Photo by Sarah Marjanovic

May 1, 2024

Habitat in Your Backyard

A patch of turned soil to the left with pots of plants sitting on top of the bare earth. To the right is an established garden with a wrought iron arbor. In the background are two piles of mulch in bags and a line of evergreen trees.
Sequence showing pollinator garden in northeast Illinois at stages of installation and planting and later as it grew in. By the third full growing season (2018), this pollinator garden attracted seven species of bumble bees, monarch butterflies, hummingbird clearwing moths, several species of swallowtail butterflies, numerous colorful native beetles and pollinating flies, and up to eight individuals (per day) of the endangered rusty-patched bumble bee. Step one (above): A new pollinator garden (left) to be installed next to a pre-existing established one (right). To prepare the new garden, turfgrass was removed and soil was tilled. Potted plants were laid out to determine best placement and spacing. Bags of mulch were spread after plants are installed (August 2015). Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

While in conservation “bigger” usually is better, smaller sometimes isn’t a bad thing!

In the field of conservation biology, the term “conservation design” is commonly used to describe how conservation lands are targeted or planned for acquisition and restoration, while still balancing the needs of adjacent human communities. When conservation lands are identified and acquired, there are several key factors that may affect the success of habitat conservation and the kinds of species benefitted. These include patch size (or acreage), adjacency (how close are neighboring tracts of conservation land, and can wildlife move freely between them), and the type or quality of the habitat itself. In practice, bigger tracts are almost always best, as they are more likely to hold a diversity of habitats. Closely clustered neighboring tracts, with minimal barriers between them, are also desirable as it is easier for wildlife populations to move among these patches. Finally, habitat diversity or quality plays a role, as different soils, moisture, and plants or other food and cover sources all play a role in attracting different species.

A newly planted flowerbed surrounded by green short mowed grass.
Step two. Plants, including native wildflowers and short native grasses are installed, and mulch were spread between plants to help suppress weed growth while native plants became established (August 2015). Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

As you may guess, the presence or use by larger, visible or popular wildlife species (such as deer, wild turkeys, waterfowl or small migratory songbirds) have traditionally been used to measure the success of conservation. However, over the past 25 years or so, there has been increasing concern about decline, or loss of populations of pollinator species. While many animals (including birds and bats) can play a role in pollination, the pollinators of concern are usually among our smallest animals, the insects (such as bees, butterflies, moths and others).

The program (the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program) and office (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Illinois Private Lands Office) where I work usually targets owners of agricultural or working lands who would like to voluntarily improve wildlife habitat. Because these lands tend to be of considerable size (often being 10 acres or greater) they provide opportunities to get appreciable acreage for migratory birds and other large charismatic species.

A newly planted flowerbed with small shrubs in pots lining the back. In the background is a house and a green mowed lawn and field.
Step three. A screen of native shrubs (still in pots) was laid out. These were planted to form a visual backdrop for the pollinator garden (August 2015). Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

When it comes to conserving pollinators that also play a crucial role in Illinois’ agricultural landscape, bigger is also better, but not always necessary. In short, you don’t need to own a farm to have your own diverse assemblage of wildlife visit your property. As pollinator conservation has gained in profile over the past 20 years, so has the practice of building “pollinator gardens.” Pollinator gardens are typically planted with a small suite of colorful, flowering native plants that in turn attract butterflies, bees, hummingbirds and even some colorful songbirds. Because these are usually small patches measuring in just hundreds of square feet, pollinator gardens can provide opportunities for owners of small properties, including urban yards, to contribute to meaningful conservation, albeit at “micro scale.”

A flowerbed showcasing a lot of white blooms, a few yellow blooms and a few purple blooms. In the background is a mowed yard with a house and evergreen trees.
Growing pollinator garden second full growing season after plants and shrubs were planted. A large number of showy primrose are blooming (June 2017). Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Gardening with native plants or wildflower species is still a relative new practice in some areas, so getting plants is sometimes a challenge. Fortunately, with every passing year, the concern over pollinator conservation is becoming more mainstream, and many local nurseries now often devote whole sections to native plants, and there are even a few retail nurseries in the state that specialize in native plants. Also, scattered throughout Illinois are local garden clubs and native plant societies that sponsor native plant sales, usually over weekends in April or May. Many of these native plant sales help raise money for conservation, and ones near you can usually be found by a quick search of the internet.

While pollinator gardens may not attract ducks, geese, turkeys or other “bigger” wildlife, people who install pollinator gardens often find themselves engaging in similar wildlife watching activities, just with much smaller species. Many owners of pollinator gardens like to list the species they see. There are even binoculars designed to observe insects up close.

A flowerbed full of plants and many purple blooms. In the background is a mowed lawn, evergreen trees and a house.
Growing pollinator garden thenthird full growing season after plants and shrubs were planted. Taller plants, such as wild bergamot, started filling in the middle (August 2018). Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Depending on where one is located in the state, a well planted pollinator garden with just a dozen or so species of native flowering plants may easily attract more than 25 species of pollinators over the course of a growing season. Highlights for many pollinator or “native” gardeners often include monarch butterflies, zebra, tiger and black swallowtail butterflies, clearwing moths (a.k.a. “hummingbird” moths), a suite of six or more species of bumblebees (which are usually non-aggressive to closeup human observers), different colorful species of beetles and small colorful pollinating flies (not the pesty kinds). Monarch butterflies in particular need milkweeds upon which to lay their eggs, since milkweeds are the only plants eaten by the monarch’s caterpillars.

Also, don’t forget to include a few species of short native grasses to add form and interest, or a background screen of native shrubs.

Even if you don’t have 5 to 10 aces to spare on a 50-acre farm, have no fear, try making a pollinator garden!

Many species of native plants will thrive in a backyard pollinator garden. The following are some of the species that are usually easy to obtain at local retail nurseries or native plant sales, and typically thrive in gardens with average (not too wet or too dry) soils in residential areas. Additional information on developing residential property for pollinators and wildlife habitat is available at the Illinois Department of Natural Resources’ CICADA.

A few short-stature grasses that can provide accent or additional form, or shrubs that can provide a taller background in a pollinator garden include:

A table indicating a few different shrubs and grasses to plant in a pollinator garden.

Mike Redmer is the Private Lands Coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) in Illinois. A life-long resident of the state, his 23-year federal career included almost 20 years at the USFWS’ Chicago Office. During much of that time he was an endangered species biologist, but also coordinated habitat restoration with private landowners, local units of government and non-governmental organizations in northeast Illinois to deliver the USFWS’ Partners for Fish and Wildlife and Great Lakes Coastal Programs. Prior to relocating to Springfield in 2022 for his current position, Redmer worked for more than two years for the U.S. Forest Service where he was the natural resources staff officer, coordinating the habitat restoration, botany, wildlife, range/bison and hydrology programs at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie in Will County.

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