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Early spring is the time to plan a pollinator garden to turn desolate lawns into gorgeous habitat havens.
From the spring 2020 issue of Iowa Outdoors magazine
Buzzing bees and fluttering butterflies pick up pollen and drop it off as they float from plant to plant. Tall, colorful prairie plants’ waxy leaves glisten in the sunlight. Hummingbirds flit about. The flimsy skyscrapers sway in the gentle breeze. These plants are a gas station for the insects on their way to pollinate one third of all food.
However, pollinator populations are decreasing at an alarming rate. The rusty patched bumblebee was recently listed as an endangered species, the first bumble bee to make the list.
A simple option that both beautifies a lawn, increases a home’s curb appeal and provides a sanctuary for pollinators is not being used to its full potential. Pollinator gardens are a vibrant and attractive collection of plants rich in pollen and nectar. They are critical to combat pollinator decline, while improving water, soil and air quality.
Pollinator gardens take three years to fully establish if done from seed, growing from tiny green sprouts to lush plants. Using plant starts (called plugs) from nurseries for a smaller area speeds up the timeframe. In larger areas, seed use is common. Typical prairie plants, such as vibrant milkweed and delicate columbine, are common in pollinator gardens. Since these plants are perennials, they will reseed themselves, leaving less work for the homeowner.
Although planted to sustain pollinators, these unique gardens provide other surprising benefits.
The key to a beneficial pollinator garden lies below the surface. The extensive braided root structures of prairie plants break up the soil profile and integrate organic matter to absorb more moisture. Like the tip of an iceberg, prairie plants may only be a few feet in height above the soil, but below, they can be more than 15 feet deep.
Kentucky Bluegrass, a common lawn grass, does not have extensive roots to absorb large amounts of water, which creates runoff. This leads to poor absorption and a higher risk of erosion, which is costly and leads to more work for the homeowner. Lawn grasses easily brown without watering.
In areas with a high risk of erosion, like a downward sloping area, planting a pollinator garden can be extremely valuable. These areas of a yard are usually not being used and installing a dynamic pollinator garden can reinvigorate and beautify the space.
Homeowners can also install a rain barrel as a method for watering their garden. Rain barrels work by collecting rain coming off the roof and funneling it to a barrel for storage. Unlike tap water that contains chlorine and other chemicals that may be harmful to the plants, free and natural rain water helps them flourish. The rain barrel also reduces erosion by lowering the amount of peak flow after rains. When raining heavily, the barrel captures some of the rain and lessens runoff. The majority of the shallow-root lawns fail to absorb runoff. What doesn’t get taken in by the grass will surely be consumed by deep-rooted pollinator gardens.
Even better, a rain garden is designed to capture rainwater so it doesn’t find its way to storm drains. Runoff contains chemicals from fertilizers and motor oils which can be harmful. Water that flows through storm drains goes directly into streams and rivers untreated. This can harm fish, plants and other aquatic life and damage the ecosystem. Rain gardens direct runoff to a central location to be used by plants and create a refuge for insects. The pollution is directed to a contained area where it can then be naturally filtered by the plants and soil.
In urban areas where pollinator gardens are in high demand, soils are primarily clay. The sticky, tightly packed soil cannot hold a significant amount of water. By installing a pollinator garden, a soil restoration begins to take place. A diverse root structure from the plants will also promote nutrients essential to the health of the soil. Most of the initial benefits will come from adding compost material used for pollinator gardens.
Compost is rich in organic matter, an essential ingredient to having a healthy, green space. Organic matter consists of anything that used to be alive, but isn’t now. When plants wither away, they contribute to the organic matter in the soil. After a few years of installing a pollinator garden, soil will become rich from the multiple plant cycles and plants will become more prosperous. It improves the structure of the soil by providing aeration and acting like a sponge for moisture retention.
Not only do pollinator gardens help the ground, they also contribute to cleaner air. When plants photosynthesize, they consume carbon. The abundance of plants in a pollinator garden taking in carbon creates a carbon sink, or an area that stores carbon. By removing carbon from the atmosphere, both plants and humans benefit.
Pollinator gardens can take in carbon dioxide from the air, a process called carbon sequestration and part of the natural carbon cycle. Pollinator gardens, no matter how big or small, take in carbon and lock it into soils as they nourish the landscape to help build soil quality.
Find recommended plant species
Learn about pollinator ecology, monarchs and how to create habitat. Find contacts to DNR private lands biologists for creating larger scale pollinator habitats.
The Iowa Monarch Conservation Consortium website at Iowa State University is filled with preferred seed mixes, how-to information, resource lists, links to seed providers and much more.
Website by Blank Park Zoo in Des Moines offers seed and nursery stock providers across Iowa plus much more.
On the website, click resources, then “pollinator conservation resource center” to find a list of plants suitable for the Midwest and much more.