Planning Your Garden to Make a World of Difference

Rusty patched bumblebees (endangered)
Photograph by Jane Graham/The Prairie Enthusiasts, Empire-Sauk Chapter

Chilly days are great times to curl up with a hot cup of tea and a seed catalog to plan next summer’s garden. Why not choose a low-maintenance option that supports the wildlife pollinating our plants?

Creating a pollinator garden will give you hours of entertainment as you watch bees, butterflies, and birds flit around your plants. As they gather nectar and pollen for themselves, they perform a vital service for us all.

When bees and butterflies visit flowers, some of the pollen from the plant’s stamen sticks to their bodies. As these pollinators move from flower to flower, a portion of this microscopic pollen attaches to another flower’s stigma to complete the fertilization process.

Experts estimate three out of four flowering plants depend on pollinators to produce fruits and vegetables, seeds, and nuts. These small creatures are responsible for approximately one-third of our food crops.1

But many pollinators face serious population declines. For instance, the rusty patched bumblebee, once sighted in 28 states, is now found in just 13.2 Since southern Wisconsin is home for many of the world’s remaining colonies, the species is of special concern for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

If we aren’t careful, the monarch butterfly will soon become endangered. Over the past few decades, we’ve lost nearly 90 percent of the monarch butterfly population.3 It’s significant because our bees, butterflies, and birds indicate the health of our environment. If they can’t survive, it’s just a matter of time until people feel the effects.

Researchers attribute the decline in pollinator populations to pesticide and herbicide overuse and the loss of habitat. In Wisconsin, pollinators have lost thousands of acres of habitat. As natural areas disappear, so do our pollinators.

But there’s hope. Dedicated nonprofit groups called land trusts work to protect and restore the land’s natural habitat. Volunteers spend hours removing invasive non-native plants, collecting seeds from native species, and replanting prairies and other areas to reestablish Wisconsin’s flowers and grasses.

We have nearly 50 land trusts in Wisconsin involved in land conservation, including The Prairie Enthusiasts, Groundswell Conservancy, Driftless Area Land Conservancy, and Madison Audubon Society. Chances are you have a land trust working to preserve and manage environmentally significant land and water in your community. Many of these conservation efforts also provide pollinators with abundant sources of food and shelter.

You can also help at home. Whether your yard consists of flower pots on your deck or 40 acres in the country, you can create a friendly area for butterflies, bees, and birds.

According to Brenna Marsicek, communications director at the Madison Audubon Society, “Wildlife needs four essential elements to thrive in any garden:

• Food, usually in the form of nectar, pollen, berries, or seeds.

• A water source, such as a birdbath or a puddle.

• Trees, bushes, or other covered spaces that provide shelter.

• Areas free of toxic chemicals.

Fortunately, it’s easy to create a pollinator- or bird-friendly garden in almost any yard.”

For the most attractive pollinator garden, choose a variety of locally sourced, native flowering plants that produce hearty amounts of pollen and nectar in the spring, summer, and fall. Wisconsin’s native plants meet the nutritional needs of our native pollinators.

In the early spring, species such as prairie smoke, shooting star, and cream wild indigo supply nectar for queen bees and monarch butterflies migrating northward. Adding later-blooming asters, blazing star, butterfly weed, and several varieties of milkweed can encourage female monarchs to stay and their lay eggs.

If you’re thinking about adding trees to your yard, consider oak, willow, plum, and chokecherry trees. Besides being hardy enough to survive Wisconsin winters, these trees provide shelter and habitat for several kinds of bees, butterflies, and birds. You can find more information about native plants at

Planting native plants and flowers in your garden will give you the satisfaction of knowing you are helping sustain Wisconsin’s pollinators and making a difference in the world around you.

If you would like more information about native plants or protecting natural areas, contact Gathering Waters: Wisconsin’s Alliance for Land Trusts. Gathering Waters and the land trusts it serves are committed to ensuring Wisconsin residents have access to clean air and water, healthy wildlife habitat, and beautiful places that contribute to the Wisconsin way of life now and in the future.

Patricia McMurtrie is the communications specialist at Gathering Waters: Wisconsin’s Alliance for Land Trusts.


Gathering Waters: Wisconsin’s Alliance for Land Trusts
211 S. Paterson Street, Suite 270
Madison, WI 53703