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Attract Backyard Pollinators — Spring 2009 | Out Here Magazine

Chris Jensen’s honeybees helped produce an overflowing vegetable garden and full apple trees at his Tennessee home.

Even a few plants can make a big difference

By Amber Stephens
Photography by Jeff Fraizer

From butterflies and bees to hummingbirds and bats, backyard pollinators play an essential role in plant survival. Without these helpful creatures, nearly 80 percent of the world's crop plants would fail to reproduce.

Often, the benefits of pollinators are overlooked in our own back yards. Large lawns, non-native ornamental plants, and pesticides create a hostile environment. The U.S. Department of Agriculture warns that we are facing an "impending pollination crisis," in which both wild and managed pollinators are disappearing at alarming rates.

The die-off of domestic honeybees by Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) since 2006 has alerted many homeowners to the environmental disaster that could result from losing these precious pollinators.

"People are starting to pay attention," says Laurie Davies Adams, executive director of the Pollinator Partnership, a California-based nonprofit organization working to protect the health of pollinating animals vital to North American ecosystems and agriculture.

By changing a few backyard bad habits, homeowners can help boost bee and butterfly populations. "When you start to share your garden or your farm with pollinators, you get almost immediate rewards," says Davies Adams.

Those rewards include increased garden yield, better fruit set, and the beauty of pollinators in the garden. Pollinators also help maintain the life cycle of native plants. These plants, in turn, prevent soil erosion and stave off invasive species.

To attract pollinators, create a pollinator garden, Davies Adams suggests. If you want to attract a particular pollinator, plant accordingly, she says.

For example, ladybugs, which are voracious pest eaters, require flowers with wide openings, such as coreopsis or brown-eye Susan, so they can reach the pollen. Hummingbirds, however, prefer tube-shaped flowers, such as columbine, snapdragon, or lily.

The best pollinator gardens offer a variety of plants, including host plants (for caterpillars) and nectar plants (for adults). For maximum results, plant species native to your area. Several resources, including the Pollinator Partnership, offer regional guides for growing plants for pollinators.

Before planting, work the soil to remove weeds and invasive plants. If the location is windy, create a windbreak or barrier to protect delicate pollinators such as butterflies. Rocks for sunbathing and shallow saucers of water or mud add to the inviting environment.

For those without a yard, Davies Adams suggests window box or container gardens. Even a few plants can make a big difference for small pollinators.

"There are hummingbirds that will just show up," she says.

Keep your new pollinators healthy by reducing your household's chemical load. Often, beneficial pollinators are unintended victims of pesticides. Instead of spraying, explore eco-friendly alternatives for pest maintenance.

"Homeowners can have a real influence on the landscape," she says. And, just like pollinators, each garden has a "multiplier effect." The more you grow, the more they grow.

Amber Stephens is a freelance writer from Amanda, Ohio.