Promoting Pollinators & Welcoming Wildness

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Pollinators love all kinds of alliums, edible and ornamental alike

Making Moves & Counting Bees

I’ve been realizing lately just how much ground I’ve given up to the pandemic. Compared with a few years ago, I spend far more time in front of my computer, writing and attending zoom meetings, and far less time outside. Partly it’s due to the continuing cold, but part is also the effect of the isolating and hunkering we’ve all been doing. It’s easy to get sucked into a sedentary life and hard to get myself back into a more active one. My new technique is to set a timer every time I sit down anywhere. At least once an hour, the pleasant chimes sound and I get up and stretch, do laundry or dishes, go outside, putter in the garden, refresh the bird feeders. Getting up and out has the added advantage of getting a lot of niggling little chores done along the way, from sweeping each night’s fircone deposits off the porches to planning a new garden path in our miniature back yard. Anytime the phone rings, I get up and pace around the house while the cats delightedly do their playful pouncing and chasing tricks. My aging body is happier and it’s feeling easier to move and stretch and bend again. I even creak less when I get up, perhaps because I haven’t solidified to stone by sitting in one place too long. Bonus!

Walking around the neighborhood, it’s easy to see that despite the winter chill, spring is definitely on the way. Golden catkins dangle from hazels (while regrettably shedding boatloads of pollen) and silky silver pussies are opening on native willows. Over the weekend I transplanted tight clumps of crocus into smaller clusters in our community entry garden. Usually it’s best to move bulbs in the green, after the flowers fade, but it’s very easy to forget to do that, so I’m doing it as I go and noticing that the chilly soil makes the bulbs less awake and they’ve gone on to bloom quite happily in their new locations. Snowdrops have been blooming for a few weeks, and some tiny species daffodils are poking up as well. The early blooms on Oregon grape are already attracting insects, from bumblebees to hoverflies.

Promoting Pollinators & Welcoming Wildness

Many gardens seemed quieter in the last few years, with fewer pollinators making the rounds. Anywhere a pollinator patch as planted to invite them, over the summer, there was a resurgence of pollinators coming to feed on the nectar. How do I know? The way to figure out if you have more or fewer insect visitors is to count the number you can see over a period of 10 minutes several times a day. As you do this, you get better at identifying different kinds of pollinators, and you can make note of that as well. Many bee species have distinctive markings on their butts and if you take a few closeup pictures, you can often determine who’s who in the garden. I was thrilled to find that my little patch remained lively with birds and at least a few bee and insect species right up until the freeze, feasting daily on the scarlet tubes of pineapple sage, late blooming rosemary blossoms, and the lingering hardy fuchsias.

Such offerings are more important that ever, since so much natural habitat has been and is still being destroyed. It’s painful to watch another pocket of native plants get rooted up to make room for a strip of townhouses with miniature yards or none at all. Those little scraps of wildness can host a surprising amount of wildlife, and every tangle of scrub is someone’s home. It doesn’t take an intact forest to house wild things, and even small ares of un-manicured yards can provide food and shelter for birds and bats, raccoons and foxes, insects and snakes, salamanders and yes, even slugs. To thrive, they all 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 properties. 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 largely unconscious and 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.

Making Pollinator Meadows

I’ve recently visited several large properties where owners want to convert existing big lawns into meadows that nurture native pollinators. Pollinator meadows are 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. One way to do this is to spend more time in natural grassland environments, which vary from savannah and prairie to mountain meadows. It’s easy to admire them when spangled with flowers, but it’s equally important to love the look during autumn and early winter. Choosing plants that live and die with grace is helpful, as they will support a wide range of critters in the armer seasons and birds will delight in their seeds in autumn and winter.

While some native pollinators are specialists, most are generalists that will appreciate a base of natives amplified with selected introduced perennials that extend the bloom season and hold their looks well. To identify natives that will flourish in your setting, check out native plant societies, the Department of Natural Resources, and the Xerces Society. Local independent nurseries (not box stores) are also good places to find pollinator pleasers. After spending time in wild places and researching, you may 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.

Soil Prep

Before planting anything, 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. There, 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 areas of tall, nonnative grasses are already established, planting can be more challenging, since they can 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 in stages over several or many years, assisting the transition by careful weeding and invasive plant removal three or four times each year.

Pollinator Plants To Know & Grow

Whether your pollinator place is a patch or a meadow, native milkweeds 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 native 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!

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4 Responses to Promoting Pollinators & Welcoming Wildness

  1. Carrie Gifford says:

    This is an awesome list and article thank you!!

  2. Sandy says:

    How do we keep the deer from eating everything in sight? I love your list but my yard is not fenced to keep critters out. What’s the best balance?

    • Ann Lovejoy says:

      Hi Sandy, yeah deer are definitely an ongoing issue. However, they tend to be less interested in eating the hardy herbs as well as plants with fuzzy foliage so things like lavender, rosemary and horehound are rarely nibbled. Native wildflowers are also rarely browsed in my various gardens and native roses are also usually left alone while fancy roses are like fancy snacks for deer. Foliage with strong scent is generally not popular either. I’ve found annual wildflowers grown from seed to be safer than young plants, perhaps they smell different or don’t have the same novelty factor? They always love plants with tags!

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