Spring flowers are stretching farther out of the ground, stores are starting to set out spring and summer plants, and the days are getting longer. All of this is telling us that spring is here and summer is just around the corner.
Each year, garden magazines publish the year’s top gardening trends. The No. 1 gardening trend for 2022 is planting native and pollinator-friendly plants. Bees, butterflies, moths and other pollen-loving insects are vital to the health of our ecosystem. Unfortunately, you may have heard that our native pollinators are declining rapidly in number due to the loss of their natural habitats, use of non-native plants in our landscaping, and the use of pesticides.
So what can you do to help?
Consider planting native flowering plants, trees and bushes. In most urban neighborhoods native plants have been replaced by those introduced from other parts of the world. These non-native plants may be beautiful and even thrive in our yards, but they are often not able to support the wildlife that are native to the region. For example, monarch butterflies need milkweed, but much of our native milkweed was reduced in the Midwest by farming and urbanization. If you only have room for one or two plants in your yard, consider planting milkweed. Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa), a type of native milkweed, is a stunning perennial that produces a mass of bright orange flowers.
Plant a pollinator pocket. If you have a little more room, consider creating a pollinator pocket in your yard. This might take the shape of a 5-by-5-foot garden with a variety of native flowers that bloom at different times to provide food for pollinators spring through fall. The following list provides a few examples of natives to the Midwest that you might consider for your yard: asters, bee balm, native roses, Joe Pye weed, purple coneflower, great blue lobelia, wild lupine, white indigo, blazing stars, beard tongue, bellflowers, hollyhocks, monkshood, snapdragons, sunflowers, foxglove, mints, tomatoes, oak trees, goldenrod, larkspur, milkweeds and herbs. For more information, visit https://extension.illinois.edu/cfiv/pollinator-pockets.
Create habitats for your pollinators. While many of us who live within the city limits are not allowed to have bee hives, that doesn’t mean you can’t provide homes for many native bees. Did you know 30% of native bees live in dead wood, hollow stems or brush piles? You can make a small home for native bees by drilling holes in untreated wood, or stacking bamboo straws in a wooden box, and hanging these little bee habitats on a fence or tree. You can also buy bee habitats at local gardening centers. Consider putting several around your yard.
Limit the use of pesticides. Bees can thrive on a variety of flowering plants, but did you know that the use of pesticides on your flowers and trees can kill entire hives? You don’t want to kill the pollinators that you are attracting, so it is important to limit the use of pesticides in your yard. This is often difficult to do when you see your beautiful rose bushes being devoured by beetles. Start your journey to a pesticide-free yard by considering alternatives. This might take the form of spending a few minutes each morning hand picking or knocking insects into a bucket of soapy water. If you dislike the idea of picking caterpillars off your plants by hand, you can use row covers. If you must use chemical treatments, look for the least toxic, less persistent pesticide needed to treat the specific problem you are facing, and always read the label carefully. Most will direct you to keep chemicals away from the plant flowers or not to use at all when the plant is flowering. Avoid using systemic chemicals on flowering plants. Systemic pesticides work by treating the entire plant, drawing the pesticide up through the roots into the leaves, flowers, nectar and pollen. The pollinators then take the poison back to their homes and the entire nest is lost.
Resist cleaning up your pollinator garden in the fall. Many pollinators overwinter in your garden so you don’t want to undo the good work you did to support them all summer by sending them to the compost. Think of it as your winter garden and watch the birds enjoy the seeds and dried fruit you have left them. Your plants will also thank you for protecting their roots from the cold.
If you have questions about native plants or how to address pests in your garden without harming pollinators, email the DeKalb County Master Gardeners at email@example.com.