Lessons from Pollinator Workshop 2

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On Saturday we were finally able to hold Day 2 of our ‘How to Plant a Pollinator Patch’ Workshop Series, after being forced to cancel it in April because of the ice storm. There was certainly no ice rain in sight this time around – it was a beautiful day that made everyone excited to be talking about gardening!

We kicked off the workshop with an amazing presentation by Sean James, of Sean James Consulting & Design. Sean is a Master Gardener with over 30 years experience and was named by GardenMaking magazine as one of “20 making a difference.” He focuses on eco-gardening techniques and believes in gardens that are both beautiful and biodiverse, so we were extremely grateful to hear from him.

Sean started off by reminding us not to focus too much on what we’re doing ‘wrong,’ and instead focus on the positives – after all, gardening is supposed to be a hobby! Sean believes that gardening can help solve many of our most pressing problems. He noted that gardening contributes to carbon capture, improves food security, increases biodiversity and so much more!

Grey dogwood is a great species for pollinators and songbirds, plus its red flower stalks add winter interest!

We learned that including early and late season blooms are especially important for pollinators, because flowers tend to be more scarce at the beginning and end of the growing season. Sean suggested species in the willow family, such as early pussy willow, dwarf arctic willow and trembling aspen for early blooms. He reminded us that trees tend to be the earliest bloomers, so they should be incorporated if possible. Some great tree and shrub species include redbud, serviceberry, red maple and grey dogwood. For late season blooms, Sean suggested the Autumn witch hazel – it has a beautiful fall colour in addition to being a very late bloomer.

We also found out that bees don’t just eat pollen! Bees will also nibble on fungal food sources, and urban bees have even been found to eat honeydew (a.k.a. aphid poop)! Plus, we have to remember that the early life stages of some pollinators (e.g. caterpillars) need to eat the leaves of their host plant. This means we need to tolerate gardens with hole-y leaves. After all, plants that host insects are nature’s bird feeders!

In addition to food, pollinators need habitat, or as Sean called it, refugia.

In addition to pollen, pollinators make use of other food sources like nectar, honeydew, leaves (caterpillar/larval forms) and even fungus! They also need water and shelter.

Refugia are places for creatures to live, hide or take refuge, and in the case of pollinators, they may take the form of holes in the ground or the insides of woody stems. While a pile of sticks or leaf litter may not be very attractive, it can be a really important shelter or nesting spot. Sean suggested that if you don’t like the look of these refugia, you can just leave them behind some shrubs or in a back corner so that they’re hidden from view. Other suggestions include only cutting your woody stems to 6″ above the ground in the spring to give insects a place to nest.

Another really interesting topic that Sean covered was how diverse native gardens can support native predators, which in turn reduce non-native garden pests! There are many insects, like hoverflies, that will prey on pests in addition to pollinating plants. Sean told us that he once went to collect a Japanese beetle in one of his gardens, but he couldn’t find a single one! Yet another point on the scoreboard for native gardening!

Sean also gave us a number of general tips when it comes to designing and planting pollinator gardens:

  • Go native when you can, but non-invasive exotic plants can also be appropriate in certain settings
  • Try to find plants that fill different niches (roles or functions) within the garden
  • Plant in ‘drifts,’ which are basically linear clumps or patches of the same species – drifts are aesthetically pleasing and good for pollinators because they don’t have to fly as far from plant to plant
  • Go for plants that have good texture – flowers come and go but texture remains throughout the season
  • Rather than spending all your money in one shopping trip, visit the garden centre or nursery throughout the season so you can choose plants with beautiful blooms at different times
  • Choose plants with a variety of flower shapes – pollinators come in all shapes and sizes, so your flowers should too!

    The tube-like shape of wild columbine flowers are perfect for pollinators with long ‘tongues’ or beaks, like butterflies and hummingbirds.
  • Don’t pick dandelions from your lawn – they’re great for pollinators! There are also many lawn alternatives you can try that are more biodiversity – friendly than traditional sod
  • Set realistic expectations – your garden may not look like much when it’s first planted, but be patient and in a couple of years it will be stunning!
  • Plant the right plant in the right soil – it’s way easier to choose plants for your soil than to amend your soil to suit specific plants
  • Native plant gardens come in many styles, including ‘naturalized’ gardens, formal gardens and even hedges – design to your taste!

Here are some of the plants that got Sean’s gold seal of approval for pollinator gardening:

  • Violets
  • Milkweed – there’s a species for almost any location!

