My yard is always teeming with bees, butterflies and all sorts of various beneficial insects. Yes, I said “beneficial.” And we do nothing to get rid of them. That’s not a complaint; it’s by design. I don’t want to get rid of most of those bugs – especially not the bees. I’m sure by now you have heard that honey bees and other pollinators are dying off and that we need to help them. And maybe you’re aware of why we need to keep these insects. But are you aware that you can easily help them just with your own specific outdoor living space?
How important are bees and other pollinators for our food supply? Let me put it this way: one in every three bites of your food wouldn’t be there if weren’t for them. Pollinators are responsible for the survival of plants that bring us fruits, vegetables and nuts – including some 150 U.S. crops – and half of the world’s oils and fibers. The plants spread by pollinators also prevent soil erosion and keep carbon out of the atmosphere.
And although pollinators are under severe threat, there is something very concrete we can do to help save them: turn your backyard or space into a “nectar corridor” by planting wildﬂowers.
FROM TIDY TO TEEMING
The first thing we need to do is to change how we envision our yards and open spaces. For years, we have been taught that yards need to be “tidy”: grass cut, weeds pulled, nothing out of place. In truth, however, what most attracts pollinators are the very plants and ﬂowers that are often mistaken for weeds.
And while we are not saying you must allow your entire yard to grow wild (although it’s a great excuse not to mow!), just creating a small space for wild-ﬂower growth – perhaps a border area or out-of-the-way patch – allows pollinators the areas they need to feed and proliferate.
Hand in hand with growing a “wild corner” is the need to avoid pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Some pesticides kill bees outright, while others attack their brains, disorienting them and reducing their ability to pollinate. And this applies not only to agricultural chemicals, but also to standard lawn-care products; be sure to check ingredients carefully for the presence of harmful neonicotinoids.
In my yard, I am physically unable to do much planting, but I do not allow pesticides, herbicides, or chemical fertilizers on my lawn either. I let the natural weeds grow in my yard. I keep them relatively short, because family does like to play on the lawn and – whether we like it or not – many of us have homeowner association rules (I’m not going to get on my soap box about that one right now.)
The point is, let the flowering grass you have flower. Don’t kill it! Every year here we have buttercups, white clovers, and dandelions growing in our yard attracting bees, butterflies, etc. Yes, we periodically mow them down. It just trims them a bit actually, and they flower again within a day or two. As for the white clovers, some stay so short they never get mowed anyway. Here’s an article I wrote on my very first blog over a decade ago about the benefits of keeping lawns natural. It’s not an elegant post, but it gets the point across. (That post continues, to this day, to rank in the top 5 of that site every week.)
For those of you who are physically able to plant a wild corner or garden of some sorts – or would rather have someone else do it for you – here’s what you need to know:
PLANTS FOR ALL SEASONS
When choosing ﬂowers to plant, the best advice is to find ﬂowers that are native to your area: a helpful guide, with downloadable PDFs per region, can be found here .It’s also a good idea to choose a variety of at least three types of ﬂowers that bloom in the spring, summer, and fall.
Depending on where you live, this mix could include crocus, hyacinth, and lilac for spring blooms; the aptly-named bee balm, cosmos, and echinacea for the summer; and zinnias, aster, and goldenrod for the fall. Group same-species plants together so bees can easily spot them, and, if possible, provide a water source – bees, like all living beings, need to drink.
Your wild corner is not constrained to wildﬂowers, either: bees love anything that ﬂowers. That includes certain fruits and vegetables, herbs and berries, along with common trees such as black locust, linden, maple, sumac, and willow. In the case of food plants and herbs, make sure you let the plant go to ﬂower once harvesting is complete – an important end-of-season food source for bees.
Best of all, planting wildﬂowers and other ﬂowering natives may be some of the most fun you and your family have ever had in the backyard. By making and throwing seed balls, you can get your wild corner thriving in no time – without the labor-intensive work entailed by traditional gardening. And those same seed balls are also perfect for use in abandoned lots, unclaimed land, and along streets and railways, so be sure to take some with you when you travel.
SPREADING ON THE WINDS
While we can’t get bees out of danger overnight, we can use the space we have available to us to recreate some of the habitat they’ve lost. In the process, we can rediscover the ﬂowering plants and trees that are ecologically designed for our region. And as our local bees and other pollinators get to work, moving pollen from ﬂower to ﬂower, our efforts will literally spread on the winds.