How to cultivate a pollinator-friendly garden

front lawn into pollinator-friendly habitat
Linden Hills resident Bob Brunmeier converted his entire front lawn into pollinator-friendly habitat earlier this summer. Photo by Becca Most

Linden Hills resident Bob Brunmeier no longer owns a lawn mower or a weed wacker. In fact, he no longer has to worry about lawn care at all.

His front yard, sidewalk boulevard and backyard sprout purple prairie asters, false indigo and creeping thyme. Laid carefully in a bed of mulch, a grouping of native joe-pye weed flourishes, and a couple of shrubs hold the soil in place. What you won’t find on Brunmeier’s property: grass.

Brunmeier is one of many Southwest residents planting pollinator gardens — replacing a traditionally cut and manicured turf lawn with native flowers, clover and other bee-friendly plants. The gardens retain water and prevent drainage of chemicals and soil into nearby lakes, while providing habitat for bees, butterflies and other insects.

And beyond those benefits, Brunmeier said, his pollinator garden also looks better than his old lawn.

“It’s such a win-win-win you kind of wonder why everyone doesn’t do it,” he said with a laugh. “People just will stop and compliment me on the project. … They never complimented me on my old weedy dandelion grass.”

Although not a Master Gardener by any means, Brunmeier said there are a lot of resources out there for people who want to get started. While he just finished planting a couple of months ago, he’s found the amount of activity in his lawn rewarding.

“There are bees there all day long every day and you can kind of stare at them. It’s mesmerizing, actually,” he said. “There’s a constant buzz of activity — no pun intended. It’s just kind of fun to watch them do their thing.”

pollinator garden
Kingfield resident Melinda Ludwiczak stands by one of her pollinator gardens on Aug. 3. Photos by Becca Most

Minnesota is home to over 400 species of native bees, but colony decline is rapid because of habitat loss, pesticide use, climate change and other factors. The data on native bees is less known than that of honeybees — a 2017 study from the Center for Biological Diversity found that more than half of the native bee populations studied were in decline and a quarter were facing extinction. The monarch butterfly, another pollinator, mirrors that trend; the species’ population has dropped nearly 80% since the 1990s, according to the 2017 Minnesota State Agency Pollinator Report.

James Wolfin, a manager for the Lawns to Legumes program, is working to prevent further declines. Approved for funding in 2019, the program helps Minnesotans create and cultivate pollinator-friendly spaces in their residential yards. This year was the first time the program gave grants to homeowners to create garden spaces on their property and reimbursed gardeners up to $350 for supplies, plants and labor.

The program’s website is full of tips and guidance for homeowners, like which plants to buy and how to design a pollinator lawn. The team also has master gardeners available on call to answer any questions and offer advice.

Although turf grass has its benefits, especially for those who want to play in their yards or host a picnic, Wolfin said he’s seen more interest from locals who are considering installing native plants as an alternative. With more neighborhood associations embracing pollinator-friendly spaces and garden centers supplying more native plants to consumers, making the change is becoming easier and more socially acceptable, he said.

Because the process of digging up lawns and planting new growth can be intimidating, Wolfin said the Lawns to Legumes program is designed to show the immense variety of options and types of gardens available. Some residents are just interested in digging a small flower bed or planting some shrubbery in a shady area of their backyard. Others are looking for a way to make their lawn into a full-fledged garden.

Pollinator gardens don’t just keep communities looking beautiful and vibrant — they play an important role in the ecosystem as well, he said. A third of all food crops in the U.S. rely on pollinators to grow. Without them, the world as we know it would look drastically different, even just on your block, Wolfin said.

“You couldn’t imagine your neighborhood without trees and flowers, and everything that keeps your neighborhood blooming, and the pollinators are really what drives those plant communities,” he said.

Nitrogen in lawn fertilizer causes algae blooms and invasive milfoil plant growth in lakes, as can phosphorus found in lawn clippings, soil and water used to irrigate turf lawns. Residents can create “rain gardens,” sunken areas of lawns surrounded by perennials, to prevent erosion, attract birds and butterflies and filter pollutants before they enter lakes and rivers.

For Melinda Ludwiczak, who lives in Kingfield, gardening has been her therapy since COVID-19. A Master Gardener volunteer for the past 20 years, Ludwiczak was looking forward to showing off her lawn for the annual Master Gardener home garden tour. Hers was the designated “pollinator station.”

Although the tour was canceled this year, Ludwiczak said her gardens always catch the attention of neighbors walking by. Throughout her lawn, she has a couple sections of fescue, zinnias, aster and milkweed, and her backyard is dotted with crab apple and North Star cherry trees.

Ludwiczak said that depending on the amount of time, energy and resources people want to dedicate to their pollinator gardens, there are many opportunities for gardeners to get creative. Bushes like coralberry are low-maintenance and provide nectar for bees, as do many perennials like baptisia and hostas.

After starting a boulevard garden with native plants a year ago, Jen Vance of the Lynnhurst neighborhood signed up for one of the Lawns to Legumes grants last fall to make a pocket garden in her backyard. Because she lives close to a creek, she wanted to minimize the amount of fertilizer she was using and try to prevent runoff .

Vance said it feels good knowing her garden is connected to other ecosystems in her neighborhood and will provide habitat and food for pollinators throughout the cities. Already in the couple months since she first planted, she’s seen more monarch butterflies and bees bumbling around.

“I think so many times when we think about the major environmental issues, it can feel pretty overwhelming and I feel like these will be the concrete ways to help keep our water clean [and help pollinators],” she said. “It feels like a small actionable thing I can do to make a difference.”