Gardening for yourself and for the bees

Master gardener Rhonda Fleming Hayes offers tips for pollinator friendly gardening in new book

Photo courtesy of Rhonda Fleming Hayes


It’s easier than you think to grow a beautiful garden that’s environmentally friendly.

That’s the takeaway from “Pollinator Friendly Gardening,” a new book by Minneapolis master gardener Rhonda Fleming Hayes that offers tips for supporting the critters that help a garden thrive.

Hayes’ book gives advice for the beginning and seasoned gardeners, providing simple steps people can take to protect the bees and butterflies that pollinate their gardens. She also explains why these pollinators are so important to the environment, noting the impact they have in agriculture.

“Not only do they pollinate our food, they are responsible for transmitting genetic diversity among plants,” Hayes said in a recent interview. “If we don’t have them it gets real scary.”

More than one third of all crops depend on bee pollination, according to the University of Minnesota Bee Lab. Honey bees are especially important, playing key roles in producing crops such as blueberries, cherries and almonds.

Their numbers, however, have been dramatically decreasing since the 1940s, with the number of managed hives dropping 50 percent. New pathogens and pests have exacerbated the losses.

“Pollinator Friendly Gardening” offers gardeners three basic principles to support pollinators: Plant more flowers because flowers equal food, avoid pesticides and allow for nesting and wintering sites.

Gardeners should aim to have three plants blooming per season, Hayes said. That ensures bees have a source of food within their flight range at all points of the year.

“One garden’s not going to do this, but if everybody were to make a few simple changes, it kind of creates corridors of food,” she said.  “… If you have this three plants per season, you’re going to get this long spectrum of bloom.”

Hayes recommended that gardeners plants flowers over native foliage to maximize the benefit for pollinators. She also said homeowners should think about planting trees and flowering shrubs, as they provide blooms for bees and berries for birds.

“Native foliage obviously has a place for certain pollinators, but it all comes back to flowers,” she said. “You kind of have to get past this mindset of, ‘Flowers are more work.’”

Avoiding pesticides and herbicides is easier than it seems, Hayes said. She suggested that people wait before spraying and hold back if damage isn’t to the root of the plant.

Pesticides, she said, don’t discriminate between good bugs and bad bugs.

“If you have a spider spray, that spray does not know to just kill spiders,” she said. “There may be some innocent bug sitting there and he’s not the problem.”

Weeds also may not be so eye appealing, but they provide valuable food for insects, Hayes said. Dandelions, for example, are one of the first sources of food for bees when they emerge in the spring.

“You have to make that call,” she said. “If you’ve got a large suburban yard, maybe you can leave the edges wild.”

People should also be aware of how any changes affect their neighbors, Hayes said. Defined edges in a yard can help give a yard order, helping people incorporate native plants into their gardens without losing anything aesthetically. Objects such as birdbaths and seeding can help give the yard intentionality.

Leaving space for nesting and wintering can also help bees, Hayes said. She recommended leaving areas of the yard unmulched or with bare dirt if possible, adding that bees really like slopes and trimming from shrubs and plant debris for nesting.

For apartment dwellers, Hayes recommended planting a container of simple annual flowers or joining a citizen science project. Her book lists a variety of resources for those looking to become involved.

“Once you start to garden this way, you’ll probably want to spend more time in your yard because it’s more interesting,” she said. “It’ll bring you outdoors more and it’s also great for kids, because we have to grow the next generation of pollinator friendly gardeners.”