How to Plant a Pollinator Garden

Bird and bee populations are shrinking. You can help bring them back by planting a habitat in your own yard.

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Last summer, the decline in monarch butterflies hit me hard. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen one in our yard.

My 20-year-old daughter, Sam, was just as alarmed. “Mom—you’ve got to do something!” she said.

So I dug up some of the grass that bordered our azaleas and, in its place, planted native varieties of coreopsis, black-eyed Susan, milkweed and phlox. Within weeks, our garden was abuzz with bees, butterflies and other insects in numbers I’d never before seen on our property in Donaldson Run.

Turns out, we’re part of a nationwide trend toward reevaluating both the purpose and aesthetic of American yards and public green spaces.

“We’ve had this notion that humans and nature are separate—that humans are here and nature is someplace else,” says Doug Tallamy, an entomology professor at the University of Delaware and author of the influential book Bringing Nature Home. “There is no someplace else anymore. Now we have to share where we are with functioning ecosystems. We have to welcome nature to where we are.”

Much of the East Coast is now developed. Green spaces are fewer, having given way to concrete, and many of the yards and “natural” areas that remain have become overrun with invasive plant species that don’t nurture the local fauna. Widespread use of pesticides also kills insects that serve as pollinators, as well as those that sustain larger species.

Female Common Yellowthroat Warbler Janegamble

A caterpillar provides sustenance for a common yellowthroat warbler. Photo by Jane Gamble

If we don’t reconfigure both our personal and public land use soon, Tallamy says, we risk ecosystem collapse.

The warning signals are already screeching toward us. Forty percent of all insect species are threatened with extinction worldwide, according to a 2019 study in Biological Conservation magazine. Since 1970, North America has lost 29 percent of its bird population. And while monarch butterflies registered a slight population uptick in the winter of 2018-2019, their overall numbers have been declining for years.

The grim statistics can feel overwhelming, but all is not lost. “There’s a lot you can do about it, particularly insect declines. It’s totally reversible,” says Tallamy, whose latest book, Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation That Starts in Your Yard, was released in early February. And supporting native species is an effective way to combat some of the negative effects of climate change.

Helping pollinators to thrive is also in our self-interest. Their worldwide decline “is an issue that is so fundamentally foundational for all ecosystems for the health of the planet, but also for human health,” says Laurie Davies Adams, president and CEO of the Pollinator Partnership, which advocates pollinator-friendly practices in farming and government. Some of humans’ most nutrient-rich foods, she points out, are seeds, berries and nuts, which all rely on pollinators.

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