Pollinator Friendly Yards FAQ
Answers to some of the most frequently asked questions in Pollinator Friendly Years group on Facebook
Q: Why should I plant native species?
A: Insects are declining at an alarming rate! Many of our pollinators are threatened or endangered, like the rusty-patched bumblebee and the monarch butterfly. The indigenous plants that evolved with these pollinators and other wildlife are what will best support them to increase their numbers, since they provide precisely the food and habitat they need and at the right times. Climate change is creating more challenges for our pollinators and they need us to restore habitat now more than ever. No yard is too small. Every yard and every person can help!
Q: Where can I learn more about why planting native is important?
A: Check out Homegrown National Park to learn about how we can create habitat for pollinators in our yards. Also see the work of Solomon Gamboa at Indigenous Landscapes, Heather Holm, Nancy Lawson The Humane Gardener, Rebecca McMackin, and Benjamin Vogt.
Q: How many native plants do I need in my yard?
A: In order to support nesting birds who require lots of caterpillars to feed to their young, we need to have at least 70% native species in our landscapes. Keystone species like oak trees can support over 500 different lepidoptera (moth and butterfly) species by providing food for their larval stages (caterpillars). Find keystone plant species for your ecoregion here. The more native plants you can add, the better!
Q: Where can I find out what plants are native to my region?
A: Search for your native plant society here, and search the hashtag pfy+yourstate+nativeplants on Facebook. I.e.: #pfyohionativeplants. Check out this link to find your ecoregion and free garden plans.
Q: How do I kill the grass to plant native flowers, shrubs and trees?
A: This is an important step to get right and you don’t want to cut corners. See Organic Site Preparation for Wildflower Establishment
Q: I don’t see this invasive plant spreading in my yard, and I see bees on it, shouldn’t I keep it?
A: Invasive species spread outside our yards where we don’t necessarily see them. They can take over natural areas depriving wildlife of the food and habitat they need to survive, even causing localized extinctions due to habitat loss. Some can cause changes in the environment that lead to more vector borne disease risk to humans and other ecological problems. A changing climate means that many invasive species will increase their range. The best thing we can do for wildlife is to remove invasive species, and replace them with native trees, flowers, and shrubs that support biodiversity. A database of invasive species can be found here.
Q: What are all these bugs on my milkweed?
A: Many people plant milkweeds (Asclepias spp) to support monarch butterfly caterpillars, but monarchs are not the only insects who need milkweed! Pollinators like milkweed tussock moths also eat the plant during their larval stage. Monarch caterpillars actually have a better chance of survival on milkweed with a more diverse community of bugs. Aphids are common to see on milkweed, but before you hose them off or squish them, look for predators like ladybug larvae, lacewings, hover flies, midges, bigeyed bugs, damsel bugs, soldier beetles, and blister beetles. See: Milkweed FAQ
Q: Should I become a backyard beekeeper to help save the bees?
A: European honeybees are a part of our agricultural system, and have been introduced to North American ecosystems. Honeybees face many of the same pressures as our native bees, but they are not in any danger of becoming extinct. Backyard beekeeping is not a conservation activity.
There are 4,000 species of native bees in North America. Many of these species are declining, threatened and even endangered. The best way to help our native bees is to create pesticide free habitat in your yard with native plants. This is helpful to honeybees and beekeepers too.
Q: There are Monarch caterpillars on my plants! Should I bring them indoors and raise them?
A: Watching the life cycle of the Monarch butterfly is an amazing educational tool, but indoor raising of Monarch butterflies isn’t the best way to help them, and if done wrong can even hurt them. The Xerces Society recommends we focus on more effective ways to conserve Monarchs, like protecting natural habitat; planting native milkweed and flowers; avoiding pesticides; supporting wildlife-friendly, local, and organic agriculture; contributing to research efforts via community science; and organizing ourselves to push for policy changes.
Q: It’s “No Mow May,” if I just stop mowing my lawn, will that be enough to help pollinators?
A: No Mow May is a movement that helps shift people away from the highly-manicured, chemically-treated lawn aesthetic. That’s a good thing! But just letting a lawn grow isn’t necessarily the best way to support pollinators. Our native insects need native plants, so if your lawn is dominated by turf grasses and other non-native plants, the benefit will be negligible. We can make the most impact for pollinators by shrinking the size of our lawns and planting native trees, shrubs, and flowers. So if you have a nice patch of violets, by all means, don’t mow them and let them grow, but add more native plants to your landscape as well. Every bit counts!
Q: Are dandelions really the “first food for the bees”?
A: We’ve all seen the memes discouraging people from spraying dandelions, and we agree, there’s no need to use poison! But the benefits to pollinators are often overstated. Dandelions were brought over to North America by colonists, they are not a native species, and therefore did not evolve with our native wildlife. They provide a little food for some generalist pollinators, and non-native honeybees, but dandelions aren’t the most nutritious food for native pollinators. They may be one of the first flowers that human eyes notice blooming in the springtime, but that’s because many of the spring blooming flowers are up above our heads in native trees! There are also many other native flowers that bloom early for emerging pollinators, so we should focus on planting those and trying to have a range of native plants blooming throughout the seasons. Ultimately, if you like dandelions in your lawn, then you should leave them. If you don’t like them, or like to eat them, you can pull them with a weeding tool like these. Just be sure to plant native species to feed the bees, whatever your preference with dandelions is.
