Small Plot Pollinator Project
A step-by-step project to help you and your family create your own small pollinator garden at home
Do you want to turn a patch of land in your yard into a beautiful flowerbed, a place for butterflies and bees to visit, but feel a little overwhelmed by all the work involved?
We created this multi-week small plot pollinator project to help families and individuals in starting small-plot pollinator (flower) gardens at home starting in late fall 2020 but you can follow this fall-to-fall plan any year! The plan consists of sequential steps that take you from planning and preparing to planting and maintaining your garden. Each activity is intended to take a small amount of time, and the instructions will provide the structure and planning needed to succeed.
We'd love to see photos of your project! Share ideas, photos, challenges, and solutions (email to email@example.com)
Take a walk around your yard on a sunny day. Notice where sun vs shade fall in your yard, and identify areas with the most sunlight. Get out a shovel an explore soil qualities (sand/clay, rocks, etc). Make sure to dig in below the grass roots, to see what's below the surface. Did you find any worms?
Some plants thrive in areas with more sunlight, while others do better in the shade. Some of the showiest flowering plants are the sun-loving ones. Is there an area in your yard with lots of sunlight where you might build your flower garden? Is your yard very shady, so you want to consider a shade garden?
Building on what you learned about the sunlight and soil in your yard last month, it's time to decide on a location. Additional factors to consider: how far from a water source--can you stretch a hose when needed? Carrying water while establishing young plants would be harder work. Decide on the size and shape of your plot (and if you might like to expand the plot to be larger in future years, consider where there is room to grow). If the ground isn't frozen yet, you can put some markers in the ground to show the edges of your plot. Marked edges will help you in the plant-envisioning stage we'll get to dreaming about as winter really sets in.
January It's garden dreaming and planning season!
Using the information you already gathered about sun and shade in your plot area, explore options in plant and seed catalogues & websites (find links in Where to Buy Plants). You may want to purchase plants in person later in spring, but you can gather information about plant heights, blooming times, sun versus shade needs, and of course colors. Selecting a combination of species that includes spring, early summer, and late summer bloom times allows you to enjoy your flowers and provide resources to pollinators throughout the entire growing season. Think about placing shorter plants at the edge of your plot and taller plants behind them. One delightful winter activity is drawing a rough sketch of your plot with colored pencils or crayons. This doesn't need to be high art to help you plan: a little blob of color gives you the idea. Other considerations: native plants, costs, buying seedlings versus seed--we'll need to get any seed started next month!
February It's the Wednesday of the year.
The joy of winter's start has worn off, and we're still too far from spring to celebrate it just yet. But don't despair! We can give ourselves a boost now by gathering together many of the plant seeds, tools, and other supplies we need for our small pollinator plots. Using your plant list and designs from January (and perhaps new inspiration from Doug Tallamy's talk, which you can view here), start ordering some seeds! Johnny's Seeds in Maine is a great place to start. You'll find several other suggestions on our Where to Buy Plants page. Now is also a good time to consider what tools you'll need--will you be starting seeds indoors and need seed starting trays and potting soil? What digging tools will you need to clear grass or other plants from the area you'll be planting? Will you need some low fencing to show people where not to step while small plants are getting established? Of course, this project doesn't have to be expensive–you can create a beautiful and fulfilling pollinator garden without buying a whole lot of stuff. Make a list of tools and supplies you'll need, take inventory of what you already have or can creatively repurpose, things you can borrow from a neighbor, or things you can buy second-hand. Above all, have fun anticipating the work ahead. This month's goal is to get as organized as possible so you can dive into planting seeds or young plants when spring does get here!
March Longer daylight hours have arrived. It's time to get growing!
If you have native plant seeds to start this spring, make sure to check the seed packet or other growing instructions to see if they require cold stratification, in which they are kept cold and damp as a necessary step for germination, often for about 30 days. This is something you may still be able to do outside, especially in areas where your snow is lingering. Otherwise, you can use your refrigerator. Many websites describe how to do this, but the illustrations here are particularly helpful. Not all native plant species need to go through this process, but many do. Once you've got your seeds germinated, it's helpful to grow them indoors for a while, or if outdoors, still protected from herbivores. Very young seedlings aren't able to produce some of the chemical and structural (e.g. hairy stems) defenses they will when they get bigger. Consider how tasty young sunflower (Helianthus) sprouts are. Rabbits agree. So this is a good month to set any trays of young seedlings in a place with good sunlight and shelter from hungry mouths.
