We know the pollinators are in trouble. From bumblebees to butterflies, insect populations are in steep decline. Even more alarming, honeybees are suffering the loss of entire hives, yet more than 100 crops grown in the US require pollination (learn more).
Although this is serious news, suburban landowners could help reverse the damage to pollinators by adopting landscape practices that support them. In the US about 40 million acres of land are devoted to turf lawns (learn more). Turf lawn grasses are not native and do not support biodiversity; in addition, they are treated heavily with chemicals, such as, pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. These chemicals not only poison pollinators, but pollute groundwater. No matter the size of your yard, you can create an ecologically sound garden to make up for outdated, damaging practices.
Spring to Do’s
1. Pick up litter: Winter snows melt and uncover garbage. Spring winds blow that garbage around the neighborhood. Anything that lands on my front yard, on the sidewalk, or in the street gutter by my house is put in recycling or the trash.
2. Hand weed pathways: If you have flagstones, pavers, or gravel, pluck out any unwanted plants in spring while they’re still small and haven’t gone to seed. After weeding, pour sand into crevices to deter unwanted plants from reestablishing. And if unwanted plants still come back, the sand makes weeding simple.
3. Weed out invasive plants: Invasive plants, like garlic mustard, are easy to identify in spring. Their roots are close to the surface so hand weeding is fast.
4. Replace old annuals with new ones: In late spring or early summer, pull out any dead annuals you had left in the garden as shelter for over-wintering insects. Replace them with new butterfly and bumblebee favorites like zinnias and tall verbena.
5. Sweep up birdseed: Ants LOVE old sunflower husks, so at our house it’s very important to sweep them away.
6. Safeguard fruits and vegetables: Place protective netting around shrubs, fruit trees, and vegetable gardens. Now is the time to fix any fencing that has fallen or has holes.
7. Create or expand one of your gardens: Less turf lawn equals more pollinator-supporting gardens! This spring I plan on expanding one of my perennial gardens to get closer to my goal of a “no-lawn” house. The cooler spring temps are perfect for the heavy work of pulling out turf grass, turning soil, and adding compost.
What NOT to Do
1. Don’t overuse bark mulch: Bark mulch does not sustain life. It was created to help a first-year garden establish itself, giving the plants enough time to fill in next to one another and to suppress weeds. When the plants are established no more mulch is needed. Check out the term “living mulch” to explore plant substitutes for bark mulch. These ground covers offer pollinators places to live while keeping weeds out and moisture in.
2. Don’t rake up leaves: Fallen leaves are critical for healthy soil that supports the plants and flowers pollinators need. Decomposing leaves are nature’s mulch and fertilizer. They break down into nutrients and create fertile soil capable of growing vegetables and gorgeous flowers. Raking up leaves not only deprives the soil of nutrients, but also deprives pollinators of places to hide, especially over winter.
3. Don’t shred fallen leaves for mulch: Hundreds of butterfly and moth larvae hide in fallen leaves during the cold months. In spring and fall, if you shred your leaves for compost, you are shredding all those hibernating pollinators. There’s a myth that fallen leaves will inhibit spring flowers from sprouting and blooming. This is simply not true. Spring garden flowers, like tulips and crocuses, are perfectly capable of growing up through the leaves. *fascinating fact: fritillary butterflies lay their eggs in fallen leaves around violets plants, not on the plant itself. So, if you rake up the leaves around violets, you are killing off generations of butterflies, and depriving yourself of having these brilliant copper and orange butterflies in your garden.
4. Don’t cut back twigs and old flower stalks: Many pollinators hide in twigs, old flower stalks, and under bark to make it through the winter. I leave my dried-out flower stalks throughout the winter and only cut them down to 4–8 inches once the weather is consistently over 60˚F. This way any hibernating pollinators are awake.
5. Do not apply chemical treatments: Just say no to herbicides and pesticides. They kill pollinators and harm many of the plants those insects need to survive. For example, Common Milkweed, a plant that traditionally supported thousands of monarchs simply by growing on the edges of farm fields, is disappearing due to herbicide drift. The poison blows in the wind onto the milkweed and causes the leaves to wilt and shrivel. To give suburban monarchs a break, just say no to chemical treatments (unless of course, you have a hornet’s nest near your house! Then call the exterminator asap).
6. Do not bait and kill: If you plant pollinator attracting flowers, but also spray your lawn with herbicides and pesticides then the insects are getting harmed if not killed. It is tempting to believe that having the two juxtaposed will not hurt insects, but research is showing us this is not true. Herbicide and pesticide poisons cannot be contained and do not magically disappear. Glyphosate, the cancer-causing compound left after herbicides break down, is found in most tap water.
We can help reverse the decline in pollinator populations by adopting more ecologically responsible garden and yard routines. The vision of the “perfect” suburban lawn isn’t healthy. Let’s bring gardening back to the suburbs to support pollinators, biodiversity, and ultimately a healthier environment for us all.