Minnesota homeowners have taken $58,000 from a new state program and used it to plant nearly eight football fields worth of pollinator gardens, meadows and flowering trees.

The size of the plantings ranged from a handful of flowers in small garden bed to the conversion of a full acre of lawn into a native meadow. The program, which just completed its first full year, pays residents small amounts of money to plant pollinator-friendly flowers, shrubs and trees in their yards. It aims to help put more food in the ground for native bees and butterflies of all kinds, but specifically tries to save the rusty patched bumblebee, a powerful pollinator on the brink of extinction.

Residents who got money to convert their lawns ended up spending two to three times as much on their own, said James Wolfin, a sustainable landcare manager for Metro Blooms, one of the organizations helping the state run the program.

"We've been blown away by the commitment people have shown," he said.

Since March 2020, about 750 residents have received grants averaging less than $100. They used that money, and their own, to plant 157,000 square feet of pollinator habitat in cities and suburbs around the state.

Those lawns are considered key habitat for the rusty patched bumblebee because in recent years rare sightings of the bee have almost all occurred in urban areas near the Twin Cities, Chicago or Milwaukee.

More than 7,000 people applied for money but did not receive any. After learning about the program, those who didn't receive anything still reported planting another 190,000 square feet of pollinator habitat on their own, according to data collected by Metro Blooms and the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources.

"We've had some people actively choose to forgo their full reimbursement so that the money could make it to more people," Wolfin said. "It shows how much this means to Minnesotans and how much they want it to continue."

The program, called Lawns to Legumes, is paid for with the state's Environmental and Natural Resources Trust Fund from money raised by lottery ticket sales.

It's unclear if lawmakers will extend it. The commission that recommends how to spend the trust fund money asked for $1 million to pay for up to 1,600 more grants over the next three years. Lawmakers failed to reach a deal on how to spend the money in 2020 and have still not reached an agreement this year.

Metro Blooms will continue offering workshops for anyone interested in converting some of their lawns or gardens into bee and butterfly habitats. Residents can also sign up with the Board of Water and Soil Resources for updates about how to apply if more funding becomes available.

Greg Stanley • 612-673-4882