Pollinator program popular, but many don't follow through on planting plans

a butterfly on a flower
A butterfly visits a purple coneflower in a pollinator garden.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

The Lawns to Legumes grant program has helped create hundreds of small pollinator friendly gardens across the state. It launched in 2019 with $900,000 from the Minnesota Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund.

Minnesotans embraced the first of its kind statewide pollinator habitat initiative, and it received national attention. More than 7,500 Minnesotans applied for $350 grants in the first year of the program, and available funding covered about 1,000 projects.

The program reimburses people after they plant the garden and submit receipts. But only about half of those first grant recipients did the work and were reimbursed.

Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources senior ecologist Dan Shaw took calls from across the country asking how the popular program worked.

"We were surprised that the initial rate was as low as it was because of the enthusiasm. We thought it would be higher than what it was,” said Shaw. “Overall, those rates initially were much lower than we thought they would be.”

Shaw isn't sure why so many people didn't follow through. He thinks the pandemic might be part of the reason.

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a field of flowers
This is the second year growth in a pollinator planting on private property in Carlton County near Jay Cooke State Park.
Alyssa Bloss | Carlton Soil and Water Conservation District

Collecting more information about why individuals don’t complete their projects is one change implemented by program managers said John Bly. He works with the Blue Thumb program, which helps manage the individual grant program for Lawns to Legumes.

“We started asking people on a form, OK, you're not going to do this, why not? And the primary answer was I've moved on, or I've moved out of state, or life's gotten in the way,” said Bly.

As the Lawns to Legumes program has moved from a pilot project to phase two, the completion rate has edged up to just over 60 percent. That’s still well below the 80 plus percent Shaw would like to see.

"It's been something we've been trying to figure out, exactly what it means,” said Shaw. “I think people are just really busy, there's a lot of things going on in their lives right now. So there's a lot of reasons that rate hasn't been as high as we initially expected it to be."

Overwhelmed by the the process?

Another possibility is that many people who applied for grants to plant pollinator habitat are enthusiastic first time gardeners, but they might be overwhelmed by the the process. It's more complicated than throwing a few seeds on the ground said Shaw.

a bed of recently planted wild flowers
A recently planted pollinator garden in Amanda Doran's yard in Duluth.
Courtesy Amanda Doran

The program provides detailed information about plants and the planting process, and offers grant recipients webinars to explain the process. There are also coaches who are master gardeners or have other related expertise to advise participants one on one.

But there aren’t enough of the volunteer coaches to meet demand, said Bly, who said the program has had between 60 and 80 coaches and is looking for more volunteers.

Amanda Doran asked for coaching when she received a grant this year and was told no one was available.

"It was a little overwhelming at first because there's so much information there," she said.

Doran lives in Duluth, and has gardening experience. Still, choosing right plants and the proper location for planting was a challenge.

She did a lot of research on her own, and got advice from a local plant nursery.

"The projects I had at first were way too big, or would take too much time, or way more resources, so I did have to kind of adjust it a little bit,” she said. “What's one little spot I can focus on?"

Doran has her new garden installed and she plans to continue expanding the plantings in her yard. She's made connections with other gardeners through the process, learning tips and finding people willing to share plants from established gardens.

Knowledge, commitment, and patience

Amy Rager is also in the process of installing a pollinator garden this fall. She's a University of Minnesota Extension Educator and a master naturalist who lives near Watson, in western Minnesota.

"Even though I do have expertise in this area, I have to say I feel like it could be a little overwhelming as a homeowner," said Rager.

Establishing pollinator habitat, whether large or small, requires not only knowledge, but commitment and patience, she said.

"Because prairies don't just spring up and become beautiful, they take a little bit of time. And it takes some dedication to weeding, and making sure that they have what they need to grow,” said Rager. “Once they're established, they're stunning, but they take a little bit of time to get there and I think that too can be a little overwhelming."

So far, 678 completed projects in 179 communities from Afton to Zimmerman have received cost share funding from the Lawns to Legumes program according to data provided by the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources.

On a map of completed projects, people have self reported more than 220 projects done without state funding.

Program leaders are trying to encourage grantees to have realistic expectations and understand the work involved before they accept the award.

“Starting small is so much better than not starting at all. And small gardens really do add up,” said Bly.

Blooming milkweed plants
An installed rain garden with milkweed and other pollinator plants at the Cloquet Public Library.
Alyssa Bloss | Carlton Soil and Water Conservation District

Despite the lower than anticipated follow through, Shaw expects the program to meet its goals for expanding pollinator habitat across the state.

The individual grant program is one part of the Lawns to Legumes initiative. There is also funding for a small number of demonstration neighborhoods, which involve creating corridors of habitat targeted at areas where they might best help the endangered rusty patched bumble bee.

“We have one in Winona, where the rusty patched bumblebee has been spotted on eight different projects down there,” said Shaw. “It's been a really good model, and there's some of these that are in very urban areas, like in parts of Minneapolis, others that go across parts of counties.”

And Shaw contends the program is meeting the overarching goal of starting a movement to support pollinators.

"We see a huge demand for native plants, for seed, lots of people contacting our organizations asking for technical assistance,” he said. “So from every indication we see this happening, that there is a lot of habitat that is being installed around the state."

Early next year, Lawns to Legumes expects to approve grants for about two thousand individual projects, the largest award yet for the program.

The program structure will see some changes by then, with the goal of giving participants a better chance at being successful.

"Going into spring, that's where it's really important that we have the structure set up, we have figured this out, how to make this as efficient as possible for recipients," said Shaw.

The next round of grants will be awarded in February.

You can find an interactive graph of the Lawns to Legumes project locations here.

A map of Minnesota with bee icons scattered throughout.
An map of the Lawns to Legumes project locations.
Courtesy image