    Milkweeds, like swamp milkweed, are great for pollinators and host plants for monarchs!
  • Native grasses, such as Panicum and Andropogon
  • Plants in the carrot family, such as fennel, parsley and lovage (but not Queen Anne’s lace – it’s weedy!)
  • Potentilla
  • Blueberry
  • Purple flowering raspberry – it’s shade tolerant and has beautiful blooms!
  • Solomon’s seal – attracts hummingbirds and is shade tolerant
  • Sneezeweed / Helen’s flower
  • Larch – beautiful fall colour and great for rain gardens
  • Birch – there are many species (white birch is more short-lived than others); suitable for rain gardens
  • Trembling aspen – early blooming; suitable for rain gardens
  • Red maple – early blooming; suitable for rain gardens
  • Grey dogwood – flower stalks are bright red for winter interest and fall colour is beautiful; berries are also great bird food; suitable for rain gardens
  • Red osier dogwood – bright red twigs; suitable for rain gardens
  • Goldenrods – many species but zig zag goldenrod is a favourite because of its texture; some species are suitable for rain gardens
  • Buttonbush – great for rain gardens
  • Early pussy willow – early blooming and suitable for rain gardens
  • Dwarf arctic willow – early blooming and suitable for rain gardens
  • Ironweed
  • Autumn witch hazel – late blooming; great fall colour

Plants to avoid or plant with caution:

  • Bee balm / wild bergamot – a native species and attractive to pollinators but can be aggressive; best planted in poor soils
  • Canada anemone – a beautiful native plant but aggressive; will likely require maintenance to prevent it from taking over

Sean ended on a positive note, telling us how’s he’s seen first-hand how planting diverse native gardens can bring back all kinds of wildlife, including birds, bees and even the twice-stabbed lady beetle! We were all feeling very encouraged and ready to get planting by the time he was finished!

After Sean’s talk, it was time to head out to the site of our new Butterfly Wing Garden at Oak Park! At the site, we heard from Donna Doyle, Senior Environmental Policy Analyst at the Town of Oakville. She told us that the Town is very committed to support pollinators and biodiversity, and continues to work with Oakvillegreen and many other groups to preserve and enhance biodiversity in Oakville. In particular, she highlighted the town’s initiative to create an Oakville Biodiversity Strategy, which is in the works right now.

The larger wing of our new Butterfly Wing Garden has already undergone site prep. We used a newspaper layer covered with thick mulch. It will be solarized over the summer.

Next, we moved on to focus our attention on the new Butterfly Wing Garden! We told everyone about our plan to create two patches full of pollinator-friendly native plants. We then got to work filling out our Site Assessment Forms. This was a great chance to practice evaluating a space and taking down important information that’s useful when designing a patch and choosing species. Our site assessment form included characteristics like:

  • Soil: we used our soil auger to pull up some reddish, sticky, compacted soil, which we determined to be clay
  • Sun: it was an open, south facing slope so it received full sun (6+ hours)
  • Moisture: due to the slope, it is a fairly dry, well drained site
  • Dimensions: we used the measuring tape and recorded the dimensions, which would later be used to calculate the area (important when ordering soil/mulch and buying plants)
  • Water source: we’ll be using a hose connected to the nearby Wellspring House – it’s important to think about the water source when designing the patch
  • Site prep: participants were able to see the ‘newspaper & mulch’ method first-hand, as we had already prepped the large patch. We also explained our plan to strip the sod and bring in soil and mulch to prep the smaller patch. These methods differed because the existing vegetation was much weedier in the larger patch.

    Educational signage is important when your patch is in a public space!
  • Important notes: in our case, it was important to note that we were on public property (meaning we had to get permission) and that lots of people visited the area (meaning we would need educational signage to tell passersby about the patch). We also noted that the patch may be difficult to access for those with mobility issues, due to the slope.
  • Patch design: participants were free to walk around and sketch their ideas for how the patch might look, including general shape, any paths or subsections, bee houses, benches, etc! This is where you can really use your imagination!

We spent so much time at the site that when we got back to the community centre our workshop time was up! We explained to our participants that the next step would be to start thinking about species selection. There are many ways to go about this, but we suggest consulting a number of different native species lists and/or pollinator plant lists. It’s a great idea to use your general sketch of the patch and start filling it in with colours, growth forms or other characteristics you think would look good in different spots within your patch. Once you’ve chosen species that match those characteristics, you can assign a number or symbol to each species and fill them in on the sketch. Remember to aim for diversity and choose species that bloom at different times to make sure you’re providing food for pollinators all throughout the seasons!

We’ve included links to some of the lists and sample garden designs we brought to the workshop below – check them out for inspiration!

Halton Butterfly Host Plant List and Planting Plan List – Conservation Halton

Halton Native Wildflowers by Season – Cathy Kavassalis

Native Plants for Pollinators – Pollination Guelph

Native Plants for Pollinators – Credit Valley Conservation

Selecting Plants for Pollinators – pollinator.org

Sample Garden Design – from ‘Roadsides: A Guide to Creating a Pollinator Patch’ (Ontario Horticultural Association)

Possible Planting Plan for Butterfly Wing Garden – Cathy Kavassalis

The Elliott Community Native Cut Flower Garden – Healthy Landscapes, City of Guelph

Sample Site Assessment Form with Patch Design Example – Oakvillegreen

We hope everyone enjoyed the workshop and is feeling inspired to create their own pollinator gardens! We’ll also need help planting and maintaining our new Butterfly Wing Garden – click HERE to sign up for our volunteer list. Finally, remember to spread the word to your neighbours so we can get everyone buzzing about pollinators this spring!

Check out these links for more info:

Supporting Pollinators in Oakville

Pollinator Patch Perfection!