As the snow continues to retreat this week, it is also time to consider how we'll prepare our planting areas outside next month. Will you need to remove existing materials or vegetation? If you are planning to convert a small portion of your lawn into this flower garden, you can actually get started now by layering down flattened cardboard boxes to prevent spring growth. You'll need to weight them down so they don't blow away.
Make use of what you have on hand. Charlie drilled holes in the tops and bottoms of yogurt containers to let moisture in and out.
Took a peak under the boxes: grass is getting yellow and weak from lack of sunlight. This area will be ready for planting soon!
May Beware the bunnies.
Later this month and into next month, you'll be nestling your young plants into your plot! But first, let's take a moment to think about protecting those tender young shoots from herbivores. Mostly, the rabbits. Our adorable cottontail rabbits are very hungry and very numerous this time of year. They find the fresh leaves of many (but not all) plants delicious. This website describes their preferences in general terms.
Many plants develop tougher stems and other physical defenses (such as prickles and hairy leaves) and chemical defenses (bad tasting) as they grow older, but when they are very small, they devote more energy to simply growing. Plants at this stage are especially vulnerable to being eaten and any loss has a big impact on their survival.
The good news is rabbits are very effectively kept out of an area by low (2-foot) fencing. Temporary fencing that you remove once the plants have been established is a good choice because it's easy to install and not very expensive. Sticks or metal poles work fine for fence posts. You can use what you have on hand.
An alternative to excluding bunnies from a whole area is setting up tiny fences around your few young plant additions to an area. Called exclosures, you can make them out of coated chicken wire, needing only a wire cutter as a tool. Easy to make, easy to place, easy to remove and reuse for another young plant.
You don't need to put any fencing up until you are ready to get planting, but planning ahead now means you'll be able to protect your precious plants in a few weeks.
Chicken wire exclosure protecting a Rudbekia. The Bleeding Heart in the background doesn't need it, as rabbits don't find it tasty.
June Plant your plants!
Six months ago you began envisioning turning a small area of your yard into a pollinator's paradise. You've done a lot of important preparatory steps, but this is really the one you've been waiting for: It's time to plant your plants! (If you are interested in our annual Pollinator Plant Kit sale, look here for more infomation). This is true for both seedlings you may have started from seed or plants you purchased from a nursery. Make sure you've got what you need for digging the holes in your soil and get started!
You may know exactly where you want to plant each plant, or maybe you need to take a few minutes trying different layouts. One basic rule of thumb is to put plants that will grow to shorter final heights closer to the front edge of the plot, even if they may be bigger plants at the seedling/young plant stage. Plant spacing recommendations that come with your plants are helpful guides, but you might also consider planting them a little closer together because it can take years to reach their full size.
Then dig a whole large enough to comfortably fit your first plant! If plants have started to outgrow their small seedling pots, they may be "root-bound" when you remove them gently from their pots and examine them. If that is the case, loosen the roots up a bit before you transplant them. The goal is for these roots to have space to grow and access to the water and nutrients in the soil without being too crowded together. Speaking of water, you'll need to make sure the soil you plant into gets plenty moist to ease their adjustment. Add plenty more water as you tuck each plant into the soil. Water will soak down into the soil better if you water a moderate amount several times rather than one large amount all at once. Building a lip of soil around each transplant so that when you water, more of it soaks in rather than running off.
Enjoy watching your new garden space take shape as you plant each plant! Once they are all in the ground, double check on that watering--is the soil wet a few inches below the surface? If you have mulch available, add this on top to help retain moisture and suppress weeds, especially while the plants are small and have not yet filled in the spaces between them. If you tried smothering grass with cardboard as part of your April plot preparation, you can reuse it for this purpose now too--just place it carefully around your plants. Adding regular mulch on top will prevent these lightweight cardboard pieces from blowing away. Make sure to keep that soil moist, especially the next couple weeks, as the new plants start to establish themselves in their new home.
You've done it! You have planted your small plot for pollinators! Get a cold glass of water for yourself now too.
Decide on locations for each plant before you start digging.
