Lawns to Legumes: Protecting Pollinators in Minnesota

A statewide conservation effort is “bee-autifying” lawns and landscapes to create pollinator-friendly habitats abuzz with environmental benefits.

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by Karen Moon
Karen Moon worked with neighbors to design and install a pollinator-friendly garden at her Minnesota home.

The addition of the rusty patched bumblebee (Bombus affinis) to the endangered species list in 2017 did much more than make it the first bumblebee in the United States and the first bee of any kind in the continental U.S. to be declared endangered. The recognition also sparked widespread concern about other pollinator declines; raised awareness about the impact of decreased insect populations on food production and sensitive ecosystems; and inspired Minnesota to launch an innovative statewide pollinator conservation program.

The Minnesota Legislature named the rusty patched bumblebee its state bee in 2019, and in the same session, it approved a cost-share pilot program with the catchy name Lawns to Legumes. Equipped with the slogan “Your Yard Can Bee the Change,” the Lawns to Legumes program encourages residents statewide to use native plants to transform their lawns and landscapes into high-quality pollinator-friendly habitats.

The rusty patched bumblebee was quickly established as the mascot of the Lawns to Legumes program, which heightened interest in gathering data on Minnesota’s 450-plus native bee species, since bumblebees can be indicator species of the health of other bee populations. The status of these populations is key to the program’s long-term goal to decrease the number of at-risk bees and other pollinators and insects losing habitat to climate change, pesticides, plant pathogens, and lack of nutrition.

‘Bee’ the Change

Lawns to Legumes, administered by the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources (BWSR), is achieving its conservation goals by offering Minnesota residents a combination of workshops, coaching, planting guides, and Individual Support grants up to $350 to help offset the costs of establishing pollinator habitats. The program also includes “Demonstration Neighborhoods,” which are large-scale conservation sites run by local governments and nonprofits with support from BWSR.

The program supports four project types for creating pollinator habitats that allow for planting flexibility based on site conditions and gardening experience: native pocket plantings, pollinator lawns, pollinator meadows, and beneficial trees and shrubs. The program also helps residents identify projects that meet community ordinances. In the program’s first year, 7,500 people in 84 of Minnesota’s 87 counties applied for Individual Support grants in two application periods; 1,000 applicants received grants; more than 50 partners and 100 dedicated volunteer coaches joined the effort; and 33,000 people accessed the program’s website. The number of applications received far outpaced available funding, demonstrating strong public interest in programs that support pollinator habitat.

“We had a good response from around the state,” says Dan Shaw, senior ecologist and vegetation specialist at BWSR. “Talking to residents early on, it was evident that people are motivated to be part of the solution for environmental challenges they hear about, including pollinator decline. It can be difficult for the general public to determine what they can do individually to help solve some of these problems. This program provides a way for them to do things that directly benefit the environment,” Shaw says.

Individual Support: Residential Renovations

The residential focus, which Shaw calls “pretty straightforward,” is one of two main ways to participate in the Lawns to Legumes program. “Anybody in the state can apply for up to $350 in funding, coaching, and workshops, even if they’re in an apartment. That was a decision made from an equity standpoint, because we wanted people who weren’t necessarily homeowners to be able to do something if they could work with their landlord on the property,” Shaw says. The program isn’t only for seasoned growers either, and actually strives to attract new or beginning gardeners. “A lot of people who have more extensive experience know what they’re doing and how to establish pollinator habitat. But new gardeners are where we feel like we’re going to make a lot of gain in establishing new habitat,” Shaw says.

Funding for Lawns to Legumes comes from the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund. The program is administered by BWSR with the help of two key contracted partners: Metro Blooms, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that creates resilient landscapes and promotes clean watersheds; and Blue Thumb – Planting for Clean Water, a public-private partnership that supports plantings for clean water and other environmental benefits. “We contract with Blue Thumb to help them do workshops for the program, and then they distribute funding through a reimbursement to the residences,” Shaw says. Individual Support grants are established as cost-share funding, meaning that recipients are required to match 25 percent of their total reimbursement request. Funding match can be in the form of plants and materials purchased, contractors hired, or time spent planting and maintaining plants.

