Pleasing Pollinators And Pals
Last week the first crocus opened at the library, along with snowdrops and a few species daffodils. Despite the chilly air, a few insects were already nuzzling around the bulbs, while the golden blossoms of various Oregon grape forms were busy with bees. I’m hoping this is a good sign, and that this year we’ll see a resurgence of pollinators coming to feed on the plants we offer them. Our offerings are more important that ever, since so much of their natural habitat has been and is still being destroyed. It burns my heart to see a small forest felled to make room for yet another concrete bunker storage facility; beautiful, strong, healthy trees killed so we have someplace to put our excess stuff. Stuff doesn’t clean the air and help maintain that precious oxygen balance in our atmosphere. Those trees did, and our air is impoverished by their death.
So are we, and so are a host of small creatures that lived in those woods. Birds and bats, raccoons and foxes, insects and snakes, slugs and salamanders, all displaced if not killed outright. The good news is that it doesn’t take a lot of space to house many of these beings. The bad news is that they need a bit of the wild, and any touch of wild is in danger these days. When I work with homeowners, I often hear that they want to welcome birds and nurture bees, yet the first thing they want to get rid of is the messy tangle of blackberries and salal, huckleberries and wild roses that so often edge the property. Even when I point out that such tangles are home and buffet for the very creatures they want to welcome, it’s clear that many folks can’t live with that lack of controlled appearance. Leaving some wild can be a hard sell, since our ideas about tidiness can be deeply rooted. Thus, it’s hugely important to equally deeply consider why we may think that the appearance of control is more important than a healthy, intact habitat environment.
I’ve recently visited several large properties where owners don’t want to mow existing big lawns and do want to offer more support to native pollinators. One very effective alternative is a pollinator meadow, woven with annuals, perennials, bulbs, and grasses as well as some native shrubs. As with any sustainable landscape, the overall success of a pollinator meadow depends on good prep, appropriate plant selection and planting, and consistent (if quite low) maintenance. Success also relies on the owner’s tolerance for that touch of the wild that means life for small life forms.
Meadows are not lawns and it can take time to adjust our eyes to see the natural beauties of plants through the year. If this sounds like the dog’s breakfast, a look at the pioneering work of Piet Oudolf, a renowned Dutch garden designer, can help train our eyes and teach us to value form and texture as much as color.
Here’s a link about Piet’s work in New York City:
And a longer clip on his five season gardens:
Step By Step
Piet works with a fabulous palette of plants that live and die with grace. If we want to support all kinds of pollinators, many of the plants Piet uses will work, since they will attract European honeybees as well as the less selective native pollinators. Selective native pollinators can’t appreciate such a variety, but a base of natives amplified with selected introduced perennials may prove the most pleasing to people and pollinators alike. Start by researching the natives that flourish in your area, particularly in the kind of setting you have to offer. Native plant societies, the Department of Natural Resources, the Xerces Society, and independent nurseries are good places to look for appropriate plants. You’ll also gain new appreciation for certain plants that may already be in place, such as stinging nettles and wandering wild roses, which tend to look straggly but support many small beings.
Once you know what you want to grow, prep the soil. Where existing lawns are thin and mossy to start with, the scanty grass is easily overwhelmed by the addition of natives that thrive in such settings. In such settings, we can remove strips of existing turf by cutting and rolling up the sods, which can be stacked green sides together, then root sides together. Top the resulting mound with root side up turf, then cover it with a tarp or deep wood chip mulch; in a few seasons, it will rot down into lovely soil. Where tall, grassy meadows are already established, planting can be more challenging, since grasses that get head high in midsummer will in turn overwhelm small native starts. Here your best choices are either to smother the grasses with deep wood chip mulches (12-18 inches or more) or till up the turf and rake out as much root mass as possible before planting anything new. Remember that you don’t have to do all the work at once; you can implement your plan is stages over several or many years, assisting the transition by careful weeding and invasive plant removal three or four times each year.
What To Grow
Where lawn will transition to meadow, consider planting some of the native milkweeds, which will be manna for Monarch butterflies (Asclepias incarnata, A. speciosa, A. syriaca, A. tuberosa). Skippers feast on checkerbloom (Sidalcea malviflora), mountain avens (Geum macrophylla), and Phalaris arundinacea Feesey’s Variety. Our native bleeding heart (Dicentra formosa) fosters Swallowtails and Parnassians, as does Ceanothus sanguineus, purple willow (Salix purpurea Nana), Heraclum lanatum and its garden counterpart, Angelica gigas. Coppers, Hairstreaks and Blues love ocean spray (Holodiscus discolor, one of my personal favorites), as well as redtwig dogwood (Cornus sericea) and sweet peas (Lathyrus latifoilus). Native hardhack (Spirea douglasii), S. betulifolia and S. densiflora are important fodder and nectar plants for numerous native butterflies. If you grow hops near the meadow, it will also be highly popular.
Grasses appreciated by native butterflies include golden oats (Stipa gigantea) and Mexican feather grass (S. tenuissima), which can provide nesting material for many other critters as well. Globe thistles (Echinops ritro) are a favorite of Painted Ladies, while Spangled Fritillaries prefer to feast and nest on violets (Viola glabella). Quite often, native pollinators will happily visit cousins of their preferred native plants, so you may see the same bees and other insects on blueberries and huckleberries, various willows and ceanothus species, and many kinds of thistles. Herbs seem to attract the wisest range of pollinators, from rosemary and sage to thyme and oregano. Seed savers will find that flowering kale and lettuce, beans and peas, radishes and beets are also heavily visited, usually resulting in excellent seed setting. Onward!