When the flowers bloom again

It is hard to remember, on a bitter January day, that the roots of the prairie plants are still alive, tucked warm and snug into a soft soil blanket, deep beneath the snow. When you walk through an open field, pause, and hear only the sound of the howling wind and your own blood pumping through your body, it is even harder to remember the way that the air vibrated as you stood beside a wild rose bush, covered with bees in all shapes and sizes. It was a warm June day. At least, it must have been. Equally likely, howls the wind in your face (in fact, it yells it with a sneer), June is but a fairytale like Cinderella and Goldilocks.

Frozen field in William O’Brien State Park, January 2022

Yet, somehow, every year the impossible becomes true. The snow eventually melts. Neighbors step out of their homes, gaze across the street, and wave. Birds return from their winter vacations, and the flowers bloom again.

Which flowers will you plant in your corner of the world this May?

Planning a garden for the spring is one way to get through the deepest cold of winter.

Minnesota is home to more than 450 species of native bees, 266 different kinds of birds, and 140 species of butterflies. How many do you find in your yard on a typical summer’s day?

Monarch butterflies gather nectar from liatris in a raingarden at All Saints Lutheran Church in Cottage Grove, MN.

The Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources (BWSR) is currently accepting applications for its Lawns to Legumes program. Apply online by February 15 for the opportunity to receive $300 in grant support to install native pocket plantings, native trees and shrubs, pollinator lawns, and pollinator meadows in order to restore and enhance habitat for birds and pollinators. A key focus of the program is to protect the endangered rusty patched bumble bee, which is the Minnesota state bee. 

The rusty patched bumblebee is a federally listed endangered species and the Minnesota State Bee. This one was found in a residential garden in Oakdale near a wetland. (Photo by Elizabeth Welty, Honey Bee Club of Stillwater)

Lawns to Legumes grants can also be combined with cost-share incentive grants from watershed districts and watershed management organizations to create larger planting projects that also reduce runoff pollution. Examples include raingardens, shoreline stabilization plantings, and conversion of turf or cropland to prairie. In Washington County, conservation district staff also provide free site visits with advice on where and what to plant, how to apply for grants, and where to buy plants and other materials.

Andy Novak, and landscape designer with Washington Conservation District, meets with a townhome resident to discuss possible planting projects in her neighborhood.

When selecting flowers, shrubs, and trees for your yard, there are many benefits to going native. The first, is that native plants are adapted to the unique climate conditions in Minnesota and the upper Midwest. Native prairie plants like purple coneflower, blazing star/liatris, bee balm/monarda (the native variety is purple, not red), little bluestem, pussytoes, and prairie phlox have deep roots that allow the plants to survive drought, bitter cold, and even fire. As the network of roots grows and expands beneath ground, it guards against erosion and also helps to create channels for rain and melting snow to soak into the soil. 

Bee balm, or monarda, is a native prairie plant that attracts pollinators like this black swallowtail butterfly.

A second benefit is that native plants provide food and nectar for wildlife, birds, and pollinating insects. Select a variety of species to ensure continuous blooms and a consistent source of food throughout the growing season, including early spring, summer, and late fall. Native trees and shrubs are particularly important for birds and offer an early source of nectar for pollinators in the spring. Good options include wild currant, serviceberry, buttonbush, native bush honeysuckle, plums and cherries, willows, spirea (tomentosa and alba), American basswood, and cranberry.

Flowering trees like this hawthorn provide an early source of food for bees in the spring.

It is hard to believe, on a bitter January day, that world will someday be a riot of color. Brown branches on the trees, pretending to be dead, will somehow spring to life and bathe the woods in green. When the flowers bloom again, there will be a mason bee, a white-lined sphynx moth, and brilliant orange of a monarch butterfly. Soon an oriole will join the chorus, and then a trilling treefrog. By the time a fox darts past in search of a chattering chipmunk, it will be hard, so very hard to remember, that the world was ever cold and white on a January day.

To find resources for native planting projects and apply for a Lawns to Legumes grant: www.BlueThumb.org

To find your watershed and request a Washington Conservation District site visit in the spring: www.mnwcd.org.

Want to learn more about gardening with native plants? I will be co-teaching a webinar on Tue., Feb. 22, 6:30-8pm. More info at mnwcd.org/events.