Pollinator pocket plantings: From prep to maintenance, tips for new gardeners

Pink and lavender native flowers bloom against a wooden fence in an alley.

Plant diversity is key to creating pollinator habitat. The diversity of native plants in Minnesota’s prairie, forest and wetland landscapes has been declining over time due to land use changes, invasive species, climate change and other factors. To compensate for this loss, it’s essential that we care for natural areas while also finding ways to add flower diversity to other types of landscapes.

Individuals can play a vital role in rebuilding this important habitat network. Research has shown that even small floral-rich plantings — such as rain gardens, rooftop gardens, or native pocket plantings — can make a big difference for pollinators. Part of the power of small plantings is their potential for significant plant diversity.

Pink native flowers bloom amid grasses in a small planting along a curb.

Minnesota is home to more than 450 species of native bees, many of them small bees that play an essential role in pollination. These species may not travel more than 30 meters in a day. Creating a matrix of small plantings within neighborhoods creates a network that meets their foraging and nesting needs. Small pocket plantings that connect to natural areas expand habitat for a wide range of pollinator species.

A green bee collects pollen from the yellow center of a pink wild rose.

Pollinator plot subtypes include lakeshore plantings, boulevard plantings (see Metro Blooms’ guidance) and rain gardens. Apartment-dwellers might try container gardening. Many types of plantings require the same basic steps when it comes to installation and maintenance.

The Lawns to Legumes Planting for Pollinators: Principles and Design for Residential Pollinator Habitat guide includes detailed instructions. Following are key steps for establishing a successful project.

Lavender, yellow and red wildflowers bloom along a sidewalk.

Plan the project: Start small. You can always add to your garden. It’s important to plan a garden that you will have enough time to maintain. Grouping similar plants together makes weeding easier and makes pollination more efficient for insects. As with all pollinator plantings, try to include a variety of blooms that will provide food throughout the season. Check out BWSR’s planting design templates (found under the DIY Resources heading) to help you get started. Before you break ground, check with your city to ensure that your plan meets vegetation ordinances.

Remove existing vegetation: Cardboard can be used to suppress existing sod, or you can remove it with sod cutters or shovels. It can be helpful to fully remove sod when possible to minimize re-establishment of weeds. When planting native species into existing garden beds, make sure all weeds are removed first. Borders of recycled brick, stone or other material also help keep grass and weeds from encroaching. Be sure to call Gopher State One Call before your dig to avoid underground power lines.

Install plants: Make planting holes a little larger than the plant’s container. Once the plant is installed, lightly pack soil around it.

Water: Water your plants after planting. Make sure they get about an inch of water a week via rainfall or watering.

Place mulch: Spread about 2 inches of mulch around the plants to help hold moisture and prevent weeds. Shredded mulch is most commonly used, but clean straw or other materials can also work well.

Continue care: Through the summer, make sure that the plants have enough water. Remove weeds as they show up; it’s easiest to remove weeds while they’re small.

Be patient: It often takes a while for native plants to look their best. But when they do, it’s well worth it.

About the author: Dan Shaw is BWSR’s senior ecologist and vegetation specialist. Shaw started working in the field of ecology about 25 years ago. Before joining BWSR, he gained experience with restoration companies, native plant nurseries, consulting firms and nonprofit organizations. Over the past 15 years at BWSR, he’s coordinated conservation programs focusing on native vegetation establishment, invasive species management, pollinator habitat, habitat-friendly solar, water management and resiliency to climate change. Shaw has taught ecology courses at the University of Minnesota for the past 18 years. He also has written and illustrated several ecology-focused publications.

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