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Rethink Your Yard: Create a Habitat for Pollinators

Natural landscaping can make properties look beautiful and inviting. There is scientific evidence that sustainable methods have  better results for our yards than the "conventional" ways of landscaping using chemicals and practices that harm pollinators and other wildlife .

On this page you will find advice from the experts, and the most important steps you can take to make your landscaping practices more healthy and sustainable for everyone.

Through the Seasons...

Take a relaxed approach to wildlife gardening

You don't have to fuss with deadheading. This is because  our native perennials (which serve as both nectar and host plants) are adorned with extremely camouflaged butterfly chrysalises and moth pupae, partially grown caterpillars hiding in curled shut leaves, and eggs on stems and leaves. Also, many birds feed on spent seeds through the summer, fall, and winter. So maintain your gardens and layered plantings under trees and shrubs in a wildlife-friendly way.

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Don't Rush into Spring Clean-Up

Begin garden clean up in late winter / early spring, after about a 10-day stretch of warm weather, until temperatures are consistently about 50 degrees F. This will ensure overwintering insects have the chance to hatch out. Not only will you attract birds looking for those insects as well as left over seed heads, you will start the season with a healthy garden ecosystem.

 

Wait as long as possible to rake leaves out of perennial beds and from under trees and shrubs. Many butterflies such as morning cloaks, and beneficial insects like ladybugs, nestle into leaf litter for the winter as adults, eggs or pupae. Luna moths spend the winter in cocoons that look just like a crinkled brown leaf. As you rake up your leaves keep a sharp eye out for these insects and do your best not to disturb them. Better yet, don’t rake these areas at all - this fallen material will break down and provide natural fertilizer for your yard.

Don’t mulch till last - there are many beneficial insects and pollinators who burrow into the soil to overwinter as eggs, pupae, or adults. Covering the ground with a layer of mulch too early in the spring may block their emergence. Hold off on mulching until early summer when seedlings have emerged; and then use natural mulch such as untreated grass clippings, leaves and pine needles.

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Create Homes for Native Bees

Leave some “stem stubble”. Break off substantial stems at a height of 12-15" for native bees that nest in cavities (many of our native bees nest in woody ends of plant stems.) These hollow stems will serve as overwintering sites for future generations of insects and the new growth in the plant will soon grow and hide them.

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Prune with great care

When pruning back woody perennials or shrubs, keep a lookout for cocoons and chrysalises. Many moths and butterflies spend the winter in a delicate cocoon dangling from a branch. You can cut these back later in the season

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Do Everything in June!

Try to get the garden clean up, divisions, new plantings, and mulching all done by late June, so that extremely camouflaged pollinator eggs, larvae, and pupa get a chance to survive and you have more time to study, document, and enjoy the garden and all its visitors.

Love the Leaves

Don’t tidy up in the fall, but instead leave your garden and layered plantings under trees and shrubs standing through winter. Leaves protect tree, shrub, and perennial roots; they break down and naturally and sustainably nourish your soil; they prevent erosion. Pollinators you’ve attracted will survive the winter, since many winter as an egg, partially grown caterpillar, chrysalis or pupa on standing vegetation or in the duff below it. Your spring-through-fall pollinator garden will transition into a winter bird garden. Birds will benefit from all the cover (plants left standing) and food (seed heads and overwintering insects). Learn more here.

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Some Dos and Don'ts....

Select Native Plants,  Especially KEYSTONE Native Plants

Native Plants are crucial nectar plants (food source plants) and crucial caterpillar plants (host plants for butterflies and moths). If this concept is new to you, read Doug Tallamy’s inspirational and information-packed books Bringing Nature Home, How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants (2007), which explains the co-evolutionary relationship between insects and native plants. 

Keystone plants are "native plants that support a significant number of caterpillars (butterfly and moth larvae). Planting keystone plants helps build complex food webs by forming the essential foundation —native plants and insects — that provide food for other organisms, directly and indirectly." (Heather Holm) 

To find a list of  Keystone Plants for your Eco-region, click here.

 

Tallamy suggests starting small and working towards towards a goal 70% Native plants in your yard.  EVERY NATIVE PLANT COUNTS - so do whatever you can.

Remove Invasives. Do not plant, and consider removing, invasives like Burning Bush,  Butterfly Bush (Buddleia davidii), Rose of Sharon(Hibiscus syriacus) and many others. Invasives take over our private and public landscapes and wipe out habitat for wildlife. Read more here.

Check out our favorite Native Plant Lists here.

Find a list of Native Plant Nurseries for your area here.

Check out Special Sales of Native Plants on our Events page.

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Don’t cut down your woods to create a butterfly garden

Trees are critical for pollinators and actually support an even greater diversity of butterflies and moths than herbaceous plants.

 

According to Tallamy, Oaks are the most valuable pollinator trees, supporting over 500 species of moths and butterflies.  Other valuable host trees include Black Cherry, Willow, Birches, Poplars and Crabapple.  

 

Click here for a list of Keystone Native Trees.

