A raised garden bed with green plants next to a white building and a road.

They Go With Everything: Even A Small Patch Of Native Wildflowers Makes A Difference

By Jennifer Hopwood

As plants begin to push through the soil in earnest, and trees and shrubs begin to bloom and leaf out, I am always inspired to think about improving the habitat I can provide for my local wildlife. Insects visiting the different features within my small yard show the value of having multiple microhabitats, that each can address some of the animals’ needs. However, there is one thing that ties all of these microhabitats together, making them each more useful for the bees, beetles, and butterflies that I love to see: native wildflowers.

A small patch of wildflowers makes a big impact

Adding even a few plants is the perfect complement to the other habitat features of your yard, garden, or balcony. Wildlife drawn in to drink at a water source, to seek shelter at a rock pile, or to dig a nest in the soil will benefit from having access to even a small patch of native wildflowers to meet their other needs.

Plants form the base of most food webs, meaning that at one level or another, all the animals we see are relying on plants to meet their needs. Pollinators collect pollen and/or nectar from flowering plants to feed themselves, and often, their offspring. Other bugs, like butterfly and moth caterpillars, grow up feeding on plants themselves. For predators, like wasps, lacewings, and birds, that eat those herbivorous bugs, plants are the place to go, since that’s where many prey live. And, of course, plants can provide shelter and nesting material, both when growing and later in the form of leaf litter or brush piles.

When enhancing a habitat, no matter the scale, flowering native plants are the best choice. Numerous studies have shown that native plants — species that are naturally found in the region that you live in — are the best at supporting insect diversity and abundance. Plus, they are easier to care for, since they are already adapted to your local conditions.  

A Pollinator Habitat sign in front of a garden with native plants.
Whether it is a full garden, or just a planter box or terracotta pot on a balcony, native wildflowers are key to creating a healthy habitat for pollinators and other wildlife. (Photo: Sara Morris CC-BY-NC).

How to improve a habitat by adding a patch of native wildflowers 

Pick the right species of plants native to your region

There are a few considerations for selecting plants that have high value to pollinators and other beneficial insects for your space. Some commonly sold plants are introduced species, and not well suited to provide for wildlife. However, not every native plant will be the right choice, either. You’ll want to match the growing conditions in your space, the soil type, soil moisture needs, and sun exposure, to plants that will grow well naturally in those conditions.

While meshing all of these considerations may feel overwhelming at first, our regional plant lists will help you pick native wildflowers that will thrive. It is best to source these plants from native plant producers in your area; you can find lists of native plant growers and suppliers for each region through our Pollinator Conservation Resource Center.

If you have room for multiple plants, picking species that bloom at different times of year will make sure that resources for pollinators are continuously available. You can also pick specific plants based on the bug species you want to support. Milkweeds are well known as host plants for monarch butterflies, of course, but many native grasses, wildflowers, shrubs, and trees are important in the life cycle of other butterflies and moths. Perennial plants are a favorite of many bees, which build nests inside the stems, as long as you wait to cut back plant stems until after the winter is over.

Several flowering perennial plants along the edge of a sidewalk.
Once these wildflowers are done blooming by the end of summer, they are still valuable habitat. By leaving the stems and seed heads, bugs will be able to take shelter inside from colder weather. (Photo: Emily May / Xerces Society).

Plant your native wildflowers near other microhabitats

By placing your native wildflowers adjacent to or nearby the other habitat features in your yard, you make it much easier for bugs to find and access all of the resources available. Remember that for some invertebrates, crossing from one side of the backyard to another can be quite a trek! Large areas of typical grass lawn, or thick mulch, can be barriers for bugs making the “commute” from microhabitats that provide shelter, like rock piles, to the food provided by your native wildflowers. This is especially true for insect larvae, and adult bugs that cannot fly (or rarely do so). Nearby wildflowers will make the nesting habitat you provide more appealing to pollinators, so you will likely see more individuals and different species moving in. 

A raised plant bed, full with native plants, in front of a building in an urban area. The planter is bordered by an un-mortared stone wall, which itself provides a habitat for some bugs.
Surrounding your patch of native wildflowers with a stone wall makes for a great combination. Bugs can use the gaps in and under the stones for shelter (as long as the wall is un-mortared), and find food in the flowers. (Photo: Kelly Gill).

Avoid using pesticides as much as possible

Your plants truly can thrive without pesticides, and this is one of the most important ways to protect pollinators and beneficial insects in your garden, yard, or balcony. Pesticides, including organic ones, can easily harm other plants and animals, aside from whatever problem you are trying to solve. Insecticides can kill all types of bugs, and often result in increased pest problems in the future, since they can also wipe out the natural predators that would otherwise keep them in check. Herbicides, likewise, can also kill the flowering plants that your backyard wildlife needs for food. While it might seem okay to use a pesticide on the other side of your garden from your wildflowers, it is very likely that they will still be affected. Pesticides can be blown by the wind, or washed into the soil or water system with the rain. Many pesticides are made from compounds that don’t break down easily, so they can continue to cause problems long after the initial use.

When dealing with problems in your garden, consult our resources on reducing pesticide use and safe alternatives. We also have advice on how to avoid contaminating your garden with pesticides when buying plants. Also, keep an eye out if you choose to fertilize your plants. Some fertilizers are sold with insecticides mixed in. Be sure to read labels carefully to avoid hurting the very bugs your plants are meant to support.

Watch the wildlife visiting your native plants

Now that you’ve added native wildflowers, whether it’s just a few in a planter, or a whole native prairie meadow, to the other microhabitats in your space, you can enjoy a thriving bug community. Here are some of the exciting behaviors and experiences to look forward to:

  • Bees using your wildflowers to set up their nest! If you have native flowers and a nesting habitat such as bare ground or a rock pile, you might catch bees making the full circuit from a flower to their nest tunnel as they collect pollen for their offspring to eat once it’s born. 
  • Beneficial bugs keeping your plants safe for you! Brush and rock piles near your native flowers will provide a home for “natural enemies”: hunters like ground beetles, lacewings, and jumping spiders that will happily keep aphid and fly populations in check. 
  • Native plants transitioning from food to shelter, and back, with the seasons! Leave your wildflowers uncut, and consider placing some leaf litter at their base in the fall. Bugs will use this cozy shelter to make it through the winter, boosting your local wildlife when spring brings new buds.
The burrow entrance of a sunflower chimney bee, dug into the soil. The rim of the burrow entrance is bright orange yellow with pollen, left by the bee as it goes in and out of the nest.
Sometimes it’s very easy to tell which flowers in your yard a ground-nesting bee is using. The nest of this sunflower chimney bee (Diadasia envata) is surrounded by a ring of, perhaps unsurprisingly, sunflower pollen. (Photo: Hillary Sardinas / Xerces Society).

Gardening with native plants, for me, is a way to make change happen on a small scale. I love the act of planting things, I love watching new animals find those plants, and I love watching my young kids figure out that wildlife can be everywhere. Gardening also plays a role in my mental health. By adding flowering plants to my space, I’m helping pollinators and other beneficial insects, and creating a fun and relaxing place for myself. 

More resources

Jennifer Hopwood - Xerces Society

Jennifer provides resources and training for pollinator and beneficial insect habitat management and restoration in a variety of landscapes. She oversees a team of four USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service partner biologists and works closely with the NRCS. Jennifer has authored a number of publications and articles, and is co-author of several books, including Farming with Native Beneficial Insects100 Plants to Feed the Bees, and a roadside revegetation manual. Jennifer has a master’s degree in entomology from the University of Kansas.

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