Plant native pollinators this winter

click to enlarge Plant native pollinators this winter
Photo courtesy Patti Krueger Moravec
One way to raise pollinators from seed is to use the winter seed-sowing method, which involves modifying plastic containers to plant starts.

As more people become interested in low-impact landscaping, native pollinator planting has come to the forefront of transforming lawns into functioning ecosystems.

American turf lawns have been the ideal yard for decades, but not without consequences. A contributor of greenhouse gases due to exhaust from lawnmowers and decomposing lawn clippings, lawns use more irrigated water than any food crop. The runoff from billions of dollars and millions of pounds of fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides applied to lawns poisons waterways and disrupts natural ecosystems. Monoculture lawns, often referred to as "green deserts," do not support the variety of insect life that form the basis of biological diversity.

Contrast this with a yarden, a yard that has been transformed to contain a diversity of life, full of pollinators including birds, bees and butterflies, and other insects which form the basis of complex ecological food webs. If we want more pollinators, we plant yardens. If we want more songbirds, we support yardens. If we want to leave a legacy of functioning ecosystems for our grandchildren's grandchildren, we celebrate yardens.

Native pollinator prairie plants have a leg up on introduced species. Though each native plant has its niche, they are better adapted to our climate overall, including surviving periods of drought coupled with extreme heat that is a typical Illinois summer. Supplemental watering in the first year helps native plants get established, but they typically do not need watering in following years, thanks to extensive root systems.

Fall is a fantastic time to plant native seeds. Typically, they are sowed in a prepared space right before the first lasting snowfall. The weight of the snow helps push the seeds into the soil while protecting the seeds from predation. Seeds can also can be planted and mulched regardless of snowfall.

Most native seeds need to undergo stratification, a period of cold which mimics natural conditions. Planting in fall allows seeds to be stratified naturally, but there are other ways to simulate this stratification, such as storing seeds in a refrigerator, freezer or cold garage.

Some seeds prefer dry stratification while others prefer wet stratification, which typically involves placing seeds in wet paper towels before storing them. It's best to look up the kind of seeds you have to find the preferred method. After stratification, these seeds can be planted at any time. This might be a sunny day in February or right before the spring rains hit in March – whatever works for you.

Another way to raise pollinators from seed is to use the winter seed-sowing method, usually beginning after the winter solstice. This involves taking a clear plastic container, such as a milk jug, 2-liter soda bottle or kitty litter container, and making it into a mini-greenhouse. Using a sharp knife, cut around the jug below the handle, leaving a section under the handle to serve as a hinge, and poke drainage holes into the bottom. Fill about halfway with moistened potting mix and plant seeds. Be sure to label what seeds you planted using a paint pen or other method as a permanent marker will fade by spring.

Secure the top with duct tape or by poking a hole in each half to fasten together with a twist tie. Leave the cap off. Place pots in a sunny location protected by the wind. Check weekly to make sure plants are receiving enough moisture and are draining well. Once sprouts emerge and nights are not freezing, remove the top. Plants will naturally harden off and be ready for transplanting after they reach a few inches in height.

A good source of native seeds is from local native plant groups. Seeds can also be sourced through regional companies such as Prairie Moon. A plethora of information can be found on the University of Illinois Extension Office website (extension.illinois.edu) and also from the low-impact landscaping group, Wild Ones (wildones.org), with the latter providing guidance on creating a landscaping plan as well as providing ready-made templates.

I've been planting native pollinator plants for a few years, after reading that enough prairie pockets in an urban neighborhood are enough to remake a functioning prairie. Though we do not expect bison to return any time soon, I am thrilled to know the foundations of a functioning prairie have taken root in my neighborhood, with several neighbors planting native pollinators, as well as pollinator pockets in our community garden and neighborhood park.

A community conversation on pollinators is beginning, including the possibility of updating our city's code ordinances to shift the focus from turf lawn to low-impact landscaping with a focus on native plants. The hope is to share resources and knowledge with anyone who would like to be part of this effort to support ecological systems and provide stability and abundance for future humans. Stay tuned!

Carey Smith loves prairies and was thrilled to be selected by Sustainable Springfield, Inc., to receive an award for Leadership in Front Yard Pollinator Garden Design and for the Enos Park Neighborhood Gardens Pollinator Project.