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Don't Forget the Shady Areas

There are many beautiful and resilient plants from the woodland understory of eastern North America that can enliven a shady landscape on your property and change your perception about gardening in the shade. Here are many ideas and plant lists to create a layered landscape with less lawn. There are many beautiful and resilient plants from the woodland understory of eastern North America that can enliven a shady landscape on your property and change your perception about gardening in the shade. Many of these are host plants to over 100 different butterflies and moths and are excellent nectar plants as well.

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Choose the right native plant for the right spot

What native plants are currently thriving in and around your yard? Sun-loving, shade-loving, those that like wet feet, those that thrive in dry conditions etc. If you’re working to restore the natural habitat in your backyard with native plants, there are steps to help you pick the right plants for the job. Many of the websites here have filters to generate plant lists for specific conditions.

Provide nectar spring through late fall (frost). Native perennials, vines, trees, & shrubs have a finite blooming period. Your wildlife habitat will be a changing palette of color and nectar as you fill it with a variety of plantings that bloom at different times.

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Use Natural Mulches

Mulch garden plants with natural mulches like leaves, salt hay, untreated grass clippings, or pine needles. These natural mulches will inhibit weeds and keep the soil from drying out. As a bonus, these natural mulches break down and enrich your garden naturally. Your goal should be to eventually mulch with a super abundance of native plants (as they multiply and cover bare areas).

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To weed or not to weed?

Be sure you are weeding something you truly do not want. Many seedlings are from the natives you purchased and planted. Go Botany is an excellent resource to ID mystery plants.  iNaturalist is another good resource, and here you can join the Pollinator Pathway iNaturalist project to add your observations to thousands of sightings along the Pathway.

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Avoid plants treated with Neonicotinoid Insecticides.

Many big-box store and roadside nursery natives have been treated with Neonicotinoids. Neonicotinoids are systemic (get into every part of the plant, including pollen, nectar, even dew) pesticides that are applied to many commercially-available nursery plants and are harmful to bees, caterpillars, moths, and butterflies.  Buy plants from nurseries you know, and always ask if plants are pesticide free.

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Provide Water Sources

Pollinators need sources of water for drinking and reproduction. You may already have a natural water source, such as a pond or stream. If not, you can create a water source. This can be as easy as adding a bird bath or placing a small container of water out in the open. Be sure to change the water 2-3 times per week during warm weather when mosquitoes are breeding.

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Rethink your Lawn

In the last century we began to import European turf grasses, and ever since they have been a main component of the American yard. But these grasses are foreign to our climate and habitat, and need lots of water (9 billion gallons a day in the US, according to the EPA). The pesticide industry began introducing a standard of the “weed free” lawn in the 1950s. Before that, lawn seed came mixed with clover. The “ideal" lawn has evolved to  become a “weed free” monoculture. To achieve that look, we have to rely on mowers, blowers, additional water, fertilizers, and too often herbicides and insecticides. Not only are these practices expensive and time consuming, they are also detrimental to our soil, our surface water and our wildlife. Further, they fill our air with noise and pollutants. It is time for a change.

 

Replace or reduce the size of your lawn. To learn more go here

 

Take the NO MOW MAY Challenge! Join us as we participate in No Mow May! By leaving your property unmown for the month of May, you’re creating habitat for pollinators and other wildlife. Download the signs and read more here.

(Note: Please Check Your Town Blight Ordinance about Meadow Restrictions)

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Do not use Pesticides, Fungicides, Herbicides 

Even organic pesticides kill our butterflies, moths, and other beneficial

insects. Birds feed on insects and are affected too.

For more information click here.

Find out more about Harmful Pesticides and Safe Control here.

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Do not use Synthetic Fertilizers.

Native plants thrive in poor soils; they may die or do poorly if planted in topsoil. Chemical fertilizers cause environmental damage during their production process and when they are used in our yards. Instead use grass clippings and leaves which can be mulched on the lawn for nutrients, and you may use compost as well.  Compost doesn’t just nurture your plants, it also helps retain moisture, creates better soil structure; it feeds the microorganisms in the soil, and helps store carbon.

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Limit Outdoor Lighting

The increased and widespread use of artificial light at night has negative and deadly effects on many creatures including amphibians, birds, mammals, insects and plants.

To minimize this effect, only use lighting when and where it’s necessary. Choose warm yellow lights rather than cool, bluish lights. If safety is concern, install motion detector lights and timers. Properly shield all outdoor lights, and let the light face downward. Keep your blinds drawn to keep light inside.

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Go Electric

There are serious health and environmental consequences related to gas-fueled landscaping equipment. The two-stroke engines used in the landscaping industry are the main reason the industry accounts for more than 10% of the air pollution in the USA. When it's time, consider buying electric equipment for your yard. 

Since leaf blowers are among the worst offenders of air pollution, we recommend you reconsider leaf blower use altogether.  Leaf blowers have no use in a healthy yard. The hurricane force wind they create is deadly to native, ground-nesting bees and any pollinator eggs or pupae on the ground. If you have a lawn, you can easily switch from blowing to mulch-mowing. There is no need to blow the leaves from garden beds either, as the leaves provide protection and nutrients for the plants.

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Adapted from Pat Sutton's Guide. For more information and ideas on all the steps you can take to create a garden that not only looks beautiful but also benefits pollinators and beneficial insects download Pat Sutton's “Gardening for Pollinators” HANDOUT   (2-15-22 update)