One of the Lawns to Legumes Individual Support grants given out in the program’s first year went to Karen Moon, an adviser in the College of Continuing and Professional Studies at the University of Minnesota. Moon, a self-described “lifelong gardener with knowledge gaps,” lives in a duplex in the Seward neighborhood of Minneapolis, next to retired landscape architect Laurie McRostie. “Laurie and I collaborated on a plan for a pollinator-encouraging garden also capable of filtering water that feeds into the nearby Mississippi River,” Moon says. “She established parameters and made me unexpectedly poised to apply for a Lawns to Legumes cost-share project.” Moon was approved for first-round funding in March 2020.

McRostie’s plan involved removing 220 square feet of lawn that had a thick mat of creeping Charlie interspersed with clover, dandelions, and plantain. Using a borrowed conversion ruler and spray paint, Moon and her spouse, Josh Borowicz, outlined a kidney-shaped garden and marked places for plantings. With help from a neighbor and their Korean hand plows, they cut away turf, revealing soil so rich that passersby asked Moon who delivered it. They also dug up river rocks, including one weighing 75 pounds that they positioned in a central place in the garden. They planted a serviceberry tree, chokeberry and snowberry shrubs, prairie dropseed, lady ferns, turtlehead, prairie clover, oak sedge (which rabbits ate repeatedly until it was replaced with native Liatris and prairie smoke), and nonnative companions, such as a globe blue spruce and Ligularia. Then, they introduced a catch basin beneath a porch downspout to route rainwater through a pipe to the moisture-loving turtlehead and Ligularia in the lowest level of the garden.

“Each phase brought new visitors,” Moon says. “Bees arrived with serviceberry blooms, followed by berry-seeking robins.”
Families walking dogs stopped to ask about the purpose of the rain garden and admire the overall transformation of the lawn. “I took great pleasure in this project,” Moon says. “I look forward to seeing the garden as it evolves in coming years.”

Demonstration Neighborhoods: Community Connection

In addition to individual grants, Lawns to Legumes expands the single-resident focus to high-profile communitywide plantings — known as Demonstration Neighborhood projects — in important habitat corridors throughout the state. The goal of these projects is to benefit at-risk pollinators (with a focus on the rusty patched bumblebee) and highlight best practices. “We left the definition of ‘neighborhood’ open-ended for applicants to determine,” Shaw says. As a result, these neighborhoods range from urban communities in lower-income sections of Minneapolis and its suburbs, to rural settings near Duluth and the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, to bluff prairies in southern Minnesota along the Mississippi River on the Wisconsin border.

“Demonstration Neighborhoods are set up as a grant through a Request for Proposal [RFP], so cities, counties, watershed districts, conservation districts, tribes, and nonprofits can apply to lead a project,” Shaw explains. An RFP in late 2019 invited eligible organizations to apply for grants ranging between $20,000 and $40,000. The RFP led to 12 neighborhoods around the state where RFP awardees work with multiple residents to establish plantings and plan for the projects’ long-term care. “These Demonstration Neighborhoods create a vision for how communities can work together in a couple of ways,” Shaw says. “One is that residents can help residents and neighbors can help neighbors, either sharing plants or sharing information. There’s also the aspect that the more plantings you can get within a neighborhood, the better the pollinator corridor you create. This is what we would like to see ar­ound the state within neighborhoods. And then there’s a social side to it as well, be­cause people working together to at­tain similar goals helps build

Brooklyn Park, a city with a diverse population of about 90,000 in the northwestern suburbs of the Twin Cities, was one of the 12 grant recipients. Brooklyn Park established rain gardens and pollinator gardens at four affordable housing apartment complexes, some as part of a city initiative, and some as part of the Lawns to Legumes program. The projects funded directly by Lawns to Legumes are at Brook Gardens, 60 units of two-story apartments and town homes; and Brooks Landing, a seven-story senior community.