Make sure the soil around each plant is plenty moist to easy its transplant transition.
Cardboard can help with weed suppression and moisture retention below regular mulch.
July/August Taking care and taking it in.
All your plants have been in the ground for a few weeks now, spreading their roots, growing new leaves, and possibly blooming their first flowers. You've kept them watered (and to be honest, in July 2021, that didn't require much effort), which is important in this first year as your plants establish. If you've planted native species, well-suited to our local climate, they won't need watering outside of droughts in future years.
But the ongoing maintenance of weeding begins now! The cardboard mulch, in our example from last month, helps a lot with weed suppression, but some will still find a way in. Removing weeds (AKA "a plant in a place you don't want it") is important to prevent it out-competing your new plantings for resources such as nutrients, water, sunlight, and just plain space to grow. As your plants grow larger over the years, they will hold their own more easily against weeds, but there are always some aggressive ones (especially invasive species such as bittersweet) you will need to keep an eye out for periodically and pull out. Have the rabbits been snipping off branches? Or have you used some of the exclosure tools we described in May?
While you are keeping your eye out for weeds and damage by bunnies, also take the time to enjoy what you've created! If you sit down to observe quietly for a few minutes, what insects have you seen coming to visit any early flowers in your pollinator plot? If you don't have any early flowers yet, take a look at the Pollinator Photo Album, created with submissions from our community members during Pollinator Week in June. By next summer, you should be seeing a lot more blooms as your small plants grow and develop.
We'd love to see any photos of your pollinator plots you'd like to share (send to firstname.lastname@example.org) and even add your plot to https://map.homegrownnationalpark.org/ Be a part of this ecological transformation!
In the first year, roots establish the base for more growth and flowers in future years. Hopefully you'll get some flowers this year though!
The floral exuberance of an established garden plot.
September/October Reflect on year one, plan for year two.
It's been a year now since you started planning how to turn a small plot of land into a pollinator garden. How did that go? Looking at my little plot, growth has been a bit uneven. The plants on the left have grown a lot and filled in the space; the plants on the right have not. Everything has survived transplanting, establishing, and bunny chewing though! Bees and butterflies have been regular visitors to the plants that flowered this first year (about half the plants).
First year perennial plants may spend much of their energy on developing their supportive root systems. So, don't be discouraged if your plants did not grow wildly and bloom in this first year. Next year should be a bigger above-ground growth year!
Fall is the perfect time of year to write down notes about what went well (and why, if you know--such as the abundant rainfall in July & August) and what did not. Maybe you already have ideas for things you'd like to do differently next year, such as adding some new species or trying a different way of keeping out rabbits...or something as bold as establishing a plot in a different location. Or maybe you are saving that planning for winter, when it's time to dream of spring again. Either way, make sure you write down your observations, questions, and ideas with enough detail to be a useful resource later.
Part of planning for next year's plants and pollinators is to consider how to put your garden to bed for winter. Leaving leaves as a natural mulch in your plot will help improve the soil as the leaves break down but also protect overwintering native bees who may have set up nests just below the soil surface and moth cocoons mixed in with the leaf litter. Firefly larvae live in leaf litter as well. As flowers set seed, some send them away on wind gusts, but other seeds will remain as winter food for birds. Some insects spend their winters in the stems of plants, such as goldenrod stem gall-forming flies. I haven't seen any stem galls on my small goldenrod plants this first year, but hoping they will find the plants next year as they grow larger! Both to feed birds and to save insects in stems, it's helpful to leave dead stalks standing throughout the winter and until temperatures are warming up again. For more on this topic, you can watch a recording of Anna Fialkoff of Wild Seed Project here.
Bee visiting goldenrod flowers still blooming on one stem in September, while another stem has already set seed.
Year 2 update
Springtime finds these 2nd year perennial plants growing back well and spreading to fill in more of the plot. It's a very happy looking small plot. Flower buds are forming on some of the plants that didn't flower in their first year. The larger these plants grow, the more flowers they will produce. I'm so glad they spent last year developing good roots.
It's pretty easy to repeat the cardboard grass-smothering approach to expand the size of the plot this year.
We'd love to see (and share on the website) photos of your small pollinator plots from this past year! Please write in to tell us about your experience--what worked, what you've learned, what you hope for the future. Write to: email@example.com