Extending Altona’s Edges with Pollinator Gardens

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A summer visitor to my garden

Altona is more than a forest surrounded by the housing developments of the past 2 decades: it is a functioning, vital ecosystem that reaches beyond the gates and chain-link fences. The forest and it’s species cannot survive as an island in a sea of asphalt and bricks – pollinators tentatively stretch out into the gardens of those living nearby for sustenance and protection. How will your home greet these fragile lives? Will you help or hinder them?

Who are the pollinators? There are many species of bees, moths, butterflies, bats and even one type of hummingbird. Each one has its own niche and will seek a slightly different set of variables. Begin with who you want to invite to your home.

Don’t think eco-gardening is about letting weeds take over, limitations, or too much work. It isn’t. It’s also not an all or nothing proposition. You don’t have to start from scratch. You don’t need a large space. You don’t have to be perfect. Any positive changes you make matter – and you’ll see the rewards.

Protection and Habitat

Protection can be any tree or shrub you have in our outdoor space. The more you have, the greater protection you offer – chances are that you have a few already in place. If you can, consider planting some native species of shrubs or trees since local insects are much more drawn to native species than the foreign varieties. They have thousands of years of working synergisticly. Only purists plant solely natives – so add as many as you feel happy with.

There is another type of protection that is paramount – avoiding chemicals. Chemicals kill – they are designed to. Insecticides and weed killers have a huge effect on pollinators, and the ecosystem as a whole. We’ve seen a decline in the harsh chemicals used in insecticides and herbicides in residential use in the past couple of years with new laws, but did you know that box-store plants are often grown in the US with neonics and other pesticides? They are in the pots and the plants themselves. If you buy locally grown plants,  the future will be better since Ontario recently became the first area in North America to ban neonics.

Many local pollinators like bees hibernate while most local butterflies lay eggs before dying in fall. Some bees have hives, some nest in the ground or hollow sticks or rotten logs. If you can, leave your yard untouched in fall (hurray for lazy gardening!) and let the leaves, twigs and earth offer these pollinators the winter protection and shelter they need. Don’t rush your spring clean-up – give pollinators a couple extra weeks to emerge and flourish. (It will also save your soil to not compact it while it’s soggy – lazy gardening really does pay!)

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At my garden’s edge

Water

A sure way to draw pollinators to your space is to provide a source of water. Pollinators prefer shallow and flat access water – perhaps a shallow dish or plant saucer with some pebbles as perching places. The key is consistency – and the use of rainwater when you can.

Here is a word I love: mudpuddling. Today I watered my plants and created about 3 little mud puddles in the usual spots: under two hanging plants and one at the base of my rainbarrel. On hot summer days all creatures will seek water… and mudpuddles in low lying areas that encourage water to puddle before slowly absorbing are preferred watering spots for amphibians, dragonflies and butterflies.

Food

Native plants are the stars – they are easy care and preferred by your pollinators. Think about butterfly weed (an attractive milkweed or asclepia) for monarchs, bee balm (also called wild bergamot though they are different types of monarda), potentilla, and native columbine.  Interestingly coneflowers like the purple or pink varieties and similar daisy-like natives like tickseed or black-eyed susans are particularly effective with butterflies since the centers are shaped like little ‘landing pads’ for them. If you find a native you love, plant multiples of it to draw more pollinators. Keep in mind that many fancy garden-center flowers are bred for colour or double petals and often don’t offer as much food. Don’t stress it… offer a variety of blooms and they will come.

While many people try to feed hummingbirds with nectar, the safest and easiest way to feed hummingbirds is to grow flowering plants they love. You can buy annuals like fuchsia, salvia, verbena, geranium, or plant early season shrubs like weigela or late season bloomers like rose-of-sharon, perennials like dianthus, hostas, or butterfly bush.

Hummingbird feeders are fine – as long as they are kept very clean (2-3x a week cleaning with hot water and a drop of dish soap and rinsed well), fresh nectar at least 2x per week, and the solution is not more concentrated than 1:4 sugar/water so it doesn’t harm their organs. Hummingbirds are easy to draw, but also easy to kill. Bacteria in their feeders, chemicals leaching from plastics, cleansers, red dyes in purchased feed, and ‘sour’ bacteria-laden nectar are potentially lethal to them in the high quantities they consume.

The most challenging part of the year for pollinators is early spring when winter’s  unseasonal blasts inhibit blooms and threaten their lives. Consider what you can plant to feed your pollinators in April. One tip is to plant an early blooming plant (like hyacinth) against a south-facing wall where the heat of the sun will encourage earliest blooming.

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Butterfly weed (asclepia in many nurseries) is the most brilliantly coloured type of milkweed. There is also swamp milkweed and common milkweed in our area. You can spot swamp milkweed along the boardwalk in Altona Forest

Can you make your yard more pollinator friendly? NOW is the best time to start… when the last of the plants are being cleared out of garden centers at deep discounts. There are great deals to be had, and these plants often thrive with just a little extra care. (Tip: Soak plants in tepid water before planting them and fill the hole with water… letting it soak into the soil before you plant – it’s deep root watering and helps them get established. Water regularly once you plant them)

This week I saw summer’s first Monarch gliding on the breezes – I wanted to cheer. They are under such strain across their entire North American range. Just a few easy changes will help you welcome pollinators who work so hard to create fruits, berries and next year’s gorgeous flowers. You may even draw a Monarch!

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Apple blossoms in Altona Forest – Where would we bee without our pollinators?

The author is a half-decent gardener, a nature lover, and has installed a pollinator garden in the past few months. Ask away! I will do all I can to answer and give direction.

I designed and created my pollinator garden using varied sequential blooms (flowers from April to October). It’s certified by Canadian Wildlife Federation. I’m at 30-40% native plants… but I do as many things ‘wrong’ as ‘right’. It’s a small 18’x18′ front yard in a non-meadow style (it’s more contemporary-formal) – if you’d like to see it, I will give you my address privately.

Resources ~ Begin your reading here:

Pollinator Guide

Providing Water for Wildlife

Creating a Pollinator Garden

Protecting our Pollinators

Bee Friendly Garden

Bee Fact Sheet

Durham Master Gardeners’ Butterfly Garden Plant List

Bee and Pollinator Friendly Plant List

Pollinator Habitat Guide

Creating a Butterfly/Hummingbird Garden

About Butterflies

Views of a Pollinator Garden / Views of a Hummingbird Garden (for plant inspiration)

Garden Certification with Canadian Wildlife Federation

Why Bees Are Disappearing (TED talk)

Inspiration: Roadside Bee Project

Extending Altona’s Edges with Pollinator Gardens ~ © 2015 Natasha G

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