise. Some insects locate flowers by sight too, so a bunch of them will be easier to spot as they’re flying by. In nature, plants tend to grow in colonies like this.

If you’re going to have a larger mix of plants, think about how they will get along. Keep the height and width of the plants in mind. If you grow Bergamot, which can get in the neighborhood of four feet tall and has a wide spread, you aren’t going to want to plant Prairie Alum Root, which sticks close to the ground, nearby. Since insects need food at different times, select plants that bloom in different months.

No ecosystem is just flowers either. Add in grasses and sedges. I’m in love with Little Bluestem, a short clumping grass. Perhaps you’ve never described a grass as “cute” in your life, but after you see this little buddy grow for a season, you absolutely will. Even shrubs can be great, if space allows.

When choosing plants, keep your location in mind. If you’re planting along a creek or drainage ditch, choose plants that can deal with the moist soil. If you weren’t able to find a spot that gets eight hours of sun, look for plants appropriate for the amount of sun the space does get. Location may dictate plant heights as well. You won’t want to plant Compass Plant too close to your front window. Also, plants that big should be planted away from the foundation of a house, as the long roots could crack it over time.

Then you need to decide whether you want to grow from seeds or seedlings. Growing from seeds is cheaper, but more of a challenge. Growing from seedlings is easy, but can be costly. Think about having a plant for every square foot. If you’ve got a ten foot by five foot garden, that’s going to be about fifty plants, so we’re talking a couple hundred bucks if you go to a greenhouse. Look into other sources, too. Does a nearby nature center have an annual plant sale? Do you have a friend who grows native plants who could divide some or give you seedlings? Check Craigslist or join native plant groups on Facebook. There are also grants and programs like Minnesota’s Lawns To Legumes that help people fund pollinator plantings. Hopefully this goes without saying, but don’t take plants from parks or the woods.

Be careful with seed mixes, particularly wildflower mixes from big box stores, as they’ve been found to contain non-native plants as well as regionally inappropriate plants. If you can find the same seed mix in Seattle and Tampa, it’s probably not a safe mix to use.

While I understand the allure of throwing down a mix of seeds and getting a variety of flowers, it’s worth taking the time to select a few types of seeds, or even just a single type of seed, that’s specific to the place you’re planting, and go with that. More on this later, but you may eventually have to “weed” your garden, which is far easier if you’re only growing a few species.

You can also mix seeds and seedlings. I like to plant flower seedlings and use grass or sedge seeds to fill in the space between them. For both seeds and seedlings, find a source that specializes in native plants and is located close to you, as that will provide plants that are well-suited for growing near you

Why native plants? People often tell me that bees love their Zinnias or butterflies love their Butterfly Bush, which I don’t doubt. But which bees? Which butterflies? And are those bees and butterflies getting the same nutrients as they would from native plants? Science says no.

Insects love your ornamental plants, but your ornamental plants do not provide the nutrients insects need to thrive. This parallels the concept of a food desert. If you put a McDonald’s or a Popeye’s in an area without any other food options, yes, people will eat it, but that doesn’t make it healthy, or even good. It just makes it available. Native insects co-evolved with native plants. They’ve spent millions of years living their lives in tandem. They’re meant to be together.

Planting

You’ve picked your spot. You’ve prepped. You’ve got your plants or seeds. Now is the fun part.

If you’re putting in seeds, your goal is to get good contact with the soil, not to bury them (though follow whatever instructions come with the seeds). Toss them around evenly and press them in with your feet. Try it barefoot!

If you’re planting seedlings, put in one every square foot or less. While putting them close to each other sets them up for competition, it also allows less space for unwanted plants to sneak in.

I encourage you to plant with bare hands. When I first did, it felt like healing, having my hands in the ground, pushing plants in, digging, touching leaves, touching flowers, and I felt like I was part of this world in a way I don’t think I’d ever felt before, and it’s so powerful. So whenever possible, I set the gloves and shovel aside, and work with my bare hands. It lets me get better acquainted with the plants too. Sometimes that can be intense (I’m looking at you, stinging nettle), but mostly it feels nice.

As far as when to plant, try to do seedlings after the last threat of frost. That gives them as much of the growing season as possible to establish. That said, I’ve had good luck putting in seedlings well into late summer. Seeds you can kind of do whenever. Some will need to overwinter, so fall plantings are great. Otherwise, earlier in the growing season is better.

I recommend scheduling your planting around a rain. Either plant the day before a rainfall or even during a rainfall. Aside from this being an obvious water conservation measure, there’s something magical about having rain be the first nourishment your plant babies receive.

If you can’t sync your planting with rainfall, they should be watered soon after planting. Native plants are hearty and evolved to work within your ecosystem, so you may find that you don’t have to water them much after that initial planting, depending on rainfall. The best way to determine whether plants need to be watered is to watch them. They tend to be clear in their needs. If their leaves start to sag or wilt, they want a drink. Touch the ground around the plants. Does it feel dry? Has the sun beaten out all the surface moisture? Dig your fingers into the ground nearby, not too close to the plant. Does it seem dry, or is it holding moisture? Different soils act differently, but if you can tell the soil is moist and your plants seem vivid and strong, you don’t need to water them.

