Populations of monarch butterflies and bees are facing significant challenges in North America. As a landowner or manager, you can do something simple to help: Plant pollinator habitat. Little spots and forgotten corners — from the size of a kitchen table to a kitchen itself, or even an acre — make a huge difference for pollinators on the landscape. And, other wildlife benefit, too.
“If you’re going to seed-in a plot, autumn is the best time to do it,” said Drew Larsen, director of habitat education for fellow conservation organizations Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever. “The majority of what you’ll be planting will be wildflower seeds. They have a hard coat that requires winter’s freeze-thaw cycle to break down that coat so the seed can sprout.”
Think October to late November, depending on where you live, until the ground is frozen. You can also seed in spring, but seeds need to have gone through a winter cycle.
Getting seed onto the ground is a simple three-step process. First, remove existing vegetation, Larsen said. “Mow it first, then use a herbicide,” he said. “On really small plots, you can weigh down black plastic on the ground for a couple weeks after mowing to kill what’s underneath.”
Next, remove any remaining vegetation so seed can contact open ground and bare dirt.
“There’s no need to till, as that could encourage weeds.”
Finally, broadcast your seed. “Wildflower seeds are tiny,” Larsen said. “You can hand toss them. Or use a hand-held spreader. You want to work to get a nice, even distribution.”
Consider rolling or tamping lightly so seed assuredly makes contact with the ground.
NWTF partner Mossy Oak Native Nurseries is a good source for native wildflower seed. Most products are available at the NWTF Seed Store (seedstore.nwtf.org). Try their Pollinator Package or Full Bloom packets, or a combination of individual species packets such as purple coneflower, swamp milkweed, butterfly milkweed, black-eyed Susan (rudbeckia), blanket flower (garillardia), prairie clover, cardinal flower and lupine.
“Any good pollinator plot seed mix, whether you buy a pre-mix or build your own, should contain at least two species of milkweed and three species that will bloom in each of the three bloom periods —spring, summer and fall,” Larsen said. “Those are minimums. More is better. No matter where you shop and buy, the key is to get certified seed from wildflowers native to your area. They will grow best.”
In really small plots, you may choose to plant living, started plants. Results certainly come faster. Do it in early fall, or in spring after the last frost. Costs will be higher, but in a small space, the quick results and rewards may be worth it. Plus, those perennial plants will spread and seed themselves.
Some common milkweed may well “volunteer” on its own and that’s good. You can also get milkweed seeds and scatter them when you plant live plants.
In addition to pollinators, songbirds thrive, cotton-tailed rabbits find haven and whitetails browse in the habitat.
“And gamebirds love pollinator plots for nesting and brood-rearing,” Larsen said. “The bare ground beneath the stems is better than grass for young birds to move around and hunt insects, which also thrive in the habitat. I have seen successful wild turkey nests in pollinator plots as small as a half-acre.”
Got an oddball corner, forgotten swale, roadside ditch or section of backyard yearning to be wildlife-friendly? Plant a pint-sized pollinator plot.