Because the project was too extensive for a single group to fund, Brooklyn Park secured grants of about $350,000 from the city and county governments and six other grant-funding agencies across the state, according to John T. Kinara, Brooklyn Park’s housing and economic development specialist. Kinara works with the city’s 32 large multifamily communities to ensure residents are connected with resources to improve their quality of life, living conditions, and safety. Additional partners — apartments and nearby residents; city and elected officials; staff from Metro Blooms; and volunteers from the profit and nonprofit sectors — eagerly collaborated to install the gardens. All the plantings feature pollinator-friendly native plants appropriate for the four sites, according to Rich Harrison, a landscape architect with Metro Blooms. “One of our favorites is anise hyssop,” Harrison says. “The bees love it, and it blooms with beautiful purple flowers in late summer.” The projects are expected to produce notable measurable outcomes. In addition to reducing chloride, all four properties are estimated to annually capture 4 pounds of total phosphorus, 2,000 pounds of solids, and 900,000 gallons of runoff.

Expanding Efforts in Phase 2

The Lawns to Legumes pilot phase was set up to run through 2023. However, the program is expected to move into Phase 2 this summer, and Shaw expects demand for both Individual Support grants and Demonstration Neighborhoods to increase. To meet that demand, he has ambitious ideas to add new features to the program, including education, food security, and climate mitigation and adaptation components. These components will depend on future funding and legislative action. “We heard from a lot of people who thought there would be a big benefit of expanding this program into community parks and school landscapes for educational purposes,” Shaw says. “We have a state interagency pollinator team that includes the Department of Education, so we’re making some good connections with groups working not only on pollinator topics, but also education. Getting native plant habitat onto school landscapes would present great opportunities to incorporate [Lawns to Legumes] into school curriculums.”

An Adopt a Pollinator program is also in the works. “We’ve already started the process of figuring out which pollinators will be featured as part of this program,” Shaw says. “The intent is to have a program in which schools can adopt different pollinator species and [students can] go out into school plantings and see if they can find them.” Shaw added that children can do that in their home landscapes as well. “I think another piece of this program as it evolves will be to take on more of a food component,” Shaw says. “We would like to start incorporating apple trees, blueberries, and raspberries as part of projects so there’s more of a food security aspect.”

As much as Lawns to Legumes focuses on pollinators, Shaw stresses that the program and its efforts go beyond that aspect. “These efforts are also about the overall integrity and health of our landscapes. The plantings increase resiliency to climate change,” Shaw says. “We’re pretty excited about the possibility for climate mitigation and adaptation as part of these projects, because the plantings are sequestering carbon.” According to Shaw, the projects also improve soil health, manage stormwater, and support overall biodiversity. Beyond pollinators, other animals can benefit from the efforts as well. “It isn’t just pollinators that are in decline,” Shaw says. “Many types of insects that support our ecosystems are also at risk, as well as significant declines in bird populations. Birds that rely on insects as a major part of their diet have declined the most.”

For many Minnesota residents, Lawns to Legumes Individual Support grants provide their first introduction to conservation efforts. Shaw hopes the arrival of bees, butterflies, birds, and other wildlife in their plantings will inspire people to continue expanding native habitat in their landscapes and promote other conservation efforts. “This is a healing process that’s therapeutic for people as well as the land,” Shaw says. “And it’s something all of us can appreciate.”

The Bee That Started It All

Not long ago, the rusty patched bumblebee was numerous in the eastern United States and upper Midwest. Its historic range included 28 states, the District of Columbia, and two Canadian provinces. Since 2000, the species has been reported in only 13 states and one Canadian province, primarily because prairies and grasslands in the upper Midwest have been converted to monoculture farms or replaced by roads and cities, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Disease, pesticides, and climate change may have also contributed to its decline. Learn more about the rusty patched bumblebee at U.S. Fish & Wildlife Services.

Get Involved

Participants in the Lawns to Legumes program and other people undertaking similar DIY efforts can map their projects on the Blue Thumb website. Lawns to Legumes also promotes using data from Bumble Bee Watch to measure bumblebee visits, which are considered an indicator of overall pollinator visits.

Tom Oder is an independent journalist living in Atlanta, Georgia, who writes about gardening, the environment, and agribusiness.

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