I’m not a fan of a well-manicured garden. To me, a garden with plants spread out with seas of mulch or rocks between them is a missed opportunity. Instead, plant native grasses or sedges between big flowers. If you plant stuff close together, there will be some battling for space, but that’s how nature works. If you see something struggling, you can always transplant it somewhere else.

At some point in history, probably soon after we decided that having a monoculture lawn of perfectly manicured grass was a good idea, we decided that gardens need to have plants spaced a certain distance apart and nothing can grow between them, which is weird. No shame if you think that looks pretty. If that’s your thing, go for it, but ultimately a more natural garden is going to be more beneficial to insects. Consider not throwing rocks or wood chips down. They block insects from nesting in the ground and are going to get messed up anyway, so you’re only creating more work for yourself when you have to clean up the rocks or replace the woodchips.

Build an Insect House

In the planning section, I mentioned pulling out sod, piling it up around the garden, and creating a berm for insects to live in. There are other ways of creating places that insects may want to make homes in. A lot of insects are ground dwelling. If you see a mouse hole pop up, don’t fill it in. Insects might evict the mouse or take over when the mouse moves out. Line your garden with rotten logs that insects can burrow into. Find organic materials of different sizes and textures and pile it into some house-like formation. Include reeds, logs, sticks, dead grasses, mossy rocks, abandoned wasp nests, old untreated lumber, whatever. My main insect house is a pile of rotten logs, old lumber, and the dead hollow stems of Purplestem Angelica. For fun, I stack all the deer bones I find on top of it. It’s very metal!

Maintenance (Who Says Your Garden Needs to Look Like a Garden?)

In prepping for my fourth growing season and the biggest thing I’ve learned is I’ll never know how to care for plants as well as plants know how to care for themselves. Nature doesn’t need a lot of help. It’s not sitting around saying, “Gosh, I sure wish Emma would help me. I can’t figure out how to be nature without her!” So I try to do the minimal amount of work and let nature lead the way. Basically, I’m nature’s secretary/bouncer. My job is to foster a space where native plants are free to grow unimpeded in the healthiest manner possible.

I hate the term “weed” and I refuse to use the term “weeding.” Weeds are a social construct, a term applied willy nilly to whatever plants humans have decided don’t belong. Which is funny, because in the case of most of them, the reason they’re there is that people put them there. Many of what we think of as weeds in the United States were originally brought here as food or medicine. Why do you think Dandelion is here? Why do you think Ground Ivy is here? But now we don’t want them, so we call them weeds.

All plants have value. That said, the goal is to curate a space with plants that best serve endangered insects, which means you will have to pull some plants out, mostly non-native plants and even occasionally some natives, so they don’t crowd out the plants you put there.

This does not have to be as hard as people make it out to be, and can also lead to some really lovely understandings of the different plants that pop up. My rule is not to pull something until I know what it is. This is especially important in second and third year gardens, when the plants you have put down begin to spread on their own.

There’s also always a chance that a beneficial native plant volunteers. A lot of Fleabane pops up in my garden. It’s a gentle native annual that gets along well with others, so there’s no point in pulling it. Pulling a plant that isn’t a threat to the plants you’ve put in only allows additional opportunity for threatening plants to move into the space you’ve left bare.

There are also native plants you may need to pull. Canadian Goldenrod dominates my farm. It is a lovely native plant, but there’s also plenty of it, so I don’t necessarily need to allow it in my garden, where I’m making space for less common plants that different insects need to survive.

Also, you may not have to pull all non-native plants. Listen, no matter how hard you pull, non-native plants are here. In his book The Incredible Journey of Plants, Stefano Mancuso says that the invasive plants of today are the native plants of tomorrow, arguing that plants move. It’s just what they do, whether helped by human hands or not. From well before humans showed up, plants moved around the planet on their own, carried by wind, water, or animals.

You’ve got a mission to create a native plant garden, but you don’t need to be dogmatic about it. Is that Dandelion really a threat to the Bergamot growing a foot away? Not really. Will the Bergamot, which will grow to be four feet high, eventually crowd out the Dandelion? Likely. If you pull the Dandelion, what will happen? Maybe a Thistle seed creeps onto the disturbed soil and now you’ve got a plant that will be a threat.

The first year or two are going to be the tough ones. Many species of native plants grow slowly, putting their roots in deep before they grow upward. I have Compass Plants that at the end of their second growing season were still only a foot tall, despite the fact that they’ll eventually grow close to ten feet tall.

So while native plants are growing down, the non-native plants like to come in like bullies and grow up fast, shading out the natives, killing them before they can get a foothold. So your job is to prevent that from happening. It’s not about making the garden look pretty. It’s about giving the native plants you want to grow a head start so they can get their roots down, because once they do, they’ll stand strong on their own against interlopers.

I’m personally not a fan of pruning or trimming or deadheading or anything that nature doesn’t do naturally. Pruning at the wrong time, for example, endangers larvae that may be growing in the material that’s being pruned and tossed away. Why spend the time?

