Posted by: John Murgel, Douglas County Extension
Whether your pollinator patch is well established or only a January daydream, here are four ways to take your yard or garden to the next level for pollinators this year.
Perhaps you have all the plants you want. Maybe you’re looking for an easy “big impact” to help pollinators. Here’s one that’s friendly on garden budgets too: stop using weed fabric. The majority of native bees nest underground, and many species of moth pupate underground. Bees and caterpillars can find a way through plants, gravel, and wood mulch (as long as it’s not too deep) but they’ll never get through a woven layer of plastic fibers. Considering that weed barrier fabrics are at best minimally successful controlling weeds in the long-term, why bother!?
|Bee burrows can be hard to see!|
Growing many garden perennials from seed can be easy and economical and expands the kinds of plants you can include in your garden. Consider pollinators you’ve seen, pollinators you’d like to see, and your growing conditions. Are you installing or enhancing a xeriscape? A cutting garden? Think about the time of day and times of year you are most likely to be in the garden (if you want to watch your pollinator friends at work) and choose plants that will be blooming at those times. Consider when you might have gaps in bloom and look for plants to fill those gaps. Some seeds may require treatments of cold or “scarifying” (roughing up the seed) before they’ll sprout, others will come up right away. You can plant them straight into the garden or start them in pots—inside or outside—depending on the variety and your preference. Planting a few perennial seeds is a great way to get some gardening done on a sunny winter day!
3. Rethink caterpillar host-plants and bug hotels.
You might have read about host plants for caterpillars as a key component of a successful pollinator garden along with the nectar- and pollen-producing blossoms for bees and adult butterflies and moths. Host plants are important and come along with a caveat: know your predator situation. Caterpillars in urban and suburban parts of Colorado are particularly vulnerable to being eaten by European Paper Wasps, a non-native social wasp that thrives in human-made habitats. They build their nests under eaves, in hollow pipes, under stacked lumber or garbage can lids—anywhere a ledge that can shelter them from the weather. Keep a watchful eye for them and deal with the nests to help caterpillars reach maturity. Encourage your neighbors to control European Paper Wasps as well. Otherwise planting host plants might as well be setting up a wasp buffet!
Speaking of amenities and accommodations, what about bee and butterfly “hotels”? Those designed for mason and leaf-cutter bees may be worthwhile. But steer well clear of butterfly houses. These are typically a closed box with tall, narrow entrances and are supposedly designed to provide butterflies a dry, sheltered place to spend the night. Unlike bee hotels, which provide cavities similar to what certain bees would seek out in nature, butterfly hotels do not mimic any natural shelter butterflies would use (and they can’t read the adorable signs!). And recent research has shown that butterflies indeed don’t actually use them. What sort of thing would use a dry cavity with a narrow entrance? European paper wasps! So butterfly houses/hotels provide a ready shelter for the number one killer of backyard butterflies. Plant some flowers instead!
As our awareness of the importance of supporting invertebrate life, especially pollinators, grows, seed mixes marketed especially for boosting and supporting pollinators are more and more common. And what could be easier? A sprinkle of seeds, pre-mixed for beauty, onto prepared soil, water a couple of times, and voila! Your new pollinator garden is finished! Well…a guy or gal can dream. Let the buyer beware! Seed mixes can be a good option for establishing a new garden, particularly if you’re not sure what might grow well in your garden or aren’t choosy about appearances. But many mixes contain plants that aren’t particularly well suited to life together. In order to get at least something to grow, many mixes include plants that grow in habitats ranging from wetlands to deserts. Unless your garden contains both wetlands and deserts in close proximity, you’re not likely to observe all of the species in the mix growing in your plot. A small percentage will be able to survive in the conditions of your particular site, the rest of the seeds are essentially wasted. Many species in mixes are also annuals or short-lived perennials that will require regular replacement or re-sowing. If you’ve got a good idea of the soil conditions and how you will water your garden, you might decide to choose your own species and make your own mix.