Q: Should I “leave the leaves” in my gardens?
A: Yes! Leaves provide valuable food and shelter for bees, moths, butterflies and other wildlife. It’s best to leave them there year-round to naturally decompose and return nutrients to the soil.
Q: Should I just leave all the leaves everywhere they land and skip clean-up?
A: Leaving the leaves in our gardens will benefit wildlife, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t clean up any leaves at all! Man-made hardscapes like walkways, patios, driveways, sidewalks and streets still need to be swept clean for safety reasons, and to keep our aquatic ecosystems healthy.
Leaves have beneficial nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus that they release when they break down. This is good for plants and soil when we leave them in gardens, or in thin layers on a lawn. But if these same nutrients are allowed to wash into our stormwater systems, just like the nitrogen and phosphorus that leach from synthetic fertilizer applications, they can have a detrimental effect.
Leaves are natural, but our watersheds are not able to process the excess nutrients from all neighborhoods in our municipal stormwater systems. Removal of leaf litter from streets and hardscapes in the fall can reduce phosphorus loads by over 80% to protect water quality. We all must do our part to rake and sweep the leaves from these areas while we “leave the leaves” in the places where they belong. This way, we support pollinators and protect biodiversity on land and in our watersheds.
Q: Should I cut back the stems on my plants in the fall?
A: Since pollinators use stems as nesting material and birds eat the seeds of native plants throughout the winter, ideally we should try to leave stems standing in our perennial gardens and not remove them wherever possible.
Q: I left the leaves all winter, should I clean up in spring?
A: Best practice is to leave the leaves permanently in garden beds. If leaves are too thick and plants may be smothered or for some other reason need to be cleaned up, wait as long as you can to remove leaves. Try to keep those leaves on the property by adding them to natural areas in the yard, or to wire bins where any remaining creatures are able to emerge from the leaf litter when they are ready. Stems can be left standing as well, or only cut part way if you must make compromises with HOAs. New growth will come up around them as they decompose. Try to leave as much natural plant material in garden beds as you can, while maintaining edges and giving “cues to care.”
Q: What about ticks, won’t I have a problem if I don’t remove all the leaves?
A: Ticks are definitely a concern since they can transmit multiple infections (See Help! I’ve Gotten A Tick Bite, Now What?) and we need to take personal protective measures when outdoors to prevent bites like wearing repellant, tucking pants into socks, doing regular tick checks etc.
Penn State says, “Ticks prefer cool, wet, shady places and are mostly found in densely wooded areas. They like stonewalls, and woodpiles but are also found in grassy or brushy areas. The unmaintained edge between woodland or brush and your lawn, called the ecotone, is the next highest in tick population. Ornamental vegetation and the lawn have the least number of ticks. Ticks don’t like open, sunny areas. Knowing the ticks’ favorite habitats can help you make your property more tick-resistant.”
As far as our yards are concerned, habitat modification and creating a healthy balanced ecosystem is our best bet to keeping them in check. Separating ‘wild’ areas of the yard from lawn areas by a mulch border is recommended (See Create a Tick Free Yard).
Spraying with insecticides does not reduce tick encounters, and whether synthetic or natural, broad spectrum insecticides will kill pollinators and other beneficial insects.
Q: My neighbor/city/HOA is spraying pesticides! What can I do to change this?
A: Visit Non Toxic Communities and Beyond Pesticides who can help you educate neighbors and change policy in your municipality or HOA.
Q: What kind of lawn and garden equipment is the most environmentally friendly?
A: Using reel mowers, rakes, brooms, and leaf sweepers is ideal, but recognizing that some people may have a very large yard, or have physical limitations, so the next best choice is electric equipment to reduce noise and air pollution that have a detrimental effect on the environment and pollinators.
Gas lawn and garden equipment are some of the most polluting engines. Even more than cars and trucks! According to the California Air Resources Board, “operating a commercial lawn mower for one hour emits as much smog-forming pollution as driving a new light-duty passenger car about 300 miles – about the distance from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, more than 4 hours of drive time. For a commercial leaf blower, one hour of operation emits smog-forming pollution comparable to driving a new light-duty passenger car about 1100 miles – about the distance from Los Angeles to Denver, over 15 hours of driving.”
Swapping to manual and electric alternatives can make a big difference for pollinators, people and the planet.
The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation
NOFA Organic Land Care Program
Helpful Facebook Groups
Earth Friendly Pest Management in Society
Winter Sowing Flowers and Pollinator Plants
How To Create A Non Toxic Community
This document may be shared for educational purposes with credit to Non Toxic Communities and the Pollinator Friendly Yards Facebook group.