Seed Collecting (And Sharing)

From a purely tactile standpoint, seed collecting is magical. I love running my thumb over the spikey, dried-out head of a Purple Coneflower and flinging the seeds out of their hiding spot. When I find a bursting Milkweed seed pod and pry it all the way open with my fingers, scraping out the so, so fluffy seeds to cast them into the air, I feel like I’m floating right along with them.

Seed collecting is where you can do some really cool things. I recommend letting a certain number of seeds fall or blow naturally to see what volunteers next year. Who will take root? While people might consider it past weeding season, if you pull out unwanted plants at the time that certain seeds are ready to spread, you may end up making space for beneficial plants.

Other ideas for the seeds you collect:

• Use them to create a second garden next season

• Press them into random bare spots in your lawn or garden

• Give them to friends (ideally friends who live in the regions where these plants grow)

• Guerilla gardening

Guerilla Gardening

I’ve seen seed bomb recommendations that involve just packing a bunch of seeds and throwing them someplace, but there needs to be more care put into it than that. Remember the discussion about soil type, shade, etcetera? Throwing a seed bomb full of sun-loving plant seeds into a shady lot is pointless. Throwing a seed bomb full of plants that are difficult to grow from seeds is pointless. I also question whether there’s value in trying to guerilla garden in places where there’s regular maintenance or the possibility of development. That said, even if a plant blooms one season, it will feed insects for that season and maybe its seeds will spread somewhere else, so it’s not a total loss if the Milkweed plants you put down in the construction zone get cut down a year later.

I recommend making your seed bombs out of the most prolific, toughest, easiest to grow native plants that live in your area. Common Milkweed are hearty buggers. At my farm, Canadian Goldenrod has a grip on the land. It’s gorgeous. When I first came to the farm, the Goldenrod was in bloom and it felt like I was surrounded by sunshine. Bees love it, it does well by seed, and it spreads everywhere. It would be my number one for less-than-legal planting (if I were to do such a thing).

What Will the Neighbors Think?

When I tell people they can do this in their yards, one of the biggest fears I hear is that the neighbors will complain. While I understand the value of getting along with neighbors, I think some things are worth having an argument over. Complaining neighbors seems to me like a window to educate about the importance of creating these spaces to protect endangered bugs.

In some places, a complaining neighbor might be an inconvenience or a teaching moment, but in others, it could be a legal issue. Many municipalities have ordinances that require homeowners to make sure their lawns comply with what Europeans have traditionally considered well-manicured. If you’ve got a bunch of plants the general public considers weeds (a lot of native plants have the word weed as part of their common name, which makes it tough to battle this misperception) growing unchecked in your yard (which is the point), you may be subject to repeated fines until the matter is resolved. Perhaps this is something worth fighting for, and you could propose a change to the ordinance or removal of the ordinance altogether. Depending on the size of the municipality, it might be easier than you think. The same is true if you have HOA or COA rules to follow. Why not see if you can change them? This will open up the door for other people who may not have the time or ability to address legislation to create gardens of their own.

Observing Your Insect Friends

So you did it. You made a pollinator garden. You’ve got a maintenance plan. Flowers are blooming. Don’t forget to spend time observing. Start a garden journal and document when each flower blooms and stops blooming, when you see each insect for the first time each season, any other detail you find interesting or important. See who’s stopping by. You might start seeing insects you never noticed before. Download an insect identification app on your phone and get to know them. What plants are being fought over? What plants are being ignored? Use this information to inform how you expand your garden, if you choose to expand it. How do population sizes change from month to month, year to year? You can pick certain days and do a count of bees or butterflies you see, recording the numbers in your journal. Where are they living? You can follow them and see where their homes are. Maybe they’re closer than you think.

Is It Enough?

I think about this a lot. Is my five acre field enough? Are my little gardens enough? They seem so small in the grand scheme of things. But then after observing insects for a while, I started recognizing them as individual beings with their own lives. I started thinking that my goal was not to save all insects, but maybe to save one. To a bumblebee, a five by five garden packed with nutritious plants can mean the difference between life and death. When you grow your plants, you’ll start watching all the insects that come by on a daily basis. Look at how much pollen the bumblebees are collecting! Look at how much nectar the butterflies are drinking! To each one of them, every single plant you’ve made space for makes the difference between sustenance and a desperate flight to find food somewhere else. Even if you can only possibly grow one plant in a pot on the steps of your apartment, you’re making a difference for one insect. That’s important.

For More Information

Online, your first stop for all things related to protecting pollinators should be the Xerces Society. Formed in 1971, the organization is devoted to protecting butterflies, bees, and other buddies. Fun fact: it was formed by a brilliant butterfly scientist who’s also a renowned bigfoot expert. Though bigfoot-free, the website is an amazing resource, starting with offering lists of pollinator-friendly native plants for reach region.


Thankful Bits

Razorcake.org is supported and made possible, in part, by grants from the following organizations.
Any findings, opinions, or conclusions contained herein are not necessarily those of our grantors.
crossmenu