Help Protect Pollinators and Clean Water with these Eco-Friendly Spring Yard Care Tips

To the casual observer, a garden in early spring might not look too impressive: bunches of dead plant stalks and flowers bent over a soggy mat of fallen leaves. But there’s a lot going on beneath the surface of these seemingly lifeless landscapes.

In fact, during the winter our seemingly “dead” yards and gardens play host to an unseen world of pollinating insects. These adaptable creatures survive the cold by entering a dormant state called diapause (similar to hibernation). As longer days and warmer temperatures arrive, they emerge from their various hiding places — under leaves, in hollow plant stems, and underground — and begin their critically important work of preserving our food chain.

With a mild and inviting spring now upon us — and with many people essentially homebound because of COVID-19 — some might be tempted to get an early start on their spring garden cleanup. Don’t do it! Mother Nature needs you to leave your garden nice and messy for just a little longer. Here’s an explanation of why, along with our four tips for a healthy, eco-friendly spring yard.

Hold Off on Your Garden Cleanup Until Late Spring

A raingarden in a residential backyard in late winter.
Master Water Steward Liz Reiser’s backyard raingarden, as seen in late winter. Landscapes like this one are perfect habitat for overwintering pollinators, who will begin to emerge when temperatures are consistently above 50 degrees Fahrenheit.

No matter what kind of landscaping you have, holding off on your annual spring yard cleanup can make the difference between life or death for pollinators and other beneficial insects. As a rule of thumb, most of them will not emerge until temperatures are consistently above 50 degrees Fahrenheit, so waiting until mid-April or early May is ideal. This means putting off activities like raking up leaves, cutting down dead grass and plant stems, and laying down mulch.

Of course, we don’t want dried leaves blowing into the streets, clogging up stormdrains or smothering turfgrass, so a little preventative raking isn’t a bad idea. The key is to be selective about where you rake: Try to let leaves accumulate in spots where they’ll stay put. Raingardens, with their bowl-shaped depressions and tall, native plants, do a great job of holding all those nutrient-rich leaves in place. Likewise, edges of fenced-in yards or areas lined with tall plants or trees will do a good job of keeping leaves from getting blown around.

Leave Some Weeds for the Pollinators

A bee feeding on a dandelion flower.
A bee feeds on a dandelion flower. While considered a nuisance by many, dandelions and other flowering weeds provide important pollinator habitat, especially early in the season.

Now that you’ve helped all those pollinators survive the winter by leaving their homes undisturbed, why not ensure they have enough food to survive? Weeds like dandelion are often considered a nuisance, but are actually an important food source for pollinators — especially early in the season, before many other types of flowering plants begin to bloom. Letting a few flowering weeds take root in your yard — at least temporarily — can help sustain pollinators until more desirable types of flowers take over.

Dandelions and other weeds can become a problem, of course. They compete with other plants for space, sunlight and nutrients, and they spread rapidly if left unchecked. But perhaps there is a happy compromise: Are there spots in your yard where a few dandelions won’t bother you? If so, consciously leaving a few behind a few to feed the pollinators — while pulling them from parts of your yard where they might overwhelm other plants — might be a reasonable choice. You can also leave them for pollinators to feed on and then mow them right before seed heads develop if you’re worried about dandelions spreading.

Adopt a Stormdrain (Or Just Clean One Out)

A woman and child pose with an Adopt-A-Drain lawn sign.
The Adopt-A-Drain program recently reached a new milestone of 10,000 stormdrains adopted within the Twin Cities metro area. (Courtesy: Clean Water Minnesota)

As outlined above, leaves and dead plant material can be a good thing if they stay in your yard. On the other hand, leaves that blow into the street can potentially clog stormdrains, causing localized flooding. They also fall into the stormdrains and flow to a nearby river or lake, overwhelming it with excess nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus.

Whether you have a yard or not, if you want to do your part to protect our waterbodies from nutrient pollution, the simplest and most direct action you can take is to sign up for the Adopt-A-Drain program. Thousands of Twin Cities metro area residents have already adopted more than 10,000 stormdrains, and have collectively kept more than 94 tons of leaves, trash and other debris out of rivers, lakes and wetlands.

To join, simply visit the website, enter your address, find a stormdrain in your neighborhood, and sign up to adopt it. You are encouraged to report the amount of debris you collect, which helps the program track its impact.

Give Your Landscape a Pollinator-Friendly Makeover

A Master Water Steward's backyard raingarden.
Master Water Steward Liz Reiser’s backyard raingarden, as seen in mid-summer. (Compare with the photo at the top of the page!)

If you want to take your eco-conscious yard care practices to the next level, then it’s time to consider adding some pollinator-friendly plants to your landscape. This doesn’t have to be complicated; it can be as simple as carving out a space in your yard to plant a few native perennials.

Spring is a great time to score some native plants — either for free or at a discount — with many plant exchanges and sales happening around the metro area. (We will soon be posting a list of these plant sales, assuming they don’t get canceled or postponed because of the Coronavirus.)

This year will be an especially good one to add some pollinator plants, thanks to the Lawns to Legumes program, which allows Minnesota residents to apply for cost-share grants to install pollinator habitat in their yards. The program is also partnering with Blue Thumb to host a series of workshops on pollinator-friendly landscaping (now being held online, due to COVID-19).

What are your tips for eco-friendly spring yard care? Email us, or share them on social media with the hashtag #MWMOGoodNeighbor.

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