Making The Best Of The Worst
Argh! Seems like every day brings more dire news about the environmental devastation climate change is causing. It makes me cry; sorrow for the planet feels like the deep grief we feel when dear people suffer or depart this world. It’s clearly just the beginning of the Bad Times, but there are also positive, hopeful signs as well. Among these is the excellent news that replacing water-guzzling lawns with pollinator-friendly gardens can make a significant difference to your neighborhood. We know that over 85% of flowering plants need to be pollinated by insects (as well as bats and birds) in order to produce the fruit and seeds that in turn provide about a quarter of the daily diet for native birds as well as other critters. Even if you simply reduce the lawn by half, improving the soil with compost and planting pollinator attracting natives and herbs, that can make a measurable difference to the number of pollinators, birds and butterflies that find shelter on your property.
Since most pollinator plants, including natives, need little or no supplemental water once established, that means your water use will be reduced. Since you are covering the bare soil with compost before planting, increasing carbon drawdown begins almost immediately. Since these plantings don’t need fertilizer, that means the water runoff from your property won’t be carrying excess nitrogen (or not as much, anyway) to local streams and waterways. Since you won’t need pesticides, the air won’t be carrying toxin drift to affect other plants, people, and critters. In fact, the air and water that pass through your property will be cleansed by the healthy plants. Swap the whole lawn and double the beneficial effects!
Sadly, some folks do not feel comfortable in natural environments, preferring tidy, manicured parks over wild woodlands or naturalistic gardens. However, the more we learn about what pollinators, birds and other wildlife need to survive and thrive, our increasing understanding may help us find greater acceptance of the untidy. Indoors, tidiness is useful but outside, tidiness is death to the natural. It’s important to remember that Nature does not do tidy. We humans need to learn to look at the natural world through a naturalist lens instead of an industrialist viewpoint. Most folks find an intact forest more refreshing than a clearcut, yet far too many yards, landscapes, and gardens reflect the clearcut mindset over the naturalists’.
Barren stretches of lawn support nothing but cranefly larvae and moles, but a well planned pollinator meadow, however small, nurtures a remarkable number of insects, nearly all of which (over 95%) are beneficial or neutral in human terms. If you are devoted to your lawn, please consider leaving at least some verges in a more natural condition. A recent German study looked beyond the usual larger-scale investigations to focus on the scrappy bits of semi-wild vegetation often found along driveways and fence lines or behind sheds and outbuildings. Such spaces often host mixtures of native plants, weeds, and garden escapees that turn out to be home to a surprising abundance of beneficials, including many pollinators.
A Little Wild Goes A Longer Way Than We Thought
Because both native and common garden flowers tend to bloom between May and mid August, pollinators have to search much harder to find sources of pollen and nectar, especially in a dry year such as this one. Those random patches of mixed up plants can provide nourishment and shelter for birds and pollinators even when larger landscapes can’t. Queen Anne’s Lace (aka wild carrots) and goldenrod, fennel and dill, evening primroses and feverfew can knit together with sow thistles and spurges, clovers and purslane can make many a meal for the critters whose habitat is overtaken by so-called progress. “Researchers have already shown many times how important natural habitats are for pollinators. Almost always, however, only large-scale structures have been researched for this purpose, for example, wide meadows or pastures. Studies on what small structures mean for pollinators and which species particularly benefit from them are rare,” says Dr. Vivien von Königslöw from the Institute of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Freiburg.
To learn how to promote a diversity of wild bees and hoverflies near commercial orchards, the researchers compared numbers of pollinators found in garden flower strips and in the wildflower-rich verges of commercial apple orchards in southern Germany. While specialist bee species depend on specific types of pollen, opportunistic bees such as honey bees will take pollen and nectar wherever they can find it. Thus, a wide range of pollinators were observed feeding both in garden strips and in semi-natural habitats such as hedgerows and road verges. As the wilder areas dried out, the cultivated garden strips gained more pollinators. Both are clearly important to pollinator survival, especially since the wilder areas offer shelter and nesting sites for overwintering bumblebees and butterflies.
Surprise! Semi-Natural Habitats Attract Pollinators
“Semi-natural habitat patches can play an important role in protecting pollinators because they help ensure that flowers are available all season,” says Dr. Alexandra-Maria Klein, head of the Chair of Nature Conservation and Landscape Ecology at the University of Freiburg. “For effective and cost-efficient protection of pollinating insects, the focus should not only be on flower strips,” Klein concludes. “Existing small structures of spontaneous vegetation, plant species that grow on their own from existing seeds in the soil, are also attractive to insects and should be preserved.”
What that boils down to is that instead of worrying about weed control, we must ask which weeds are valuable for native pollinators, and find places to let them be. That way, all of us with any land at all at our disposal can help develop and preserve at least a few small semi-natural habitat patches. Right?
For summery refreshment, here’s our current recipe for herbed lemonade, a bracing blend of fresh herbs and lemon (or lime) juice that’s delightful mixed with sparkling or plain cold water.
Rosemary Mint Lemonade
2 cups water
1 cup cane sugar
1 cup rosemary twigs (loosely packed)
1 cup spearmint twigs (loosely packed)
1 cup fresh lemon or lime juice (or bottled)
Bring water and sugar to a boil and stir until sugar is dissolved. Remove from heat and add rosemary twigs. Cover and let steep for 30 minutes, strain and add mint leaves. Steep for 5-10 minutes, strain, add lemon juice to taste and chill in a sealed glass jar. Dilute to taste with plain or sparkling water. Makes about 2 cups concentrate.